x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Annabel Karmel's dedication to healthy food for children

Annabel Karmel never expected to give up a career as musician to become a leading authority on how to feed children.

Annabel Karmel, the author of The Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner. Antonie Robertson / The National
Annabel Karmel, the author of The Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner. Antonie Robertson / The National

Life does not, Annabel Karmel concedes, always turn out the way you would like, or indeed expect it to. A talented musician, Karmel studied at the Royal College of Music and in the mid-1980s was forging a successful career as a harpist. However, the death of her first daughter Natasha, at three months old, changed the trajectory of her life forever.

"My whole world fell apart. You wake up in the morning and you think it's a dream and then you realise that it is real," she tells me quietly and honestly. "It was a very, very difficult time; I couldn't play music anymore, it felt superficial. I knew from then that I wanted to work with children, but didn't know exactly what I wanted to do."

Amid this devastation, Karmel says that falling pregnant again, just a few months later, proved to be a huge blessing. "Nicholas was born and I was so happy to have a child. When it came to eating, though, he was very difficult – he wouldn't eat – and because I felt so vulnerable having lost a child, I wanted to make the best possible food for him."

After searching for books on feeding young children and failing to find anything that fit her criteria, Karmel decided to take matters into her own hands. "I already cooked soups and casseroles, so I thought if I make them without salt, I can blend them up and give them to my baby. So I did and he loved them."

At this stage, Karmel was running a large nursery in London and after discovering that many of the mums there were also experiencing similar problems, she started handing out her recipes. The response was very positive and somewhere along the way, it was suggested that she write a book.

"I didn't know a thing about writing books, but I did think it would be a great legacy for Natasha and good therapy, too," she says.

Karmel then spent two and a half years researching child nutrition, testing recipes, talking to experts and working with a consultant nutritionist at Great Ormond Street Hospital to discover the true facts about feeding babies. "Everyone said they liked bland food, the more bland the better. So I tried them with really bland food and tried them with food with garlic, herbs and cheese and they didn't like the bland food, they liked the tasty food. And then people always said don't give them eggs and cheese before they are a year old, but after talking to allergy specialists, they said you should be giving them these foods early on," she explains.

After struggling to find a willing publisher, The Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner was finally published in October 1991. Three months later, it had sold out completely. "At the time, everyone thought it was a fluke, but then it was republished and it sold out again," says Karmel. "There was no big marketing or PR push and it didn't have any pictures or illustrations. It was all down to the mum network: one mum telling another that the recipes worked."

The book has now sold more than two million copies and has been translated into 25 languages. Karmel attributes its ongoing success to a number of factors. "I looked at things from a scientific perspective, the book was properly researched and the recipes taste amazing. At a time when everyone was giving different advice, it provided an easy and reassuring guide to feeding your child, which put you in charge."

Now regarded as a leading expert on cooking and nutrition for babies and children with more than 20 books, as well as an MBE to her name, Karmel's career has been prolific, to say the least. She tells me flat out: "I really love my job, but I work all the time. I have 10 staff in the UK and it is still a very hands-on business."

As well as the books, she has her own app (Annabel's Essential Guide to Feeding your Baby & Toddler), a selection of her chilled children's meals are sold in leading UK supermarkets, she has designed a range of Annabel Karmel kitchen equipment, makes regular television appearances and collaborates with high-profile companies such as Marks & Spencer and Disney.

Karmel says that in the future, she would like to bring her food range to supermarkets all over the world and adds that while she was in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, she met with a company based in the Middle East who "might be interested in doing a range of food with me". She has also recently started to work with the Dubai-based public relations and marketing company Soul Communications, suggesting that she could well be making her mark in the UAE in the near future.