I had to think: one egg a week – what do you do with that?

Feb 02, 2021
Cookery writer Annie Bell at home by food photographer Nassima Rothacker

Annie Bell’s 1992 debut A Feast of Flavours was one of the most talked-about cookbooks of its day. Striking not just for its contemporary (and, it turns out, prescient) approach to plant-based eating, but because it didn’t have, and didn’t need, any food photography – so good was the writing.

Her food career began in restaurant kitchens, working with Rowley Leigh amongst others, but she came to national attention as cookery writer for British Vogue, going on to write regularly for The Independent newspaper and Country Living magazine.

Latterly she’s spent 25 years contributing to You in The Mail on Sunday, as well as producing books on wide-ranging subjects, from dairy, cakes and food for camping, to Living & Eating (co-authored with architect John Pawson), which proffered a minimalist approach to cooking.  

Her latest tome, Eat to Save the Planet (One Boat) – which also doesn’t rely on photos – goes far beyond the vegetarian conversation she instigated back in 1992 to tackle the recommendations of a landmark report produced by the Eat-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems.

Most easily called the Planetary Health Diet, the report gives guidelines on how to eat in a way that promotes human health while at the same time safeguarding the environment and ensuring we can feed the Year 2050’s expected world population of 10 billion.

In the 30 years since she first came on the scene, Annie has raised a family and taken a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition (more on that below), bringing a strong sense of practicality and authority to her work. So really no one was in a better position to translate the Planetary Health Diet’s tricky and somewhat unexpected guidelines for the home kitchen.  

Here she speaks with Jenni Muir about the new environmentally friendly cooking and whether we really can radically decrease our egg and potato consumption for the good of all.


I really enjoyed the personally reflective moments of Eat to Save the Planet. Where you consider, for example, the things you’d do in the A Feast of Flavours days that you’d never do now. Even if we leave aside cheffy things like peeling and deseeding tomatoes – I wonder how the Planetary Health Diet has changed you and what things you do now that you wouldn’t do even five years ago. What’s the biggest change?

When I look back to how we cooked at the end of the eighties and the early nineties, it was any amount of cream and butter. It was white bread and pasta – we simply didn’t understand then that they are sugar. We didn’t understand the value of whole foods. I was using niche grains in A Feast of Flavours, but not from a nutritional perspective – it was because I liked them.

Then there was the risotto craze and pouring olive oil over everything – something like an extra 3 tablespoons probably added 500 calories. So now I’m more aware of maximising nutrients and how much fat to use. I’ve also done a lot of research into plant foods and how to get a balance from each group.

When my kids were small, organic and homemade was about as good as it got. They were raised on white bread and I find it’s incredibly hard to change their habits now they’re older. I’d be doing things quite differently today. 

You trained as a chef before becoming a food writer. What made you decide to take a degree in nutrition as well? 

It was never my intention to set up a nutrition practice, I simply wanted to bring it into what I was already doing. Really it was because there was so much in the press that was contradictory and confusing, and there was increasing pressure on food writers to incorporate nutrition guidelines. I felt I wanted to know what I was talking about. 

And I quickly came across the distinction between evidence-based nutrition and nutritional therapy. Nutritional therapy is perhaps more newsworthy and tends to drive the headlines. Evidence-based nutrition is dull by comparison because it’s driven by science, but it’s also the one that offers integrity. Reading Human Nutrition has been great, but it’s also a difficult position to be in because I’m not about to make some of the claims you read about. 

The Eat-Lancet Report is a bit of a mind-bender and has counter intuitive aspects to it, like cutting potatoes to 39 calories per day, while increasing nuts to 291 calories. What was the thing you found most surprising when you first encountered it? 

The quantity of grains – they’ll be the greatest challenge for most people. We’re meant to get 60 per cent of our energy from them – that’s a lot and it’s quite a challenge to get all that in. I can’t eat that amount! But I know some plant foods work better for me than others – fruit and veg for example. 

I also had to think: one egg a week – what do you do with that? It’s radically different.

And small amounts of animal protein will leave you hungry if you don’t rebalance the plate. 

So what made you want to take on this project?

It was the fluidity of the Planetary Health Diet that appealed to me. You can be any type of eater you like – it’s not too preachy or specific regarding food standards, so you can take on board what you want. I like the way it removes some of the guilt associated with trying to eat in a way that’s sustainable. As individuals we can always do better, but this diet doesn’t put moral pressure on you. 

For me, the point is in the knowing, and the willingness to make some changes in how we eat. One of the more intriguing stats: if you look at all the recommendations for health, something like only one percent of people can tick every single box. So the diet is there to aspire to and aim for – I don’t think many people will do it to the letter. What they might do is take on the broader recommendations, such as being vegan for breakfast and lunch and then having an animal protein in the evening – it’s a common-sense thing. 

In the book you talk about reflecting on the ingredients that tend to go to waste in your home and that really struck a chord with me because the foods that tend to go off in my home are Chinese and Japanese ingredients that actually have a really long shelf life. But since my daughter was born we just don’t get through the volume we used to. And yet as food writers it’s our job, to a certain extent, to be introducing readers to foreign cuisines.

The number of ingredients and cultures we’re expected to embrace leads to a lot of waste. We have a fear of being boring, of not being exciting enough. Someone wrote to the Guardian recently to point out that not a single recipe in one issue they did had less than 16 ingredients. I come under pressure like that all the time. We need to get back to good basic cooking where surplus jars don’t cause waste, and back to what people really want to cook.

One of the better things to come out of this pandemic year is that people are starting to cook from scratch, and are looking for the authenticity that was there back in the 1980s when people like Jane Grigson were working. After that the focus shifted to practical recipes. Now it’s all about being gimmicky – everything has to have a twist and a long list of ingredients. Celebrity culture in food writing is alive and well but the door is perhaps open to go back to the style of food writing we saw in Jane Grigson’s era. I’d like to think it’s the case – it’s certainly what I feel drawn towards. 

You’ve tended to enjoy long stints with the newspapers and magazines you’ve contributed to. What would you say is the secret to having such satisfying relationships with editors and publishers?

Trying to understand what they want and aspire to and adapting to that, so I guess being flexible. I had a very long relationship with Angela Mason at You Magazine – twenty-five years, which is something I cherish. It’s great to have a relationship where you can bounce ideas off each other.


Follow Annie on Instagram @anniebellcook and Twitter @ANNIEBELLcook

📸 Nassima Rothacker



Subscribe to get the inside track on the world of food publishing and how you can carve a slice of it.