Taupō mom champions easy-to-cook staple meals with her growing food empire

Vanya Insull isn’t afraid to put staple meals on the kitchen table for her family — think chicken lasagna, fried chicken, stir-frys, and plenty of hash browns. The Taupō-based food writer and entrepreneur also often takes meals out of the freezer and reheats them.

Insull runs a growing food empire as the founder of VJ Cooks – a recipe website she posts daily, which averaged 15,000 visits a day and 4.7 million views last year. With 148,000 followers on Facebook and 63,000 on Instagram, her first cookbook, Everyday Favorites, is now available, featuring daily family-friendly recipes, including pastries and desserts.

Insull thinks we’ve become too sophisticated and snobbish with our recipes and meal plans; so much so that many of us don’t trust cooking and are intimidated by a stove.

After all, most of us can’t serve up the equivalent of a Michelin star meal or a meal that could earn us a spot on Masterchef.

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“A lot of people tell me things like ‘I’m not really a cook,'” Insull says.

“One of the things I love the most is the feedback I get. It’s the best thing about my day, when I hear about someone who had no confidence in the kitchen who now has confidence and feels good about cooking for their family.’

In Taupō, Insull tests recipes on her husband Mike, a builder, and sons Archie, 8, and Henry, 6. It’s a stark departure from her early years, when she never liked to cook and was a picky eater.

That all changed when she studied design and got a job as a designer at the foodie magazine Taste in the early 2000s. When she came home from a food photography session, she would often cook herself some dry pasta and put it in it. was throwing a pot of sauce for dinner. She challenged herself one day: try to make a salmon pasta dish that she was photographing.

“It went well,” she recalls. “I was so proud of myself. I convinced myself that I couldn’t cook at all.

Insull caught the cooking bug, taught herself to cook and in 2016 posted one of her recipe videos on Facebook – a slice of Weet-Bix, which has now raised 3.3 million of views.

“Yeah, that was a big surprise. I think this slice appeals because it’s nostalgic and easy baking. It’s all about tags and comments, and once shared, it all went from there.”

Vanya Insull's recipe for the Weet-Bix Slice has become a favorite, with millions of views online.

Melanie Jenkins/Flash Studios

Vanya Insull’s recipe for the Weet-Bix Slice has become a favorite, with millions of views online.

Insull was inspired to quit her job and launch her recipe website and social media platform VJ Cooks, which she employs four people to run, including two of her sisters.

Her food philosophy is to provide easy-to-cook recipes, with ingredients that most of us have in the fridge or pantry. Some recipes are deliberately bulky so they can be frozen and reheated later.

Popular dishes featured in his cookbook are Tuscan Chicken, Sticky Lemon Chicken, and Mediterranean Meatballs (which offer the option of homemade or store-bought meatballs). Nothing is too fancy or too spicy – if you want more spice, add it, she says – and she likes her recipes to appeal to picky eaters like she used to. Paying members receive an e-book sent monthly with recipes such as “10 Ways to Cook Hash”.

“People tell me things like, ‘I’m not a very good cook. I just like to break it down so people have the confidence to try something,” says Insull.

Sticky Lemon Chicken is one of the popular dishes in Vanya Insull's new cookbook, Everyday Favourites.

Melanie Jenkins/Flash Studios

Sticky Lemon Chicken is one of the popular dishes in Vanya Insull’s new cookbook, Everyday Favourites.

“I’m also not afraid to use sugar, butter or cream. My grandmother always put butter on her sandwiches and she was healthy. People are also afraid to eat pasta. If someone asks about the calories in something, I say, “Just take a piece of the slice if you’re worried.”

Insull is about to start a freezing class – she often freezes meals in her freezer in the garage, taking out a meal at another time to reheat and serve it again, perhaps as a new incarnation.

She argues that Kiwis are not good at freezing meals or eating and serving leftovers. Part of it is knowing how to freeze food (containers, ziplock bags) and what’s best to cook.

“You can take cooked hash out of the freezer and reuse it as tacos. This approach to meals is very popular in America, where people love leftovers.”

Insull is also aware of food inflation and aware that many of its members and subscribers are price conscious. Her cookbook deliberately has a soft cover, and she encourages people to seek out cheaper cuts of meat and even include supermarket coleslaw for her hawker roll recipe rather than buying the ingredients raw.

On her blog, she once showed how to prepare $180 worth of food in 64 different servings. Now a brand ambassador for supermarket Countdown, she also offers a price breakdown of some recipes her followers love.

Her site and cookbook won’t work for adventurous cooks, who might find some of her tips and recipes too basic. But some of his advice is warmly reassuring. How many food writers include a tip like this on a chicken recipe: “When preparing the chicken, the egg doesn’t need to be whipped, just crack it open and stir – everything will go well.”

Vanya Insull’s Everyday Favorites is now available.

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