We spoke to Wes Campbell, chef and author of Full Bellies, Full Minds: Family Style Meals for “Littles” with Big Appetites about his fundraising collaboration with South Side Early Learning. Their Full Bellies, Full Minds program provides healthy meals to food-insecure children while they learn, play, and grow.
How did your venture into the world of food begin?
I’ve essentially been working in kitchens and restaurants since I was 16. During that time, I went to school at Ohio State University (OSU) to get my BA in Nutrition and Business. This sparked my interest in health, and I began working in a hospital café as a sous chef. Before leaving OSU, I was fortunate to help open the Bloch Café in the James Cancer Research Center.
Bloch Cafe is a cook-to-order café with a menu specifically for cancer patients. We used cancer-fighting ingredients in every meal whether that was a soup, sandwiches, salads, or entrées. I was able to work with experienced dieticians too and form my own menu.
So, you came to the foodservice industry from a nutritional point of view. Why choose that route vs. being a restaurant chef?
While I was in high school, I was a kitchen manager and line cook. So, by the time I got to college I already knew I loved to cook. Then I started taking nutrition classes for myself. I wanted to feel healthier and better after an unfortunate number of skateboarding accidents from when I was a kid … Learning about nutrition opened up a whole other world for me. I learned how to make delicious meals that are super healthy and super easy. It was a good way for me to keep cooking while taking care of myself as well.
Now that I have a family, I work as a food broker at Waypoint. It is a foodservice industry job, but with better hours than an intense restaurant schedule can offer. Daytime hours allow me to be a better husband and father to my wife and kids.
What is a food broker?
A food broker is essentially a sales and marketing position. I work directly for food-manufacturing clients. We have 30 or 40 different food lines that we represent. I sell on the food manufacturer’s behalf. As a client specialist, it is super fun for me because I get to work with new products, menu development, product testing, and cooking demos. It will be six years in January.
How did the idea for your cookbook come about?
A friend of mine who is affiliated with South Side Early Learning introduced me to their amazing program, Full Bellies, Full Minds. I knew right away that I wanted to volunteer. A month later, he approached me with the idea of writing a cookbook. Of course, I thought that would be awesome.
My guidelines for the cookbook were to, first, make sure everything tasted good, of course. Then, the ingredients had to be affordable and easily accessible for all parents. Next, the recipes needed to be simple enough for parents to make with their kids to get them involved in cooking. Lastly, the recipes needed to be healthy for kids. And by “healthy for kids,” I mean addressing the common challenge of getting vegetables and fruit into a meal that they would eat.
Do you think there’s a lack of cookbooks that cater to a family audience?
I’m honestly not sure. All of the cookbooks I know are specialty. For example, Cajun cuisine or French cuisine. I’ve looked in the library for children’s cookbooks and didn’t see much that was targeted to all children in terms of affordable ingredients. There wasn’t a big selection for that.
So, your cookbook is inclusive for every family regardless of their finances?
Correct. Even if you need to pop into the corner store down the street because you don’t have a grocery store nearby, you can make at least 70-80% of the recipes in the book. Regardless of where you go or how you shop, this book will be beneficial which was really important to me.
But I kept the recipes interesting enough so that every page doesn’t feature mac n’ cheese or chicken tenders. It’s a kids and family cookbook that doesn’t feel like you are ordering off a kid menu.
A lot of parents have a hard time getting little kids to eat healthy options.
I was super lucky with my son. He would literally eat whatever I fed him. I always had him in the kitchen while I was cooking which I think helped. Now though at three-years-old, he is getting pickier in that little kid sort of way. He wants fruit snacks or he wants mac n’ cheese.
However, if I can make food colorful and exciting to his eyes, it’s a little easier to get him to eat a more balanced diet. Many of the recipes in the book follow that philosophy. There’s a vegetable pizza in there which is basically cream cheese spread with a bunch of vegetables on top. But if it looks colorful and you call it pizza, he’, “Oh, I’ll eat pizza. That’s fun!”
Does the book include meatless options?
Yes! With each recipe comes a tips and tricks page full of helpful reminders including how to make it vegetarian. The tips and tricks provide more customized options for families. Several recipes are straight-up vegetarian or vegan-based, but again, with tips and tricks. There are pasta salads, ramen noodle salads, and pizzas.
How did you create these recipes?
It’s funny, but I stole some recipes that my mom used to feed me as a kid that I absolutely loved. I don’t see anyone else eating them, so they are in the book. Several recipes in the book were developed from my time at Bloch Café, with some adjustments to fit the family friendly theme.
And then, a lot of other recipes were a result of trial and error with my son. Inspiration that came from those days we would make anything that was in the pantry. Like one day we had a can of tomatoes and some eggs. We ended up making shakshuka, which is basically a super easy tomato reduction for breakfast.
What other aspects of this cookbook makes it friendly for families?
It was initially difficult to write because I started with these giant recipes that took 45 minutes to cook. But, there’s no way. Having a three-year-old now, if you can get something made in 20 minutes, that’s the sweet spot of getting anything done while watching a toddler.
