We caught up with Helen Burgess, founder of Little Cooks Co to discuss how she moved away from her roles as a Government Strategist to start a subscription service designed to teach children to create nutritious food. We also find out her thoughts on the childhood obesity crisis, who inspires her in food nutrition and one pivotal book that changed her mindset completely.
Hello and welcome to Chatting Food. We are completely in love with your concept. Can you explain in your own words Little Cooks Co?
It is a little box of baking joy for children! We send our happy little boxes out each month, containing all the dry organic ingredients to make healthy baking recipes, which have been created by a qualified nutritionist. The kits are designed to be as nutrient dense as possible for children, and we highlight a nutrient in each kit to give children an early understanding that food and the body are inextricably linked, but in a fun, non-scary way! But just as important is the opportunity our kits give families to connect and make memories together in the kitchen, away from screens and distractions.
Your boxes sound like the perfect Christmas gift. Do you have levels of subscription and can you gift boxes?
They make such a lovely gift. There has (quite rightly!) been a real shift away from giving ‘things’ (particularly plastic) to people wanting to give experiences and learning. We are an eco-friendly choice because we use organic ingredients, compostable food packaging and recyclable cardboard in our kits; and we offer learning, fun and opportunities to make memories each month! I think that’s why we won an award for Children’s Gift of the Year 2019 which I was absolutely blown away by!
People can gift a single box or sign up for 1, 3, 6 or 12 month plans:
1 month = £12.99
3 months = £35.99 (8% discount)
6 months = £59.99 (23% discount)
12 months = £99.99 (36% discount)
Before starting Little Cooks Co you were a government strategist and worked in Cabinet Office and No 10. How and why did you leap into the food industry?
Nutrition has always been my passion, but for some reason, I didn’t think about trying to make a career out of it until I hit my 30s! I was working in Cabinet Office and No.10 when I left to go on maternity leave to have my son in 2013. I absolutely loved my career in Government, but the hours could be brutal and the stress intense. I had been in a role with very privileged access to information across the whole of the Government’s work. Still, my attention was always drawn to the health space (obesity, hospital food, education). Having my son was transformative and gave me the courage to quit my job and retrain for three years in nutrition, and I haven’t looked back!
You pivoted your business after realising the need for dry ingredients to be added to your boxes. What challenges came with that decision?
That’s right, when we launched, we provided the recipes without supplying the ingredients. We now include all the dry ingredients for the baking recipe. Looking back now, it seems pretty obvious that we needed to supply ingredients in a kit that was primarily being used by time poor parents! We needed to be part of the answer, not the problem. The bonus of being a small start-up is how agile you can be though, and within 1 month of recognising the problem we had re-modelled the boxes, registered with the local authority as a food business and sent sample kits out for testing. That is what I love about being part of the SME world – it’s so dynamic and exciting! (which was sadly not my experience of working in Government!)
As a female entrepreneur, we can imagine you have faced many challenges. What have been the highs and lows since starting your business?
I can very happily report that I haven’t come up against any challenges as a result of my gender. The big one I was warned would be hard, particularly as a sole founder, was securing investment. However, I didn’t find this to be the case at all. I met a fantastic fund, pitched to the board, worked through the due diligence and had the money in the bank within a month of meeting them! They are fantastic partners and have helped fill the gaps in my skills/experience.
I would say mindset has been the most important part of my journey – moving away from one that feared failure to one that sees it as an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s taken a while (and a lot of reading – highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset), but I am getting there!
If you could go back to Day 1 and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
Read Mindset immediately!
Who inspires you in the industry, and outside of it?
Gosh so many it’s hard to distil. Jamie Oliver has obviously had a huge influence on getting the Government to take notice of the childhood obesity crisis and influence school meals. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is also a legend in this space. I love Lucinda Miller for her amazing advice on childhood nutrition. I love Dr Chatterjee and the amazingly positive influence he is having on society, and particularly in helping the NHS bring lifestyle and diet into their thinking.
There are a lot of stories in the press currently regarding the issues of childhood obesity, screen addiction and generations of individuals who are unable to cook. What do you feel can be done to tackle this and how vital a role do you feel food education is in schools today?
I feel so sad about it. Life has become so busy and so pressured, and it feels like it is, bit by bit, chipping away at the core of what makes for a happy and healthy life.
