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Q&A: Creating nutritious, gourmet meals for diabetics

Leonie Harcourt is the entrepreneur behind The Diabetes Kitchen, a start-up that supplies gourmet pre-packaged meals for pre-diabetics and people with diabetes.

The meals being served are not full of salt or added sugar and are low in calories and carbohydrates. The venture was borne out of Leonie’s daughter’s struggles with diabetes, particularly when it came to dietary restrictions, and Leonie determined to provide delicious and nutritious alternatives for diabetics. We talked to Harcourt on the concept came about and evolved into a business.

IRN: How did the idea behind The Diabetes Kitchen get its start?

LH: When my daughter, Elly, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes I was desperate to help her. Then 19, Elly was drinking a lot of water and had lost weight. People praised her weight loss, but after a weekend of burning the candle at both ends, she became increasingly unwell. She was in hospital for a week and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an incurable autoimmune illness requiring management through insulin, blood monitoring and diet. My late dad was a foodie so we worked on recipes that were nutritious and portion controlled for her to eat. It struck me that if my family was finding a diabetes diagnosis challenging, so were the thousands of other pre-diabetics or people living with diabetes. That was the spark for The Diabetes Kitchen.

What was the most challenging aspect that you faced with this venture and how did you effectively address it?

There are constant challenges. The first hurdle was that the meals had to be refrigerated so relied on people being home to take delivery. I put the business on hold, working my way through the problem. I looked into how baby foods and soups could be prepared without requiring refrigeration. Our meals are prepared in pressure cookers and have a long shelf life. Access to capital is an ongoing issue as every cent goes back into the business. Everything costs more than you think. I’ve worked in a family printing business so I’m not a complete novice but this has and continues to be a learning curve.

How does The Diabetes Kitchen provide a nutritious alternative for those with dietary restrictions?

Diabetes Australia says every day 280 people develop diabetes. It’s the fastest-growing chronic condition in Australia. Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes are different but have devastating effects. The Diabetes Kitchen offers nutritious packaged prepared meals, taking away the guesswork. I worked with a dietician and chef to marry taste with nutrition. And just because it’s good for you doesn’t mean it has to taste bad. Meals are 350gm single servings with fewer than 420 calories. They are not full of salt like many pre-packaged meals. Each pouch has easy-to-read colour-coded content details for carbohydrates, sugar and calories/kilojoules to save time and for convenience. They’re suitable for all ages and for people with chewing issues. They can be stored in a backpack, in the glove box or pantry. I’ve opted for the best ingredients with an emphasis on local when available.

How important is it to have the help and expertise of others in running this venture instead of doing it all on your own?

You need to surround yourself with the right people. You can’t do everything yourself so find people with the right skillset who can help you achieve what you want. It can be trial and error. You won’t gel with everyone.

How is the public reception to your products thus far?

I started the business with diabetics in mind. Most people don’t want to lose customers but I’ve lost a few because the product works. One of my customers was 80 with Type 2 diabetes and ended up getting on top of it and learnt about portion size and ingredients. It was bittersweet when he stopped the deliveries. New markets have opened in the NDIS, seniors and aged care sectors and I have started to get traction. Families want quality, palatable food for their loved ones.

What is your vision for The Diabetes Kitchen in the next couple of years?

I’m hoping The Diabetes Kitchen can get a foothold in the emerging markets, helping people with NDIS and aged care packages that cover a large part of the cost of the meals. I’m finalising new packaging so I am ready to ramp it up. I would love to be shopping in the supermarket and see it on the shelves in the not-too-distant future.

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