I tried hard to make all the recipes super simple and fast. Any that take longer than 20 minutes are sitting in the oven with a timer. So, if you have a toddler, you will find these recipes very time effective.
What are your personal favorite recipes in the book?
Two that I straight up borrowed from my mom are in my list of favorites. She used to make them all the time when I was a kid and I loved eating them. One was the vegetable pizza that I mentioned earlier.
There is also the spaghetti pie my mom has made my entire life. It’s the best thing ever and the simplest recipe: spaghetti, milk, egg, cheese in a pie pan. You cut it like a pie and top it with tomato sauce or pomodoro. I don’t know why eating spaghetti in pie form makes it so much better, but it really does!
The watermelon pizza is another personal favorite. It’s watermelon, a little granola, blueberries, with yogurt drizzled over top or even Nutella. To a child, it looks like a pizza slice. Then, one that my son really loved is a chorizo po’boy. Also, the cheesy polenta with meat sauce is another one of my favorites. There are so many!
For families new to cooking together, what are the easiest, most foolproof recipes they can start with?
The deserts are incredibly easy. Most of them are a fruit or a rice cake that you put toppings on. And my favorite, the vegetable pizza, is also easy. It’s just colorful, chopped up vegetables on top a croissant or a puff pastry with the cheese spread on the bottom. A lot of the recipes are basically cut and build. You don’t need to have a deep culinary knowledge to enjoy these execute or enjoy them.
The only one that might be considered difficult is a crunchy chicken tender where I used corn flakes. However, that is simply teaching people how to properly bread. Aside from breading, there is a lot of building, mixing and matching.
What challenges did you face while writing the book?
I’ve got to give a shout out to my wife. She helped me a lot because at the start, I just assumed everybody knew everything that I knew about cooking. She gave me tons of helpful direction for recipes that people outside of the foodservice industry may not know. For instance, breaking down the proper steps to bread.
She also contributed a lot of the tips and tricks for each recipe. For instance, how to make things ahead of time or how to make sauces that emulsify properly. So, I explain a lot of the whys and what purpose these steps serve.
Any other challenges when thinking of ingredients?
Yes, absolutely. The price of food has been fluctuating so wildly lately. For instance, I recommended using chicken thighs instead of chicken breast because they are less expensive. But suddenly, they are the same price. This makes it more difficult to determine what the best options are for families that do not have a lot of wiggle room in their food budget.
What are the most difficult parts of writing a cookbook?
At Waypoint, I come up with recipes all the time. That is literally my job. So, I assumed writing a cookbook would be super easy. But when I started the project, I learned that writing recipes for a new audience, at least for me, was super hard.
It was difficult because I wanted to write recipes and instructions that are beneficial. But I didn’t want to talk to you like you’re an idiot or you’ve never turned on a stove before. Trying to find the balance of explaining recipes without talking down to people was difficult. I didn’t want to tell people how to cook or what to do in a bossy way. That was my biggest stumbling point.
Also, as far as recipes, they’ve all been done in some form or variation before. So, another challenge was feeling like I wasn’t ripping off recipes that someone else has done. I had to remind myself that for someone else, the recipe may be completely brand new to them and not reused or recycled like it is to me. For someone new to the recipe, it is an eye-opening experience to them.
I think a lot of people don’t want to hurt chefs’ feelings and say they don’t like something. But I would love for you to do that. Change it up the way you like it! That’s what cooking should be in my mind. Whatever tastes good, eat it.
But I was very lucky. All I had to do was write and organize the recipes and come up with the menu. Colin at South Side Early Learning took care of helping me edit and turning my book into a physical product. He was a huge help with that.
Where do you see your book in relation to online food blogs?
If a chef tells you he has never googled a recipe to get a base for something, they are lying. Every chef has done that. The blogs drive me nuts because it takes three minutes of scrolling before hitting the recipe. I don’t care what your day was like or what your house looks like. Just show me the recipe.
I’ll be 34 soon which isn’t old. But I still like hard copy items over the digital stuff. I have a giant DVD collection. I have tons of books. I think having a hard copy is super cool.
Three years ago, my grandmother passed away. While we were organizing her belongings, I came across cookbooks from around the 1920s which gave me the idea to do a cookbook for my family. So, every year I add recipes to this big binder for a family cookbook. I’d like to get back to families passing down recipes.
There does seem to be a resurgence of analog. And unlike a blog which could disappear at any time, a physical book gets passed down.
Another reason I like the book aspect is because I like to write in my cookbooks. I add notes or reminders, or new ways to try out a recipe. I think that is a great thing to pass down as well. If there is something in my book that doesn’t work for you, cross it out and add what you want to try or change.
That’s the intro to my book. The book has recipes in it, but I would love for everybody to use them as a guide and then make them into whatever your family likes. Make them your own. Write stuff in or cross stuff out. Try new things. That is really the goal. Just cook and experiment with it. How cool would it be to pass down a book where there are notes from your grandfather like, “I hate tuna, so I put this in there!” Stuff like that would be super fun.