Quite understandably, the market is responding to the lack of time we all have by creating solutions in the form of ready-made food, quick and easy ways to connect, quick fixes and solutions that are slowly requiring us to make fewer proactive choices. It has led to us eating more processed food than ever before (and a growing malnutrition problem), more and more time spent on screens which connect us virtually but disconnect us in reality, increased expectations, and less time doing the basics – spending quality time together, being in nature, day dreaming, cooking, eating real food, sleeping, exercising. The consequences of this are stark – the highest ever levels of obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia…it is a public health crisis.
Cooking is obviously one close to my heart and I fear that it is becoming a lost art. The less we need to cook the less motivation there is to cook and that will leave us with a generation of kids who grow up with no choice but to eat processed ready-made food. I think schools should 100% play a role in teaching kids to cook and educating them about the impact food has on the body. But I think it has to be reinforced at home too. Our mission is to help put cooking back at the heart of the family home; to make it fun and easy to cook with children and to teach them about the importance of food for our health.
You have recently partnered with Magic Breakfast, can you explain this a little further?
This was one of my proudest moments. I knew from the start that I wanted to partner with a charity focused on childhood health but it just wasn’t feasible to do at the beginning. However, last October 2018 we started donating the cost of a healthy breakfast to Magic Breakfast for every box we sell. They are an amazing charity working tirelessly to ensure no school child in the UK starts the day too hungry to learn. It is impossible for a child to thrive, or reach anything like their full potential without proper nutrition – the fact that food affects the brain and body shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Children who start the day hungry find it hard to concentrate and focus. To be able to use Little Cooks Co to support this charity is just wonderful.
What are your early memories of cooking as a child?
My childhood was a tale of two halves – when my mum was at work my dad used to feed us Findus crispy pancakes and Vienneta, and when mum was home she would cook us buckwheat pancakes and quinoa, and I remember there always being lots of trays of sprouted beans and jars of what I now know to be sauerkraut lying around! Helping my mum make spinach samosas was always one of my favourite jobs to help with (I used to love coating the filo pastry in melted butter and folding them into little triangles). So I guess it was a balanced upbringing! I am very grateful my mum cooked as much as she did and that I got exposure to it from such a young age.
You are a mum and no doubt your son is the chief tester for Little Cooks Co, which recipes have you enjoyed making the most?
The ones that work first time! Haha! But actually what I love most is taking a traditional bake, like millionaire shortbread or bakewell tarts, and creating nutritious versions of them that still taste amazing. My son is a very lucky boy and usually trots off to school with the leftovers from recipe tests in his lunchbox – this week he’s been having decadent chocolate truffles and chestnut roast in his lunchbox as they are the recipes in December’s box!
Teaching children to enjoy cooking is a wonderful thing. How does it feel to think that Little Cooks Co may be teaching the next generation of chefs?
Beyond words! To say Little Cooks Co is a passion driven business is an understatement and when I get an email from a customer telling us what a positive impact we’ve had for their child it makes my heart sing (and has made me cry ‘happy tears’, as my son calls them!)
What does the future hold for Little Cooks Co?
We have some exciting plans in store. At the moment we are UK based only but we are looking to expand abroad. I am cautious not to do this too quickly though and at the moment it is all about getting through the Christmas period without dropping any (or at least not too many) balls!
A Quick Chat
Your favourite restaurant? The Bel and Dragon in Cookham as my local and The Ledbury in Notting Hill as my fancy one!
Food Hero? Jamie Oliver
Favourite Ingredient? Garlic!
What will be the next food trend? I think plant-based is here to stay and there will be lots more variety of things like flours and butter coming on the market…banana flour and watermelon seed butter as examples!
Worst food trend? Ready meals, artificial sweeteners, scandalous food marketing!
Guilty Food Pleasure? Galaxy chocolate
About Little Cooks Co
Little Cooks Co is a monthly subscription-based recipe kit that’s posted through the
letterbox, direct to kids, in a neat 100% recyclable box with compostable packaging.
The box is packed with all the natural and healthy dry ingredients of that month’s
delicious and nutritious recipe for kids to bake in the home.
Little Cooks Co is on a mission to teach kids to love cooking and eating healthy food
and to create happy family memories along the way.
All recipes are designed by a registered nutritionist and based on the latest science
and research, not outdated models of calorie counting. The recipes use whole
natural ingredients, no refined carbohydrates (which are a key driver of obesity),
and all ingredients in the box are organic.