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The woman who put the taste into baby food

The name Annabel Karmel is synonymous with baby and toddler recipes and it’s now 30 years since her first book, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, was published. It has sold millions of copies, making her a household name and a vital go-to guide for parents who want to introduce their children to different tastes and textures. But writing children’s recipe books wasn’t always part of Karmel’s plans. Her first book was inspired by the tragic death of her baby daughter, Natasha.

“I lost my first child. It was horrible. She died at three months. I’d waited nearly two years to get pregnant and then to lose her. She was born healthy and then she got an infection and it went to her brain and she died in Great Ormond Street Hospital [in London].”

Karmel says she speaks about the circumstances surrounding Natasha’s death because a lot of parents are not familiar with the dangers of cold sores and young babies. “If someone has a cold sore on their lip and they kiss a baby, it can cause a herpes infection which can then cause encephalitis which is exactly what happened to her. I didn’t know this was possible and we do know that someone had a cold sore and we think that’s what happened”.

Natasha’s death changed Karmel’s life. “I was a musician, I played the harp and I sang and I was even Cinderella in pantomime with Dennis Waterman and I loved my career, but from the day she died I knew that I wanted to work with children and do something to make a legacy for Natasha; to make some meaning from her very short life.

Annabel Karmel with baby Natasha soon after her birth.

“To lose a child and not have a child is terrible. You’re no longer a mother. And all my friends had just had children and they all kept away from me because they didn’t want to come around with their children, so I felt terribly isolated. It was really hard.”

Following Natasha’s death, Karmel took the fertility drug Clomid and gave birth to Nicholas, the first of three more children. “Unfortunately, I always had really bad luck with my births. My doctor told me it would be a long time before I was in labour properly, even though I thought I was in labour, which I actually was and I gave birth on the staircase. No one came.”

“It was bad enough for any mother but it was pretty bad for a mother who’d just lost her child. It was horrendous. I thought ‘oh my God, if I lose two children in a row how am I ever going to carry on’. But luckily he was all right.”

She says her son Nicholas was “the world’s worst eater”. Having started a playgroup for mothers and babies following her son’s birth, she found herself sharing recipes she was trying out for Nicholas with other parents. “I loved cooking, it was always my great passion. I was giving out all the recipes to all the mums and they would try them…Every week I would give out more recipes and then a few months later, they said, ‘do you know what, you should write a book’.

“I just thought, well this is it, this is what I want to do. I want to write. I didn’t think it would ever be commercially successful, but I thought this is my legacy to Natasha. I’ll write this one book and that’ll be it.”

She spent 2½ years researching child nutrition and worked with the Institute of Child Health which is attached to Great Ormond Street. Although she sent her book to 15 publishers, none wanted to publish it and she began to fear all of her hard work and research might have been for nothing. The book, however, was eventually picked up by American publisher Simon and Schuster, and subsequently, Random House. “The book became a mega bestseller,” Karmel explains. “The second bestselling hardback non-fiction book of all time in the UK.”

Annabel Karmel with children Lara, Nick and Simon.
Annabel Karmel with children Lara, Nick and Simon.

“In a way it was cathartic for me writing the book. It was like me making some sense of her [Natasha’s] life, because otherwise why would she have lived? What was the point? And actually she threw me into that whole new sector of my life which was helping mums feed children healthy food which will help them in the end to live longer lives.”

Karmel tested out her recipes on the babies in the playgroup she had set up. “At that time everybody said ‘oh babies only like bland food’ and I thought ‘well that’s funny because I don’t like bland food, so why would they?’

“I wrote a book that was full of flavour,” she continues, adding that she found lots of alternatives to salt to bring different tastes to her recipes.

Karmel went on to write another 44 books. She has also developed an app, has her own children’s food line, including baby foods and readymade meals for toddlers and young children which will be in stock in many Irish supermarkets, and she’s venturing into developing a clothing range. Her recent book, Annabel Karmel’s Fun, Fast and Easy Children’s Cookbook, meanwhile, is one which encourages children to cook for themselves, a vital skill they can bring into adulthood, she explains.

“It’s such a fun activity, cooking,” she says. Her aim, she adds, is “to make children be self-sufficient so they can cook and have a healthier lifestyle. I think that a child who is able to cook will have a longer life because they’ll eat better quality food. I think what you’ll eat today will determine your future tomorrow.”