Jane and Maya, then aged seven
Tackling her own health challenges and those of her family taught Jane Clarke the power of food to comfort and heal – and inspired her to create Nourish by Jane Clarke
When you adopted your daughter, Maya, she was severely malnourished. Now she’s a healthy and happy 14 year old. How did you nurse her back to health?
When I met Maya she was in an orphanage in India. She was horribly malnourished and had developed rickets – you could literally put a football between her legs. When I was finally able to bring her back home at age 15 months, she weighed just 3.5 kilos. Her head was so heavy and her body so tiny that she couldn’t support herself and I carried her in a papoose on my chest for months. She was three before she could tolerate anything except formula and was lactose intolerant, so once she began eating solids I had to be sure she was getting sufficient vitamin D, calcium and energy-rich foods. She very quickly went from being a tiny, vulnerable baby to a lovely, scrumptious bundle, as her body got the nourishment it needed for the first time. Now she’s 14 and as tall as me, and she doesn’t have any ongoing health issues. It’s phenomenal to see how she has thrived.
What’s it like for her to grow up with a dietitian and nutritionist for a mum?
‘Food is a huge part of our family life – whether it’s growing vegetables, going to the market or being fussy about what service station we eat at – but I’ve made sure our home isn’t a nutritional laboratory. Birthday parties are wild and gorgeous, with puffy meringues and homemade cake decorated with flowers – although I do always make sure everyone eats their sandwiches before the treats! Maya calls me the ‘salad hoover’ but now she’s a teenager, she’s seeing a direct correlation between what she puts in her body and how she feels or her skin looks.
Your father has dementia. How does that affect him?
Dad has a particularly rare form of the disease, called frontotemporal dementia. For my dad and our family it’s a devastating diagnosis, although we’re incredibly lucky with dad because he’s happy in his dementia and that’s not the case for many people. The disease can cause a lot of anxiety, angst and anger, not only for the person with dementia but also for their carers, because it’s day in, day out; it’s relentless.
Has his dementia altered his relationship with food?
Yes. Like many people with the disease, he craves sweet things. But Dad also wants to feel reassured, so he likes dishes that remind him of the past. We talk a lot about our food memories, like eating fish and chips together. There are ways to communicate through food, even when you can’t use words. When I’m working with clients with dementia, I often suggest creating a mood board of food pictures or photos of you eating together. When you ask a person with dementia an open-ended question about what they want to eat, it can be too much for them to process. But I can point at a photograph and ask my dad, ‘Would you like a ham sandwich, because you used to really love those?’ and he engages emotionally, and just seeing the picture can stimulate his appetite.
My dad and my brother
How did your own experience of ill health drive your career?
I was very unwell as a teenager and spent a lot of years in hospital. I saw the isolation of being in that setting and the unappetising food that was served on the ward. When I was able to be at home, my mother and my great aunt would cajole me to eat and I was on the receiving end of how love and affection can be translated through food. I also saw how disconnected the hospital setting could be from nourishment and caring. The NHS is horribly stretched but I thought there must be a better way. That was my emotional drive to study to be a dietitian. When I qualified, I took out an overdraft and became the first dietitian in Britain to set up in private practice. My aim was to respect and empower people, and to treat them the way I wish I had been treated when I was ill.
What was the inspiration for Nourish by Jane Clarke?
There was a defining moment when I understood that my core passion is to help people that are really struggling. I looked after an amazing patient who had Aids. His appetite was terribly suppressed but he used to love me to sit on his bed and talk about the meals I’d eaten in restaurants or the recipes I’d devised. I asked him one day, ‘What would you like to eat at this precise moment?’ He said, ‘A fresh strawberry’, so the next day I brought one into his hospital room. I was told off for giving it to him because it hadn’t come through the hospital kitchen and didn’t have a food label on. And I just thought, this isn’t where I want to be. I need to do this differently and craft my career in a way that nurtures people.
What do you want people to get from Nourish by Jane Clarke?
I’d love people to see that we passionately believe in caring for them with recipes, nutritional advice tailored to specific health challenges, plus inspiration from our food friends – bloggers, chefs and food producers. I want our community to share ideas, experiences and pictures of meals they’ve made. But equally, when anyone is in a moment of sheer panic and strife – because it’s really hard when you’re looking after yourself or someone dear to you – to know they can come to Nourish to be respected, looked after and heard.
Is Nourish by Jane Clarke accessible and affordable for everyone?
It’s really important for me that this project shows that good food doesn’t have to be expensive, and you don’t need to be an amazing cook to eat well. Over the last decade, food has become horribly complicated and elitist. I don’t believe you have to eat organic all the time; it’s more important to prioritise where your budget goes. My parents were teachers with three children, so we didn’t have a lot of money for fancy food; we were a household that stretched our meals. We would have our roast on a Sunday, then we’d use leftover meat and potatoes to make ‘lobby’ stew. The next day, we’d use any extra vegetables in bubble and squeak. Another favourite meal was cheese fluff
; a kind of soufflé of whipped egg whites, yolks and grated cheese, put on bread and grilled. I’ve found that for patients with a sore mouth, a bit of cheese fluff on slithers of toast is gorgeous. A big part of Nourish will be sharing tips and asking our community, ‘Which recipes work for you? Tell us what you meals you want and we’ll find them for you.’ I want to help people through difficult health challenges by providing practical, expert advice about nutrition and eating. But even in the toughest times, I also want to help people think about food in a giving, loving, celebratory sense that will restore their spirits as well as their health. That’s what Nourish means to me.