How My Passion For Healthy Food Led To A Cookbook Deal & Full-Time Career

Carina Wolff/Bustle

In the summer of 2015, I was exhausted. I was not only working a full time job in public relations, but I was doing two freelance writing gigs on the side, and running my own health food blog, Kale Me Maybe. Between cooking early in the mornings, drafting blog posts in the afternoon, and freelancing on nights and weekends, I was beyond drained. Then I woke up one August morning, and discovered the first concrete indication that my work was paying off — an email from Adams Media saying they wanted an author to write a spiralizer cookbook. I sat up quickly in bed, my heart fluttering, excited at the prospect of fulfilling my lifetime goal of becoming a published author. But as I continued to think about all the logistics of pulling off a project like this, I became overwhelmed.

Self-doubt flooded me. I did not feel qualified to write and photograph a book myself, despite blogging and writing for three years. I felt reluctant to leave the security of my full-time job, and not capable of taking on a project this large. I had somehow managed to convince myself that it wasn’t possible I could do this, and I sent myself into a panic.

I was about to pass on the cookbook deal, telling myself I wasn’t at that point in my career yet, when I decided to give my dad a call first.

“Are you crazy?!” he asked me, after I explained everything to him. “This is a huge opportunity, and there is no reason why you’re not capable of doing it!”

Back in 2012, when I started Kale Me Maybe, I didn’t even have an Instagram. The word “influencer” didn’t exist yet, and no one cared what I had eaten for lunch that day.

After spending some time discussing negotiation tactics, planning out how I would budget my time, what I would say to my boss, and how to iron out all the other essential details, I was suddenly on my way to signing a contract. Thank goodness for my dad; if it wasn’t for this decision, I would have never found myself living out the reality of my dream job as a writer and blogger.

If you would have told me back when I was a senior in college that after graduation, I would be working for myself, making money off Instagram, and writing about wellness for a living, I would have never believed you. Back in 2012, when I started Kale Me Maybe, I didn’t even have an Instagram. The word “influencer” didn’t exist yet, and no one cared what I had eaten for lunch that day.

I was finishing up my last year of college at NYU, trying to figure out how I was going to make use of my journalism and psychology degree. I was always interested in writing, but I wasn’t sure what topic I wanted to pursue professionally. After becoming frustrated with college dorm food, I began cooking. Feeling stuck by the same monotonous options each day, I was excited to begin creating my own healthy meals when I finally got my own kitchen. My mom gifted me a few cookbooks, and I started researching recipes online. Preparing food suddenly felt exciting and freeing rather than frustrating or limiting.

With my new passion, I considered writing about nutrition, even though nutrition was never a priority to me growing up. When I was young, my mother modeled a healthy lifestyle for me. But that wasn't me — as a kid, I craved junk food and candy. It wasn’t until I got to college and started living on my own that I began paying attention to what I was putting in my body. What first began as a quest to be mindful of my nutrition eventually became a desire to understand the “why?” behind healthy eating. I wanted to discover what “healthy” meant beyond the pervasive (and wrong) association with weight. Once I started doing my own research and discovering that health meant so much more, I was hooked.

The more I started experimenting with food, the more I realized that healthy food didn’t have to taste bland and unexciting like it did in my childhood (sorry Mom). I could still make all my favorites and have them be more nutritious by just modifying them. The way I saw food changed for me. I scoured different food blogs, poured through cookbooks, and got inspiration from different restaurant menus. Although I had no formal culinary training, I used recipes for inspiration, but then tweaked and created on my own. Most of my meals just came from what I was craving in the moment, and my original blog posts didn’t even contain specific measurements.

In 2012, kale was quickly gaining traction as a “hot” superfood, and I was using it in many of my dishes. My friend Emily and I started brainstorming the name of my blog from there. That year was also the time “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen was a huge sensation. From there, it clicked — “Kale Me Maybe” was born.

I posted my first blog post in September of 2012. After I graduated college, I moved back to my hometown of LA, and continued to blog while working in PR. From there, Emily suggested that I create an Instagram, which was still relatively new in 2013. When I joined, the food community was small, and it never really crossed my mind that I wanted to have a large following or that I could make this venture into a business. I was mostly excited to engage with other people who cared about health the way I did, and I was mind-blown by all of the creative ideas on the platform. I spent a good amount of time commenting on people’s posts, cooking other people’s recipes, and coming up with new ideas of my own.

