Kelly Gibney on Life, Food and Health

Food writer Kelly Gibney tells us how her life has shaped her attitudes to health — and why she’ll never tell anyone what to eat

Kelly Gibney's life has shaped her attitudes to health. Picture / Babiche Martens

For six years in her teens, following a “disturbing” school geography trip to a dairy farm, Kelly Gibney was a committed vegan. Then at 20, she met a Sicilian boy and moved to Melbourne, where her man’s meat and pasta-heavy diet seduced her back to the other side.

These days the 36-year-old food stylist, photographer and writer behind the popular Bonnie Delicious blog (she has more than 7000 Facebook followers) still spends the odd day eating only plant-based foods but generally feels better as a carnivore.

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“That’s why I would never tell someone how they should eat,” she says. “We all have different body types and beliefs. I tend to be lighter on grains and carbs, whereas my partner really needs to have oats and wholegrains. He’s 6ft2 with a fast metabolism and those foods just serve him.”

That’s the problem with diets, she says. Whether vegan, paleo or clean-eating, many followers feel the need to force something they think is right. It’s why she wrote about how to make sense of all that conflicting dietary advice in her new book, Wholehearted, Inspiring Real Food for Every Day.

“Slow down, chew your food and pay attention to how you feel afterwards,” she says. “It’s common sense when it comes to nutrition. Play around and notice if what you eat makes you feel amazing or rubbish.”

Although it may feel as though every white-flour-shunning blogger worth her Himalayan salt has released a healthy eating cookbook recently, there’s a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about Kelly’s approach that appeals.

The meals in Wholehearted take readers throughout the day, from breakfast to dessert, encompassing a wide-range of eating practices from gluten-free to paleo, raw to fermented, grain-free to dairy-free, the idea that you can incorporate them into whichever mode of eating suits you best. There’s even a little nod to her love of Italian, (her version of spaghetti bolognese served with zucchini noodles and gluten-free pasta).

The best thing you can do for your health, she adds, is to cook meals from scratch, setting yourself an achievable goal — perhaps one new recipe a fortnight. She also stresses the importance of variety, rather than “feeling like you have to have a green smoothie every day”.

Kelly says she and her family don’t go without the occasional treat — Little & Friday doughnuts, sweet treats at kids’ parties, good quality cheese — but she maintains balance is the key, as is not stressing if the diet goes temporarily off the rails.

“I’m glad that health and wellness has taken off the way that it has because obviously eating well is really great for people,” she says. “I launched my career off the back of that stuff happening ... but I won’t get so bogged down in health that it doesn’t taste really good.”

Half her lifetime ago, as she leaned towards the “hippie holistic realm”, she thought she’d become a naturopath. Instead she threw herself into hospitality. After Melbourne, she headed to New York with a friend on a whim. They had no plan, other than figuring they’d land on their feet.

TRY: Kelly Gibney's Spiced Pumpkin Pancakes Recipe

“I cannot believe I did that now. I think I can be quite sensible.”

She wound up working for a New American bistro-style of restaurant in Williamsburg, an exciting, ethnically diverse environment where, she says, she was held up as an example of how many double shifts you could do without keeling over. It also taught her to speak up about her strengths.

“People just demand you speak about yourself in New York: ‘This is what I do and what I’m good at’. It feels very un-New Zealand but it helped because later on I was managing some really big personalities.”

On the brink of a breakdown, she was promoted to manager, running the restaurant with the female chef. In her downtime she threw herself into New York’s food culture, particularly its growing number of macrobiotic and raw-food restaurants. She later got a job at a Mexican dive bar in the West Village, and took theatre and piano lessons on the side.

“I’d always wanted to be an actress as a kid. But when I started studying theatre in New York it became apparent that I didn’t quite have the drive to pursue it.”

READ: Auckland Restauranteurs Hit the New York Dining Scene

Homesickness eventually brought her back to Auckland, where she met her partner, a structural engineer. She was also introduced to entrepreneurial hair stylist Stephen Marr, who was looking to bring a creative foodie on board to front his new project, the Golden Dawn bar in Ponsonby. Kelly managed the bar for two years and ran a series of Sunday lunch events — big sharing feasts where animals were roasted over the coals.

“It was an amazing experience, working with a really creative bunch of people who were just bold and brave.”

She left feeling inspired to pursue her own creative interests. After daughter Bonnie was born she found herself obsessing over cooking and reading food blogs. For six months she spent Bonnie’s nap time and evenings furiously cooking and writing. Soon after launching her blog, she noticed people posting photographs of her recipes they’d recreated.

She then segued into writing recipes for magazines, styling food and taking on food-related projects.

These days her performance skills come in handy when she MCs the Chefs Kitchen for Taste of Auckland, as they do when she runs wholefoods cooking workshops, or appears on TV and radio. Now with baby number two on the way, she hopes to write more about pregnancy — not necessarily giving health advice but wholesome, handy meal ideas that mums can cook in advance and freeze.

“It’s very easy to live on toast when you’re pregnant or looking after a newborn. It’s an interesting time of life for lots of people. You often find you have less time, money and energy. But it’s really crucial to look after yourself.”

READ: Kelly Gibney's Spiced Pumpkin Pancakes Recipe

• Wholehearted by Kelly Gibney, Beatnik Publishing, $49.99,, is out now.

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