With one glance at Vanessa Clarkson’s enviable Instagram feed, you’d be forgiven for assuming that she lives an idyllic low-key life of muted tones and organic fabrics on Australia's beautiful Mornington Peninsula. However, delve a little deeper and you’ll discover a woman who is not only a deeply committed mother of three with a keen eye for style, but one who is fiercely passionate about her work, and is changing the world one food label at a time...
Hailing from the UK and trained as a dietitian, Vanessa began working with individuals to improve their eating habits but soon realised that she wanted to make a bigger impact on the world. Fast forward 15 years, and she can now be found working across government, non-profits and large food businesses, to improve the food that millions of people eat every day.
Upon arriving in Australia over five years ago with now-husband Rob and baby Laurence in tow, she began working with supermarket giant Coles to remove food additives, salt and sugars from the food we eat every day, while also implementing Australia’s Health Star Rating system. So yes, we have her to thank for making supermarket shopping infinitely easier.
We caught up with Vanessa to find out how she manages such a rich career while raising her three sons, and of course, received a few tips about nutrition along the way.
Words: Amy Malpass-Hahn | Go to www.vanessaclarkson.com
Tell us about your family life...
I make boys! When my husband got married, he joked about making a rugby team, and we’re getting there. We have three children – Laurence, 6, Jonathan, 3, and Thomas, 4 months. My first two sons are polar opposites in their personalities, and I feel like since we’ve welcomed Thomas into our family, we’ve discovered that he was the missing piece of the puzzle sent to balance everyone. We moved to Australia from the UK five and a half years ago, on quite a whim. We have fallen in love with the Mornington Peninsula, and love the relaxed beach lifestyle. We’re very settled here and pinch ourselves most days.
Tell us about your career...
I have had a long career in nutrition, including full-time roles in large corporations, where I implemented nutrition strategies to essentially improve the food available to us all in supermarkets. Today I advise the government – where I chair a group looking at the food sold in Australia – as well as with a variety of charities. All in all, I’m looking at how sectors can work together, to make eating well an easier choice for Australians.
How have you managed this career while raising your children?
I am the type of person who always needs to be doing something – I can’t sit still. In fact, I secured a book deal about a week prior to when my first son was born and wrote it in the first few months of his life. I really enjoy the work I do, and I enjoy being a mum – so I make sure I make it work.
I also completely understand the desire to stay at home with our children until they reach school age. However, if I took that approach, it would mean 12 years of being at home and out of the workforce. I want to make sure that I continue working in this time while my children are little, so I remain relevant and employable. Each family is different, but I want to have as many options available to me as possible when my children are all in school.
What about the actual balance? How do you do it?!
I’m lucky in that I have really good, predictable sleeping children. Laurence is now at school, and Jonathan is at daycare two days a week – so they are my power days. I will usually work when my two younger boys are having their daytime nap, as well as whenever I can steal an hour or two. Sometimes that’s when my husband is home from work and is doing the bath time routine, or on the weekend. I spend so much time with my boys during the week and think it’s really important for them to have that one-on-one time with their dad as well. So I encourage that and use it as a time to catch up on work.
When I do sit down to do work, I have a really clear, achievable to-do list so I don’t get distracted and I don’t get overwhelmed. I also approach my work very far in advance, so I minimise deadline stress and don’t feel too frazzled about work when I’m with my boys.
I’m also lucky to have a very supportive husband, so if I need to attend an important meeting, Rob will take time off work to be with the kids so I can attend. It’s a juggling act.
Have you implemented routines to help with the regular sleeping patterns?
With my first two, I just lucked out with regular naps and good bedtimes. However, with Tom, I’ve been more focused on making it work. Someone once told me that boys are like dogs, they need to be taken out for a walk every day and you’ll survive! They have energy to burn so I like to have the consistency of a routine, which usually looks like lunch, a story, calm time, and a nap. We also embrace white noise for Tom to drown out the sound of his noisy brother outside.
How do you approach mess and clutter?