Eventually, my involvement in the food community allowed my page to grow organically. I was still using my iPhone to take pictures, but I slowly started to learn what worked well on the platform and what didn’t. I studied how other people styled their food and began using a photo editor. I looked up common hashtags, and decided to stick to a posting schedule of once a day to keep me motivated.

Although I was tired and burnt out from working on such a large project, the pride I felt from pouring my heart and soul into this work more than made up for all my effort. It took some time, but the more work I put out, the more things grew.

I was not an overnight sensation by any means. I was constantly working between my nine-to-five, my writing jobs, and the blogging. Although the PR firm was great to start with, I knew I wanted to transition to writing full-time. Fast forward to the summer of 2015, and I was feeling trapped. My mental health was suffering, and my exact career path was unclear to me. It wasn’t fun working constantly, but I had a goal in mind, so it felt worth it. Plus, I loved doing the blog, and it felt more like a passion project than a burden.

The cookbook offer helped make things clearer — writing it was the push I needed to move my career forward and dedicate my time to blogging and writing. I invested in a better camera, started studying food photography, and dove right into writing the book and making a living off writing articles.

But taking on a book project wasn’t easy. I spent all my time cooking and shooting multiple recipes a day. Then in the evenings, I would work on my manuscript and other writing. I didn’t take one day off for months. Once I threw myself into the work, I was forced to put my self-doubt aside. Although I was tired and burnt out from working on such a large project, the pride I felt from pouring my heart and soul into this work more than made up for all my effort. It took some time, but the more work I put out, the more things grew.

There was no magic moment when my Instagram took off. For those who are curious about building their blogs, having dedicated, real followers means taking time to build their trust. It means posting consistently so they know they can count on you for new ideas. It means sitting down and having brainstorming sessions with yourself so things never get stale. In fall of 2015, I had almost 10,000 followers. This year, I have 120,000. I didn’t do anything differently during that time, other than staying committed to my passion for healthy eating, sharing knowledge, and creating content. I continued to post healthy food that I loved, engaged with those who inspired me, and eventually began showing the person behind the food.

Once stories were released on Instagram and my followers wanted to see more of my everyday life, I began showing my face more. It felt strange in the beginning — as a writer, I never expected to have my face be a part of my public image. But by engaging with the people who followed me and showing that I’m a real person who eats these kale salads – and hey, sometimes french fries and pizza — it brings a taste of personality to what is otherwise a sea of recipes.

Of course, with such high visibility online comes some criticism, and sometimes, I found myself experiencing imposter syndrome. It's hard not to take it personally when a vegan follower gets upset at me for posting an egg — even though I am not vegan — and sometimes I wonder if I’m really cut out to be a “public figure” in this sense.

But I’ve also recognized the power of this platform for positive. People reach out to me to tell me their boyfriend has been managing his diabetes because of my recipes, or their six-year-old daughter loves to eat kale because I taught them how to prepare it. When my grandpa got sick with cancer and passed away earlier this year, I received an enormous amount of messages from people who had also taken care of a loved one through a similar diagnosis. I really felt comforted and less alone because of these strangers. This component of my job is unique and incredibly special.

But aside from growing my creativity, working for myself meant learning a lot logistically. Work can be inconsistent, and even though it can look glamorous to be a blogger (which it sometimes is!) it still requires a great deal of effort. On the flip side, I have the freedom to set my own schedule, allowing me to travel and work remotely. I love how my days are all different, and I enjoy being able to work on multiple projects at a time.

I wish I could say there were special tricks or tips I used to grow my brand, but the real secret is boring: It’s just hard work, consistency, and a passion that comes from what you’re putting out, not the desire for big numbers, fame, or money. It took years to build my brand, and I never focused on just my images or the number of likes. I integrated recipes with health and nutrition tips. I shared my different articles, and I included anecdotes about my life. There is no one formula for everyone to follow, but if you put in the time and energy, and you have an authentic passion, good things will follow.