Ask Annabel: your food questions answered

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Well-known children's cookery author Annabel Karmel MBE has advice on widening the range of food that children will eat


Q: We have a big intake of fussy eaters at our nursery this year.  How can our staff encourage the children to develop better eating habits?

Most children go through a phase of picky eating. Whilst it can be a real concern (particularly for parents), there is a great opportunity for childcare providers to help children overcome food aversions and develop a relaxed approach to mealtimes. They can also support and reassure parents, establishing the nursery as the expert resource for guidance and help with children’s diets.

 Anxiety amongst parents impacts on mealtimes, so it’s important to lead the way on providing the right eating environment.

Here as some of my mealtime rules…

  • Try to make mealtimes a really positive experience. Don’t place too much emphasis on the lack of food eaten. If a child refuses to eat, try to hide your frustration. He or she will soon find there’s not much point making a fuss if you don’t react and children will eat when they are hungry. You may need to ignore some unwanted eating behaviour to refocus attention on good habits, so it’s a good idea to praise children when they try something new. You may be surprised by the types of food children like - for example, my daughter loved olives at a very young age and children enjoy culturally diverse foods such as mild curries, teriyaki stir-fries and paella.
  • Ensure a calm atmosphere, but make mealtimes a sociable experience. It’s a good idea for everyone to eat together whenever possible.

  • Avoid 'winner' 'loser' status. Let tchildren think they’re eating their food because they’ve decided to, not because they’ve been defeated. Give a choice of vegetables for example.

  • Don’t promise pudding as a bribe for eating their mains. That suggests the savoury part is a chore, something they have to tolerate to get to the good bit.

  • If children decide they don't like something before they've even tasted it, it can be frustrating, but play it cool. Children are naturally inquisitive even when it comes to food. They’ll come round. If not today, another. Try fun ways to encourage them like letting them eat a stir fry with chopsticks that are joined at the top.
  • Serve up a wide variety of meals – from healthy versions of kids’ favourites like burgers and chicken nuggets to more adult recipes such as lasagne, fish pie and curry. Introduce them to a world of flavour. Try using spices like garam masala and cumin or add fresh herbs like thyme or dill. Children’s food should be low in salt, so adding these will help boost flavour.
  • Don’t talk to a parent about their child’s eating habits in front of them. If they know you’re not expecting them to eat a proper meal, it gives them a gold card to playing picky.


A healthy recipe to try…





150g fusilli pasta

100g broccoli florets

100g cooked chicken breast, diced

150g cherry tomatoes, sliced or halved if small

1 x 198g can of sweetcorn

½ cucumber, peeled, halved and seeds removed, then sliced into crescent shapes


50ml olive oil

1 tbsp soy sauce

2 tsp rice wine vinegar

2 tsp honey

1 tsp lemon juice



  1. Cook the pasta in boiling water until tender, add the broccoli 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Drain and refresh in cold water.
  2. Mix the pasta and broccoli with the diced chicken, cherry tomatoes, sweetcorn and cucumber.
  3. Mix all of the dressing ingredients together and pour over the pasta salad.


Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Makes 3 – 4 portions




2 tbsp olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 small leek, thinly sliced

½ stick celery, chopped

¼ small red pepper, deseeded and chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and grated

½ dessert apple, peeled, cored and grated

1 garlic clove, crushed

400g tinned chopped tomatoes

450g minced beef

4 tablespoons tomato purée

2 tablespoons tomato

250ml beef stock

¼ tsp dried oregano



  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sauté the vegetables, apple and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened.
  2. Transfer to a blender and add the tinned tomatoes, then whiz until smooth.
  3. Wipe out the frying pan with a sheet of kitchen paper, then add the mince and fry over a medium-high heat until browned, breaking up the mince with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add the tomato and vegetable sauce to the frying pan with the mince, and stir in the tomato purée, stock and oregano. Bring to a simmer and cook for 40–45 minutes, until the sauce is thickened.
  5. Serve with spaghetti.


Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Makes 8 portions


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