The name Annabel Karmel is synonymous with recipes for babies and toddlers and it has now been 30 years since her first book, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, was published. It has sold millions of copies, making it a household name and an indispensable guide for parents who want to introduce their children to different tastes and textures. But writing children’s cookbooks wasn’t always part of Karmel’s plans. Her first book was inspired by the tragic death of her granddaughter, Natasha.
“I lost my first child. It was horrible. She died at three months old. I had waited nearly two years to get pregnant and then lose her. She was born healthy, then she contracted an infection which went to her brain and she died in Great Ormond Street Hospital. [in London].”
Karmel says she talks about the circumstances surrounding Natasha’s death because many parents don’t know 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 him. I didn’t know that it was possible and we know someone got 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 I wanted to work with children and do something to make a legacy for Natasha; make sense of her very short life.
“Losing a child and not having one is terrible. You’re not a mother anymore. And all my friends had just had children and they were all staying away from me because they didn’t want to come with their children, so I felt terribly isolated. It was really hard.
After Natasha’s death, Karmel took the fertility drug Clomid and gave birth to Nicholas, the first of three more children. “Unfortunately, I’ve always had really bad luck with my births. My doctor told me it would be a long time before I was in labor properly, even though I thought I was in labor, which I was actually and gave birth on the stairs. No one came.”
“It was bad enough for any mother, but it was bad enough for a mother who had just lost her child. It was horrible. I thought ‘oh my God, if I lose two kids in a row, how am I going to keep going’. But luckily he was fine.
She says her son Nicholas was “the worst eater in the world”. After starting a mother and baby playgroup after the birth of her son, she found herself sharing with other parents recipes she was trying for Nicolas. “I loved cooking, it has always been my great passion. I gave all the recipes to all the moms and they tried them… Every week I gave more recipes and then a few months later they said: “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 be a commercial success, but I thought it was my legacy to Natasha. I will write this book and that will be it.
She spent 2 ½ 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 that all her hard work and research had been for naught. The book, however, was eventually picked up by American publisher Simon and Schuster and then Random House. “The book became a mega bestseller,” says Karmel. “The second best-selling hardcover non-fiction book of all time in the UK.”
“In a way, it was cathartic for me to write the book. It felt like I was giving it meaning [Natasha’s] life, because otherwise why would she have lived? What was the point? And in fact, she threw me into this whole new area of my life that was helping moms feed kids healthy foods that will help them live longer.
Karmel tested her recipes on the babies in the playgroup she had set up. “At that time everyone was like ‘oh babies only like bland food’ and I was like ‘well that’s funny because I don’t like bland food so why would- they?
“I wrote a book full of flavors,” she continues, adding that she has found plenty of alternatives to salt to bring different flavors to her recipes.
Karmel went on to write another 44 books. She has also developed an app, has her own range of children’s food, including baby food and ready meals for toddlers and young children which will be stocked in many Irish supermarkets, and she adventure in the development of a range of clothing. Her recent book, Annabel Karmel’s Fun, Fast and Easy Children’s Cookbook, meanwhile, encourages children to cook for themselves, a vital skill they can learn as adults, she explains.
“It’s such a fun activity to cook,” she says. Her goal, she adds, is “to empower children so they can cook and have a healthier lifestyle. I think a child who knows how to cook will have a longer life because he will eat better quality food. I think what you eat today will determine your future tomorrow.