Holley Grainger brings grace and good advice to families in her Cleverful Living blog.
A couple of years ago, Holley Grainger and her young daughters, Ellie and Frances, made apple spaghetti in the kitchen. Holley remembers spiral-cutting an apple to make the funky fruit noodles, and laughing when one of the girls mispronounced the word “spaghetti.” The food itself was nothing fancy, and Holley knew there would be a small mess to clean up afterward. But the memory of those few minutes of giggly fun and experimentation with her daughters still stands out in Holley’s mind as a keepsake from their fleeting childhood.
“They had a blast with it,” she says. “I try to make the moments we have in the kitchen teaching moments. It’s carving out those moments to say, ‘OK, we can take an extra five minutes to say they can stir something or crack an egg.”
Turning the ordinary, sometimes messy moments of raising a family into opportunities for learning and enjoyment—and showing other parents how to do the same—is something Holley, 39, has made a priority in her career as well. The wife and mother of two is also a registered dietitian and the curator of the Cleverful Living blog. “I rebranded my website this year and put a name to everything I’d already been doing,” she says. “That’s where ‘cleverful living’ came up. It’s a way to be able to look at what my audience was wanting: smart ideas, easy recipes, tips for having a healthier lifestyle, but wrapping that all into things that are fun, different and clever.”
Holley, who lives in Hoover, points to her own childhood as the foundation of her interest in food and how it affects people’s overall health. Her Italian Catholic family owned a gourmet food and wine store and believed in celebrating every holiday over a good meal together. Holley cheered and played softball in high school. Combining her knowledge of food and her interest in its role in athletes’ performance seemed like a natural fit for her college studies. “Having Southern Progress (Corporation) in my back yard and following Cooking Light magazine throughout my teens really helped me get interested,” she adds. “My mom was great about bringing us kids into the kitchen as well.”
While at the University of Alabama, Holley wrote pieces for the College of Human and Environmental Sciences about nutrition, debunking common myths and providing tips on following a healthy diet. After graduation, she landed a job at Time Inc. as the food editor for Oxmoor House and Southern Living, and the food and nutrition editor of MyRecipes.com and CookingLight.com. Holley also discovered she enjoyed being in front of a camera for video segments. She has shot hundreds of nationally syndicated videos for Time Inc. including the “Dinner Tonight” and “Real Life Nutrition” series.
Around the time she had her first child, Holley started a consulting business. “It just offered flexibility. I think the beauty of owning my own business is it allows me to be what I need to be when I need to be it,” she says. “I wanted to be able to create and talk to my own audience, but also partner and consult with brands and spread their nutrition message. I really jumped in with two feet.”
She has appeared on the Today Show, Fox and Friends, The Doctors, Doctor Oz and, most recently, the Martha Stewart Show (Holley’s episode will air in spring 2019). “It was very cool meeting her—someone that’s an icon in the field, especially in the food and lifestyle realm,” Holley says. “She was very kind and down-to-earth, and so smart.”
Holley works with her clients, including the National Dairy Council, American Pecans, ALDI, Uncle Ben’s and Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner., to develop recipes or create blog posts that incorporate their products. But food is not the only topic that finds attention on Holley’s Cleverful Living blog. She’s written about parenting solutions, party ideas, crafts, travel tips and even overcoming personal setbacks, such as being diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy after she had her second daughter. “That was a trying time to be able to continue to work and have a baby,” she says. “That was certainly character-building and a good lesson for me that I can’t do it all on my own. I carry those principles into the business now. Being able to create a team and utilize special skills of other people allows me to grow my business and be well-rounded.”
Much of what she shares on the blog is derived from her experiences as a mother. “Just watching and listening and paying attention to what my children are doing and how they react to my role as mom and entrepreneur continues to inspire me to keep pushing forward and be an example of what a strong woman can be,” she says. “It gives me lots of room for growth and, more importantly, lots of room to explore and find an easier and smarter way to do things.”
Take Holley’s lunchboxes, for example. By infusing her daughters’ lunches with creative touches and allowing them to participate in the selection and arrangement of the foods, she is able to teach them about nutrition without boring them or turning them off to healthy foods. Ideas as simple as a drawing a snowman on the plastic wrapping of string cheese or cutting bell peppers into candy cane shapes (see photo on page ??) put fun spins on regular foods.
“The lunchboxes have been fun,” she says. “One of my love languages is being a provider and taking a little extra time in offering a lunch that has balance. They’re not necessarily Pinterest-worthy lunches, but they’re real. And some mornings, I’m throwing it together from bags. Being realistic is very important to me, so other parents can relate, but also have that feeling of knowing they can achieve what I’m putting out there.”
Holley’s lunchboxes started when her older daughter, Ellie, was a toddler. Holley took pictures for friends who asked about what she sent in her lunch. She shared the photos on Instagram and her blog, and they took off in popularity. “My ‘125 Healthy Lunchboxes for Kids’ blog post far and away is my No. 1 top-ranked blog post on my site,” she says.
Using a closeable tray with different compartments, Holley portions out fruits, vegetables, proteins and other items from the basic food groups for her girls, adding simple, creative touches when she can. She admits both girls are “very selective eaters,” so experimenting with different ways to prepare or present foods can be another step in the process. “They won’t eat raw broccoli, but they’ll eat it roasted. A lot of times, it just depends on what form. I’ve also found just including them makes a big difference. They help me grocery shop and prep their own lunchboxes, and I teach them to choose a variety of foods. They don’t always like it, and the lunchboxes don’t always come back empty, but it’s all about exposure.”
Holley is also a proponent of the reusable lunchbox because “it’s easy and convenient, it cuts back on paper waste, you can slide it in the fridge and some can go in dishwasher.”
Adults, don’t fret: She also blogs about grownup lunchbox ideas that are designed to be healthy, tasty and convenient for busy parents and professionals. Often, her inspiration for new combinations comes from questions and suggestions from the people looking to her for guidance. “It’s really, for me, about building community and listening and helping each other,” she says. “My family and my community are where a lot of inspiration comes from.”
And as for the rest? She’s constantly learning from her own experiences as a working mom. She admits perfection isn’t her standard for her family or anyone else’s, and she stresses that people should cut themselves some slack on the days when it’s all they can do to pack a lunch for their children, let alone covering each food group in the healthiest possible way. “Give yourself some grace. It’s not always going to be perfect, and it’s not always going to be nutritionally sound,” she says. “But keep doing the best you can and give yourself some grace knowing you’re doing your best to provide for your child. Continuing to take small baby steps and continuing to make tweaks, little by little, will help balance and improve their overall diet.”
If imperfection means Holley can make “unicorn noodles” with her daughters and spend more time laughing with them and her husband, Brent, than worrying about the vegetable dye dripping onto the kitchen floor, then she’s OK with that. “They’re kids; they’re not afraid to make a mess,” she says. “The mess can be cleaned up. It’s about the memories that they’ll go off with, not if the cake was perfectly baked or the brownies were burned. It’s just about getting in the kitchen.”