I don’t deal well with mess. I’m super organised, and I can’t focus on my work unless everything is in order. Most days that means I’ll run around frantically cleaning up as soon as the boys go down for a nap (knowing full well that it will all be out again the moment they wake up), but it’s the only way I can think clearly.
With the boys, we’ve tried to teach them that once you’ve finished playing with one thing, you put it away before you move on to the next. (It has mixed success!) We are also really firm about only eating at the table, so they’re not dropping crumbs all over the house.
I’m also a very good multitasker. If the kettle is boiling (as it often is throughout the day as I have so many cups of tea!), I’ll be cleaning the kitchen or doing something else at the same time.
And my absolute biggest tip for mothers is to get a robotic vacuum! Ours is called Fat Rat. Not only does Fat Rat save my sanity, it’s also a good tactic to get my sons to clean up their Lego, because otherwise, Fat Rat will eat it!
Let’s talk about your career. Did it change after you had children?
Absolutely. I’ve actually been reflecting recently on where I am and where I want to be. I got my full-time job with Coles when Laurence was very young, and I admit that I find it really hard to remember him when he was between 1 – 2 years old. While I loved my job, I really didn’t have any balance, and pretty quickly, my body told me it wasn’t working. I was expressing at work, I got mastitis – it was all very full on and I was stretching myself too thin.
I think as mothers, we keep all the balls in the air, and it’s all fine until the balls start to drop. We can catch some of them, but it’s like all of a sudden, everything falls apart. For me, it was my health. So that’s when I knew I needed to change. I went part-time but soon looked for new challenges that would keep me fulfilled and interested.
Most importantly, after having children, I’ve realised that I need to have a focus (and I need to bring in money!). Having children has helped me to realise what I want. While it’s often really tiring and sometimes feels like everyone wants a piece of me, it’s for a greater purpose.
What has been the most surprising thing about motherhood for you?
How observant children are and how they are sponges and little mirrors into ourselves. It’s really caused me to reflect on how I am and what’s important in life.
How do you approach nutrition in your household?
We eat a primarily plant-based diet. We’re not vegan, but we’re 95% there. Having been so exposed to foods (and all sides of it), I find it really hard to be any other way. It’s not only better for us but better for the planet as well. Occasionally though, we do have cheese, eggs and milk.
What about your children? Any tips for toddlers?
In our family, we always eat the same things – even from when our babies are first learning to eat. Often we forget that from about six months old, babies have the skills to feed themselves. Up until that point, they’ve been so dependent on us as mothers, but they’re really much more capable than we give them credit for, and they’re able to ensure they get the nutrition they need. For that reason, we’ve been really into baby led weaning, to allow our children to explore food and to feed themselves.
Our goal with our children’s nutrition is to encourage them to eat a really wide variety of really healthy food. Of course, kids all go through the stage of throwing food on the floor and refusing their greens (usually just after we’ve patted ourselves on the back for their amazing eating habits from 6-12 months). Stick with it and stay persistent, because all babies have the capacity to learn. The more we give our children a variety of foods – particularly exposing them to these foods while you’re eating them too – the more likely they’ll be to eventually enjoy them.
Our children’s palates start forming from 6 months, so it’s really worth the effort. Even if you resort to zucchini noodles and kale chips!
What's a typical breakfast, lunch and dinner for you and your family?
We’re very much creatures of habit, so breakfast is usually porridge. We make it by soaking the oats overnight, adding in cinnamon and dried fruit and the topping with tahini and fresh fruit or frozen berries. Lunch for me and Jonathan is usually something simple like a grazing plate with hummus, vegetables, crackers or bread; or a quick, homemade soup – carrot and lentil, or similar. Rob will take dinner leftovers to work with him. For dinner, our favourites are mung bean and cauliflower dahl with homemade chapattis, creamy coconut Thai curry with thick noodles or brown rice, lentil bolognaise and pasta, or roast vegetables and lentils with a mustardy dressing and lots of leaves.
