When it comes to making sense of the importance of balancing taste and nutrition in kids’ diets, you could do an awful lot worse than listen to Annabel Karmel.
Why? Well, for starters, Annabel can reel off a pretty impressive track record which includes: being awarded the MBE for her outstanding work in the field of child nutrition; writing 20 books on feeding babies and children, with worldwide sales well into the millions; the presence of her meals in a growing number of the UK’s top food retailers.
For me, though, chatting to Annabel, I realised that there were clear reasons why we should pay attention. You see – Annabel has a passion for healthy eating, for understanding a child’s right to choose healthy food and, more importantly, for recognising the fact that kids are more than capable of making up their own mind about what tastes great. Take that passion, blend it with an understanding of nutrition, add a liberal sprinkling of only the finest ingredients, allow time for perfecting the recipe – and you have some great new dishes.
Judging by the response to the three new children’s dishes on Wetherspoon’s summer menu, kids tend to agree. So, exactly what makes the dishes so special? Annabel explains: “To me, healthy eating and great-tasting food go hand in hand – one actually leads to the other. We follow very strict guidelines, and rightly so. All Annabel Karmel children’s meals have been developed to contain no more than 30% of the guideline daily amount (GDA – for 5- to 10-year-olds) of calories, fat, saturates, sugar and salt.“
When creating her dishes, Annabel also focuses on the look and appeal.
“Children, as most mums know, can be pretty picky. I’m not talking about a need for elaborate presentation, but in managing a child’s first impression. If children don’t like vegetables, because, somehow, they are averse to eating anything green or with visible onion – the last thing which we need to do is present them with a plate of vegetables, yet we do still need them to gain the nutritional benefit of vegetables.
“That’s why, when we created the new spaghetti Bolognese, which is exclusive to Wetherspoon, the challenge was ‘hidden vegetables’! So, we chopped up the carrots and celery really finely and combined them with the meat and sauce to give a rich flavour, but also a really nice look to the dish. “The whole perception is then changed, with children saying that they like carrots, as they see them much more as an ingredient – part of a tasty meal.”
Interestingly, sometimes, the exact opposite of ‘hiding’ the vegetables can have a striking impact. Annabel and her team stuck their neck out a bit and made broccoli and peas the stars of the show in the cheesy pasta dish: “By blending vegetables with flavours which children love (and who doesn’ t love cheesy pasta?), we helped children to view the food differently. Many parents seem surprised when they announce: ‘My kid is eating broccoli.’ But, to me, the dishes are also about encouraging parents to think ‘I could try that at home’ – encouraging people to see what children can and will gladly eat.
“What is really important to me and the team, when developing recipes, is that we don’ t have preconceived ideas about what children will and won’ t eat. For that reason, our taste panels are not made up of adults, but children – all tucking in and giving us honest assessments by the look on their face or the amount of the meal left on the plate!
“Children are so much more discerning and capable of deciding what they do and don’t like than we often give them credit for. “In fairness, most of them don’ t understand nutritional content or the reasons why they need their greens, until they get older, but that doesn’ t mean that they can’t decide what tastes great – they most certainly can.
“When we were developing the chilli con carne, people would think it odd, since ‘children don’ t like spicy food’, but they do – it is a mild spice and is, once again, one which adds flavour and character, without the need for much salt. Mind you, when we were developing the meal, and the kids tasted our early versions, they were pretty unanimous that they didn’ t like kidney beans, yet kids do love baked beans – so, simple solution – swap kidney beans for baked beans, and the kids love the dish.”
This passion to get it right and to meet with children’s approval also means that Annabel won’t compromise on ingredients and takes their sourcing very seriously, as she explains: “To me, healthy, balanced food also has to be good food. We use lean British meat (Red Tractor Approved) and locally sourced vegetables, where possible – but all ingredients have full traceability, which is really important to us.
“It’s also important to me that we reconnect children, and parents, with food.
“Recently, I started doing cooking sessions with kids holidaying at Haven Holiday Parks. We can get 70+ kids in one session, baking, cooking and having fun with food.
“They tell me that these are some of the most popular sessions at the parks now, so shouldn’ t that tell us something? We must let children choose; we should help them to explore new foods and understand what food is.” What Annabel has opened my eyes to is that kids will always love sausage and mash and most things with chips. Why shouldn’ t they, because, after all, we adults like these things too? Equally, though, we all like something different, something which tastes great – and if it’s good for us then all the better – so, why shouldn’ t our kids? The good thing is that, at Wetherspoon, they now have the choice.
Find out more: www.annabelkarmel.com