Words by: Sophie Tweedale
For almost a decade now, Holly Willoughby has been the voice of the nation’s collective front room. As the face of This Morning, she is the TV darling of Middle England. Put simply, if there was a kids’ jelly mould for making your own national institution, it would be Holly-shaped.
At 36, the Bambi-eyed doyenne of daytime TV is already a showbiz veteran, snapped up by talent scouts at 14 whilst attending Clothes Show Live. After a flirtation with lingerie modelling and the covers of teen mags, she’s gone on to seamlessly glide into every prime-time gig going – Dancing on Ice, The Voice, Celebrity Juice, the list goes on.
But behind the lipgloss and impossibly buttery hair (she’s an ambassador for Garnier) is a different side. Having met husband Dan Baldwin, a producer on Ministry of Mayhem back in 2007, she is now also mum to a small tribe: Harry, eight, Belle, six, and Chester, two.
Parenthood is the reason we’re chatting today, as she launches her new book, Truly Scrumptious Baby (Harper Collins, £16.99), a “complete feeding and weaning plan” for six months and beyond.
It comes hot on the heels of Truly Happy Baby… It Worked For Me, – a Sunday Times bestseller that won her a Mumsnet award and a new legion of mum-fans, if she could cram any more love into her Instagram, that is (currently at 2.4m followers and rising).
I’m warned about two things. That Willoughby has “limited time” (fair dos, she’s a busy lady with presenting, modelling, fashion design and writing going down). And that she “won’t talk about diet or fitness”. Having recently staunchly ignored a mini media storm about her suggested post-baby weight loss, it’s a topic that appears to be off-limits.
But her new book is all about one thing – food. So when it comes to parenting and meal times, just how different a ride is it with number three compared to the first?
Willoughby laughs: “When you have your first child you’ve got no other distractions, you’re solely focused on that child. Looking back, you feel like you had all the time in the world! Then your second comes along and it’s like… [gasps]. With Belle and Harry, I had two under two. It still felt like the older one needed loads of attention yet they were at different stages of the weaning process. I didn’t want to be cooking separate meals for everybody – it all becomes really complicated, and it can get stressful.
“Once the third came along, I became very much: ‘Right, there’s one meal, you all eat it, as I haven’t got time to be making three different dinners for you.’ So they all had to get used to that, but that’s no bad thing. It does give them less option to be fussy eaters.
“I think you just manage the best you can when you have young kids. I know I have to be quite organised and plan stuff in advance. You have to find ways to make it work for you that aren’t going to become all a bit too much.”
The thought of weaning can be head-spinningly daunting, even for the most self-assured. Willoughby hopes the book will be a “go-to guide that arms you with everything you need to know”.
The Brighton girl turned TV presenter (who wanted to be a psychotherapist, even starting a uni course before her big break) is infectiously chatty. A killer combination of glamour and giggly approachability do make her instantly likeable.
The demands of bringing up a young family and multitasking like a boss don’t seem to show too much, so how does she combine everything, and does she ever get anxious like many new parents?
“I think it has got easier with each child – you feel a bit more in control of what you are doing with each one,” she says. “I think sometimes like with all parenting things you can feel overwhelmed with information on what to do. But it’s about trying to stay calm in the face of that. If you are feeling stressed they can sense that.”
Willoughby insists she loves cooking, although Dan “will cook”, and when it comes to clearing up, the whole family is roped in – no one is too young to fill the dishwasher, she laughs.
“I’m not very good at following recipes myself, quite ironically having written a recipe book! But I really enjoy it and find it relaxing if I’ve got time,” she says. “I like throwing bits in and experimenting, using up what’s in the fridge.”
She tells me her “absolute fave” all-time meal is heavily cheesed “carb overload” macaroni, but what are her own food values when it comes to the children? “I think at the moment they are too young to open up the discussion,” she says more cautiously. “So I’m just introducing them to as many flavours, colours and textures as I can.
“But it’s so important they know where things come from, what meat or fish looks like before it’s cooked, what things feel like raw.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘keeping things plain’ and introducing things later, but it’s much harder when they have an opinion!”
Although the Willoughby brand of parenting seems to be staying calm in the face of flying peas, there have been hard times, too.
“Chester really struggled with eating – he was an awful feeder and had terrible reflux,” she says. “Anything that came towards his mouth he just associated with pain, whether it was a teat, breastfeeding, then later on a spoon – anything that touched his lips, he would pull his face away from me.
“Obviously that was quite stressful because the one thing you want to do is get food into them. But instead of getting stressed I thought: ‘OK, maybe if he is in control of it he will feel better about it.’ I steamed some broccoli, and he led himself onto baby-led weaning. The others never needed to and yet for him it was the only way and it really helped.”
A big believer in sitting down together for family meals, Willoughby admits her youngest, two-year-old Chester, sits at the table “far more beautifully” than his siblings.
What the nation really wants to believe, though, is that even Holly Willoughby cracks open a family-sized can of spaghetti hoops some nights… so does she?
“Oh God, yes!,” she laughs. “I think you need to be really relaxed about these things. I mean, who doesn’t like tinned spaghetti hoops on a Friday night? Definitely. I love comfort food and all the feelings it brings. But I also like giving it a twist, such as having edamame beans or cauliflower cheese on toast, which children also love.
“At our house, we do what we call family ‘cinema club’, where we all sit and watch a movie in the lounge together, and we get some sweets and they have those, but they know that’s a treat – it’s everything in moderation.”
But there have been disasters, too. “I remember Dan’s mum coming over and me cooking for her, the first time we met,” she says, audibly wincing. “She’s Italian and an amazing cook, so I thought I’d do this lovely rosemary potato dish to try to impress her. I have no idea how but I ended up getting lavender leaves instead. I ended up cooking this whole roast with this lavender baste. Let’s just say she laughed!”
It’s that down-to-earthness and being happy to be seen as wonderfully flawed rather than flawless that makes Willoughby an Everywoman.
So will she make it a trilogy, I wonder? What’s next in the line of advice books, which began with The Best Friends’ Guide to Life, co-written in 2010 with her famous BFF, Fearne Cotton.
“These books take a long time to prepare and get right,” she says. “And I do feel like there is a real responsibility that goes with writing this sort of thing. Eating is so integral to family life, after all.
“So who knows? Maybe I’ll wait a while till they’ve grown up, and then do one for teenagers!”
Truly Scrumptious Baby by Holly Willoughby (£16.99, Harper Collins)