- Interview By
- Bibby Sowray
- Styled By
- Petro Stofberg
- Photographs By
- Eva K. Salvi
Ella Mills is a true British success story. You probably already know how it started for her and her wildly successful business Deliciously Ella, but here’s a refresher. Aged 19 and at university, she fell chronically ill. Countless tests, investigative procedures and drugs followed, eventually leading to a diagnosis of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. She was prescribed medication to manage the condition, but finding that it had little effect on the symptoms and brought its own debilitating side effects, she turned her focus to her diet – an unexpected move for someone who’s admitted she would rather have feasted on bags of sweets than eat a healthy, well-balanced meal, let alone head to the kitchen and prepare one herself.
She recorded her culinary explorations on her blog, Deliciously Ella, which steadily garnered a following of like-minded people all over the world who were open to trying out plant-based eating and intrigued by her ability to make it look both delicious and accessible, propelling Ella to the forefront of this fledgling wellness movement.
Over a decade on and Deliciously Ella is a global business, helmed by Ella and her husband Matthew Mills, with whom she has two daughters. It has spawned bestselling cookery books, a restaurant, an app, a podcast and countless much-loved products, not to mention a worldwide community of millions whose lives have been changed by her approach. As she launches her eighth book, Healthy Made Simple: Delicious, Plant-Based Recipes, Ready in 30 Minutes or Less, she talks to us about the inspiration behind it, how to take a compassionate approach to New Year resolutions and why she believes we need to have more transparent conversations about women in business.
“Life is busy and demanding, so I wanted to create a tool to help people eat healthily and stick to it.”
Tell us about your new book, Healthy Made Simple, and why you wanted to write it?
About four years ago, after my first daughter was born, I found that my habits had changed. Life had gotten busier by the day and I found I had literally no time on my hands, so I started to think about how I could make really delicious, healthy meals in just 15 minutes, all with a balance of ease, flavour and nutrition. Over the last four years, that’s the only way I’ve cooked at home, and this book is all those recipes that I make on a weeknight or batch-cook for the week ahead on a Sunday. It’s been really life-changing for me. I feel as excited about this book as I did my first. There are so many people who face the same challenges: you really want to look after yourself, to nourish yourself, take care of yourself but reality doesn’t always allow that. Life is so busy and so demanding, so I wanted to create a tool to help people do it and stick to it. It’s full of small hacks, tricks and things that you can do that really don’t take any time at all.
What is your favourite recipe in the book?
It’s really interesting, because my favourite and what I make the most aren’t necessarily the same. In terms of what I make the most, it’s a running joke that my children only eat the shortcut lentil bolognese. I reckon I make it every single week and I vary it a little with what I’ve got left over in the fridge, like veg. There’s probably not a single day in the year when I don’t have that in the fridge or the freezer. It’s my staple because it’s so easy, everyone always eats it and you can have it with rice, pasta, baked potatoes. I love the shallot and butterbean bowl as well – it’s lovely with a nice crusty bit of sourdough.
You’re a huge proponent of plant-based eating – you were one of the first cookery writers to talk about it and all your recipes adhere to it. It’s more widespread now, but for anyone who’s not on board yet, what are the key benefits from your research and experience?
I feel so strongly about this. I would never want anybody to take away that the Deliciously Ella message is “You should go plant-based”. It’s about more veg for more people, more of the time - and encouraging people to look at a plant-rich diet where you’re really championing these ingredients but not feeling that they’re all you should eat, exclusively, forever more. We have this very binary look when we think about food and a very ingrained diet culture where you’re either off the wagon or you’re 100% committed. That’s largely unhelpful because there are so many unbelievable benefits of a plant-rich diet, from the fibre you get and how powerful that is for gut health, to strengthening your immune system, sustaining your energy levels, your mood or how you sleep by managing your blood sugar – and you don’t have to do it 100% of the time to reap those rewards, not at all. If you want to have a lovely slice of chocolate cake, enjoy a lovely slice of chocolate cake. Don’t feel guilty about it! We can do both.
“Our lives are the total sum of the tiny decisions that we make, the small habits we put in place and our ability to keep going.”
You talk a lot in the book about how time-pressured everyone is these days and, as such, all of the recipes take 30 minutes or less to make. For you personally, as a working mum, how do you keep on top of life’s many demands and deal with moments of overwhelm?
