Annabel Karmel talks school dinners, meal time stress and what she couldn't live without in her fridge…
Knowing what to feed your kids can be a minefield - especially when you've got picky eaters in the house. Annabel Karmel shares her tips and thoughts on children's nutrition and how to tackle fussy eating.
Do you believe children are more, or less healthy, today than 20 years ago?
In some respects people are far more aware of health than before, but health is also bound up with so many more complex issues such as weight, beauty and also what consumers are selling us as 'healthy'. It can be so confusing what constitutes healthy as you have to spend so long looking at packaging to work out what is in a product. I think being healthy was a much simpler thing 20 years ago. Previously healthy foods like yogurt or cereal bars can now be high in sugar.
In your opinion, have school dinners changed dramatically from your childhood to your children’s childhoods?
I hated school food, it was so bland and grey. In fact school meals put me off eating certain foods like liver, which was cooked so long it resembled a rubber tyre. My children didn’t fare that much better, they used to take in my Japanese salad dressing recipe and pour it over everything to give it more flavour! I think things are improving and I have met some fantastic school cooks who try really hard to get their kids eating a healthy balanced diet, but it is a pretty big challenge producing healthy appealing foods for large numbers on a budget that kids are actually going to eat!
I am working with Henry Dimbleby and the Government to develop healthy but delicious school meals with the Small Schools Task Force that can be delivered into schools. With more than 3,000 small schools across the UK currently unable to prepare food on-site we have developed a scheme where even a school with as few as 40 children will be able to offer delicious hot meals within the current budget without a fully-equipped kitchen.
Do you think attitudes to feeding children have changed in recent years?
I think we all start off with good intentions and a lot of people now make fresh baby food. However after the first year, children can become very fussy. After a while parents can get so fed up and stressed out with their child refusing to eat that they give in and just resort to a few foods that they know their child will eat. Unfortunately the more you give the same foods, the more extremely fussy your child will become.
I think the best thing is to continue trying to give your child new foods and even if they don’t eat them, you can eat them. As a country we work longer hours than any other country in Europe so time is a factor and it's not surprising that we go for the few foods that we know our child will eat for an easy life. I try to give lots of children-friendly family recipes in my books and look to foods from around the world for inspiration as children tend to like things like stir-fries with teriyaki sauce, satay chicken or fajitas, so don’t just stick with chicken nuggets and pizza.
You've said before that your son Nicholas was quite a fussy eater, what would be your advice to parents who are finding the experience of feeding their children stressful?
It is hugely stressful, there is no doubt about it, but my advice is not to let them see your stress, they will very quickly realise that acting up around food will provoke a reaction from you. If they refuse or make a fuss, just take the food away and let them get down, don’t offer an alternative, they can eat at the next meal if they are not going to eat anything then. It is very tough being firm like this, but it’s a good way to break the pattern.
Do you think parents are too cautious about trying out new foods with babies and toddlers?
Yes, it has been drummed into us for so many years that babies like bland food, but you will be surprised by the flavours your child will enjoy. I remember my daughter reaching for an olive when she was 18 months old and absolutely loving them. Yes there are things to stay away from such as salt and strong spices, but get experimenting, try curries and stir-fries and adding garlic and fresh herbs.
Some pediatricians have been reported in the press saying trying to coerce or even encourage your child to ‘eat one more mouthful’ is damaging. What are you views on this?
I think there is nothing wrong with gentle encouragement, but I don’t think there are many benefits to making a child feel pressured into eating food, it will just mean that a child will associate eating with negative emotions and make eating more of a battlefield. If your child is refusing to eat just take the food away and try another time. Also children sometimes just really do not like a food, just like we often have a food that we don’t like to eat, and continued coercion isn’t going to make that food any more liked! For me it's goat's cheese!
What sort of food were you given as a child?
My mum was a great cook and I still make some of her recipes today. She used to cook from the Constance Spry cookbook and I remember she used to make this amazing pizza and use fresh yeast in the base.
What would you never be without in your fridge / cupboards?
I have two massive fridges packed full of food as I am always experimenting with new recipes, but I always have huge bottles of my favourite Japanese salad dressing, that my kids pour on everything.
Annabel's Family Cookbook by Annabel Karmel is out now (published by Ebury Press). For further information, visit annabelkarmel.com.