Many mums crave sugar. How do we combat this? What are some alternatives to the 3pm chocolate bar?
For most, I think the hardest thing is breaking the cycle of reaching for sugary pick-ups. Once we can break that cycle, sugary treats don’t seem to have the same appeal. The craving is probably due to an energy slump in the afternoon – so it’s a good idea to look at lunch and think about whether you had enough to satisfy you through to dinner, and if not, how can you have something more substantial. Often if I’m hungry in the afternoon, or feel my energy levels flagging (and I’ve already exceeded my personal caffeine quota I allow myself – a maximum of two coffees a day), then I will make a smoothie. I will always include some protein such as a nut butter or hemp seeds, as that will keep me going, rather than running off fruit.
What are some great lunchbox ideas for kids?
We have several of those stainless steel bento lunchboxes that encourage me to include a lot of variety for Laurence. I base his lunch on vegetables, including plenty that are cut up, with a big helping of a dip to enjoy them with, and I’ll also load up his sandwich with grated carrot or beetroot and leaves. I make up a quick trail mix with homemade popcorn; something that takes a few minutes on the stove, with a little coconut oil and cinnamon for flavour. Pesto pasta is also good – most pestos are made with pine nuts which are classed as a seed technically, and so fine for schools with nut-free policies. We’ll also use tahini in place of nut butters. I rarely use anything packaged in his lunchbox – his school has a nude food policy, which I think is a great message to send to the children. I would avoid things based on refined grains such as crackers – they will provide little nutrition and likely be high in salt.
What are your thoughts on dairy?
We use very little in the way of dairy foods, firstly because of animal welfare concerns but secondly because of their environmental footprint. Insteadm, we enjoy plant-based versions of milks, cheeses and yoghurts. Providing there is no dairy allergy or lactose intolerance, then dairy foods can make a healthy addition to the diet. However, ‘dairy’ can mean a huge number of things and just because a product is based on yoghurt, for example, you still have to look at the label to figure out what else is in it. Ice cream would be considered a dairy product but it’s generally got a lot of added sugar in it, for example. And most cheeses are very high in salt, which is not great for children – so using it sparingly is better. So in short, opt for plain milks, yoghurts and fresh cheeses which are lower in added sugar and salt than chocolate milks and hard cheeses.
What about coconut yoghurt?
I would treat coconut yoghurt, in the same way, I would use cream and use it sparingly, perhaps with some fresh fruit for a dessert. It isn’t a ‘health food’ and I think we’d be better spending our money on whole fruit and vegetables.
Any quick tips for parents?
· Always cook extra (and try not to eat it!) so you have leftovers in the freezer.
· Keep a basket of fruit low in your pantry so your children can help themselves to it.
· Let your kids get hungry. They’ll be much more likely to eat their meals if they’ve had a few hours break from eating.
Three tips for mums looking to improve their energy levels?
Get some rest. I generally go to bed quite early because, with three children, including a baby, you never know what sort of night you’re going to have. Everything seems so much harder on little sleep, the days can drag on and my patience wears thin. I found that using a sleep app for a week or so really highlighted to me how little sleep I was getting and caused me to refocus on this. I also use the Insight Timer app and will do a guided meditation before bed, especially if my anxious mind is stopping me from switching off – I’d highly recommend that.
Eat well. This is quite obvious I think but often hard to do when you’re busy tending to little ones. It’s so important to make time for a proper breakfast and decent meals and snacks throughout the day. A freezer full of leftovers is super helpful here. We try and make extra for dinner so that we always have something substantial on hand that we can quickly heat up. Relying on caffeine to get you through will leave you running on fumes, so minimise this as part of eating well.
Move yourself. Make time for some exercise, whether it’s a swift walk to school in the fresh air or some YouTube yoga in the living room when the little ones are in bed, whatever you can fit in around the busy day-to-day. It will help you with number 1 and 2 – helping you rest more easily when the time comes and make you more attuned to your body and what it needs.
Real Food For Babies And Toddlers by Vanessa Clarkson