You mentioned that kids’ menus can be lacking. Do you think restaurants could learn from your book? Should they learn from your book?
The restaurants I’ve worked in, we haven’t had much for kid menus. If we did it was a quesadilla or something like that. Honestly, I think as chefs we like to think that we’re only going to create top tier beautiful recipes. The older I get the more I’ve realized simple, easy things that are well executed are some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. I think you can apply simplicity to a great kids’ menu.
What factors should restaurants consider when changing up their kids’ menus?
Whoever creates the menu for a restaurant, I think they need to trust that kids today are not the same kids they were 20 years ago. Kids’ palates have expanded beyond mac n’ cheese and chicken tenders.
I remember doing a demo at an elementary school where I showed them how to make a stir fry. At the same time, I remember worrying if these first and second graders will even be willing to eat a stir fry. Then I had a second grader walk up to me and ask, “Do you have any sriracha sauce?” Just out of habit I had sriracha in my bag. But I was thinking, “How do you know what sriracha is? Where are you eating sriracha?”
We forget that kids and their eating habits have come a long way. They seem to be very capable of trying new things. I think we just never put that on a kid’s menu. My wife and I let our kids eat whatever we are eating. So, give those kids’ recipes that you may not think of as “kids’ food” and let them experience the meal. Let them try. As a restaurant, I don’t know why you couldn’t have limited time offers (LTOs) on a kids’ menu to test things out.
Do you think healthier and more expansive kids’ menus would help parents out?
For parents, especially those who love to dine out, if they were in a restaurant that was serving shrimp po’boys on the kids’ menu, and their kid tries it and gobbles it down, it kind of opens up many other options beyond chicken tenders. I think if you continue trying to expand their cast of rotating meals, it only becomes easier.
I must note, I’m not implying anything negative towards restaurants. I just think the kids’ menu is easily overlooked amid operations. As a restauranteur or owner, your mind is wrapped around how do I make money? How do I thrive in this sector? Owners don’t necessarily jump to thinking about how to make money off a kids’ menu.
If you are a party of 10 with one child, it is that child that will essentially be the factor that chooses where to go. If parents go to a place where there is an amazing kids’ menu, you are near guaranteed repeat customers. They may return 9 times out of 10. This may be an untapped market. “Kid friendly” shouldn’t just translate into “this is a noisy restaurant”. It should also mean they have a balanced, healthy menu for kids that go beyond chicken quesadillas or something deep fried.
As a chef, whatever you are doing for the main menu, you could portion down to kids’ size. It is easy to incorporate because you’re making those recipes anyways, but now in two portion sizes. It’s the easiest way to test it out. We don’t test enough in restaurants and can get stuck in the routine. To be fair, of course, kids’ menus were never on my radar until mine were born.
Looking ahead, is this your first cookbook or your only cookbook?
Honestly, I would love to do more. Despite the stress and confusion that comes with writing your first book, I am super proud of it. Even if I only get five new people to cook or try new recipes, I’m happy as can be. Five or five hundred, it doesn’t matter.
Tell us about the South Side Early Learning program. How did you decide to incorporate Feed America into your fundraiser?
I wrote the book in August for South Side Early Learning. South Side has been around a long time. Since 1922, I think. They have a Full Bellies, Full Minds campaign for kids at their school who are dealing with food insecurity. These kids might come to school hungry or without lunch. They don’t know where their food is coming from or if/when they’ll have a next meal. Food insecurity is a surprisingly huge problem in America.
Full Bellies, Full Minds is a donation program where those kids don’t have to worry about food. Those meals are taken care of by donations. They’re going to have a breakfast, lunch, and a hearty snack.
Every day, they get to eat family style with the other kids. They never have to feel left out because they didn’t have a lunch. Full Bellies, Full Minds makes sure that every child is holistically taken care of which is amazing. And of course, it is hard to learn when all you can think about is hunger.
Initially the fundraiser for this cookbook was only running through the month of November. Waypoint then began running this book nationally through December and tagged on an additional fundraiser for Feeding America. So, your book purchase will benefit local kids in Columbus in the Full Bellies, Full Minds program as well as families nationally through Feeding America. It started small and grew beyond my expectations.
How You Can Support the Full Bodies, Full Minds Program and Feeding America.
To donate directly to South Side Early Learning’s Full Bellies, Full Minds program and receive Wes Campbell’s cookbook, click here.
There are several donation levels:
- $30 – 1 book and feeds a child for a week
- $100 – 4 books and feed a child for a month
- $150 – 6 books and feeds a child for a month and a half
To receive a cookbook and donate to the Full Bellies, Full Minds program at South Side as well as Feeding America, please send your donation of $50 to Emily Connor of Wayside’s Venmo account (please see below) with your mailing address. This donation distributes $30 to Full Bellies, Full Minds and $20 directly to Feeding America.