Balancing work and motherhood is certainly a serious juggling act, and some days are definitely really overwhelming, especially owning a business, as you don’t ever leave that at the door. You often then put your needs last because you’re totally strung out. For quite a long time, I felt I didn’t have the energy to cook and I would get a takeaway or I would just eat toast – there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think, when you start doing that every single day or most days, then you start to feel the impact of that on your energy levels. My mood was worse, my sleep was worse. That’s when I started unlocking this way of cooking. I’ve realised that I’m not someone who loves to make a formula or plan; I like having a sense of flexibility. But what I do find is that being a little more prepared, by doing things like cooking double quantities or pre-making breakfast toppings, is massively helpful – it’s just little things to help my future self.
Similarly, how do you make time for yourself and what do you like to do to relax and switch off?
I love reading; that’s always been my favourite thing to do. It’s the best escapism in the world. And a hot bath – my mum used to have a bath every single night before she went to bed, even if it was two in the morning. I think it instilled this sense in me that it was the ultimate relaxation.
We’re at a point in the year when a lot of us are setting goals and making resolutions for the months ahead, particularly when it comes to health and wellness. Your journey to health through food wasn’t a quick or easy one but you persevered – what are your top tips for sticking to the goals we set for ourselves?
The number one thing I would say is be really compassionate towards yourself in the goals that you set. Be really realistic, because 365 days is a very long time and the only certainty we have in life is uncertainty. You’ve probably already got lots going on in your life and you might have even more going on next week; you don’t know what life holds and what stressful things might come up at work or at home. After we set these goals, it can foster a negative way of looking at ourselves as opposed to a more positive long-term approach. I love this idea of getting 1% closer every day; what can you take up to enrich your life and that you can see yourself doing in the long term that doesn’t feel punishing, because if it is punishing the data is very clear that no one keeps up those New Year resolutions.
What goals have you personally set for 2024?
It’s a continuation of last year’s goal, which is trying to find more balance in my life. I know that’s something that won’t happen overnight. Building the business has been super-full-on and pretty relentless, but we’re now getting to a place where the business is growing fast, but in a much more stable way. We’ve got an amazing team now and there’s a bit more capacity to not be going 24/7 and retraining my brain to relax sometimes. That’s a job in and of itself and I’m really trying to reduce my hours a little bit to get home to my kids and take them to school every day, and for myself as well.
“Great businesses aren’t necessarily the best ideas. I think they’re the best problem solvers and the people most willing to keep going.”
It's been over a decade since you founded Deliciously Ella, and in that time your approach to food, cooking and wellness has been hugely inspirational to millions of people. What’s the one message you hope people take from everything you have done so far?
That eating can be joyful, and changing the stereotype around healthy food to think of it as something that’s textured, something that really does feel really delicious, satisfying and joyful, and not something that feels sad.
The website you founded in 2012 has grown into an international business – you’ve written bestselling books, developed and launched products, created an app and a podcast, and opened a restaurant. What have been the greatest lessons you have learnt from running your own business so far?
There are no magic answers in life. We all want a quick fix and we want something to be easy but, to be truly rewarding and sustainable, things rarely are. There’s never a magic bullet; it’s consistency and total dedication that creates the life that you want. I believe that very strongly and I think we all very much overestimate what we can achieve in a day or a week – and we massively underestimate what we can achieve in a year or 10 years. If I think about the last 10 years, I cannot believe we started where we did and where we have gotten to. I feel so proud of that, but it has been a game of problem-solving and consistently picking yourself back up, digging deep and finding the motivation to go again, because there’s just problem after problem. Great businesses aren’t necessarily the best ideas. I think they’re the best problem solvers and the people most willing to keep going. There’s no one reason that the business is succeeding and not one moment that has defined it. I think that applies very much to our careers, but I think it applies to our health, our relationships, everything. Our lives are the total sum of the tiny decisions that we make, the small habits we put in place and our ability to keep going.
What advice would you give to other women setting out on the journey of building their own brand or company?
It’s the most extraordinary experience and I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but I think it’s to be ready for the relentless nature of it. The level of sacrifice it takes is something that we don’t talk about enough. There is a lot of glamorisation of entrepreneurship and that kind of hashtag-girlboss image and it’s great – we need a lot more women in business – but equally I couldn’t begin to count the number of friends that I have ultimately lost touch with, events and weddings I’ve missed, holidays that have been cancelled and Christmases that I’ve ended up working. That is the reality – it’s not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just a choice. For me, there’s nothing, bar my parenting, that’s more rewarding than building a community-driven, purpose-led business that I feel is making a tangible impact on the world. We’re doing things differently and I feel it’s incredibly humbling and rewarding and satisfying to see it come together, but it’s not smooth sailing by any stretch of the imagination and I think we could probably do with more transparent conversations around what that looks like.