Erin Clarke ’08 learned to bake in her Grammy’s kitchen on summer afternoons.
“Every Thursday, she would pick my sisters and me up and had picked out a different dessert recipe for us to make together. When we were little, we did pretty simple things, like cookies and simple cakes, but by the end of high school, we were able to make chocolate mousse and more complicated frosted and filled cakes,” says Clarke, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas. “She is the one who definitely instilled in me my sweet tooth, but she also taught me how to read and follow a recipe. On the other side of my family, my Grandma was an avid baker, too, and taught us how to prepare cookies and yeast breads. I learned from them not only the beginnings of how to make a recipe, but also the special, lasting impact of memories created in the kitchen.”
Today, Clarke is the creator of the blog Well Plated and author of The Well Plated Cookbook, both of which are dedicated to making healthy eating affordable, accessible, and delicious. Inspired by the comfort foods of her childhood, Clarke set out to make some of those classic recipes healthier, or put a new twist on them. She started the blog in 2012 as a hobby, sharing the budget-friendly recipes she created while her husband, Ben Clarke ’08, was in law school. Now the site has grown to include more than 1,300 recipes and receives millions of visitors every month, along with the cookbook and an Instagram account with nearly 140,000 followers.
“I identified a need. People wanted to eat healthy meals but they didn’t have a lot of time to cook them and were also craving deliciousness,” she says. “I realized I didn’t need to spend a ton of money or seek out fancy ingredients to make healthy food that people are really going to like. I leaned into that idea and developed a niche for creating healthy recipes that taste great, are made with ingredients that you can find at any grocery store, preferably can be ready in under 45 minutes, and dirty as few dishes as possible. Making healthy eating easy, accessible, affordable, and delicious — that is what Well Plated is all about.”
Clarke went from her Grammy’s kitchen in Wichita to cooking in the basement kitchen in her dorm, Lyons Hall, and says she also liked to whip up creations at mealtime in South Dining Hall. Clarke recalls one December when she doubled the recipe for Grammy’s famous Christmas sugar cookies and, “it just got out of control. The cookies were cooling all over — not just the entire Lyons kitchen, but the entire basement area, the couches, everywhere. If you knew me, if we had a class together, you’ve probably eaten those cookies.”
Many of the same friends who ate those Christmas cookies helped out as recipe testers for The Well Plated Cookbook, which was published in August 2020. Clarke, who lives in Milwaukee, has cooked live on Good Morning America from her home kitchen, and been featured in People magazine and on Wisconsin Public Radio. As her blog following has grown and publicity rolled in from the cookbook, Clarke says she keeps the focus on being of service to her readers and that, “at the end of the day, it’s all about relationships and community.”
“Notre Dame taught me the value of relationships, having a heart for service and keeping that at the forefront,” Clarke says. “You might ask, ‘Running a website, what does that have to do with serving others?’ But for me, sharing healthy recipes that make life easier provides a service and helps create community around the table.”.
“I’ve gone from having four people reading my recipes to having millions of people that read them every single month, but that genuine love for sharing food online for others has not changed. It will never get old to me that people make my recipes and bring them to life in their kitchens.”
And so many readers are making her recipes because Clarke makes every effort to remove barriers to cooking healthy recipes at home. Her blog posts include step-by-step videos and suggestions for substitutions if you don’t have certain ingredients on hand, as well as options to adapt a recipe for certain dietary needs, like for gluten free or paleo diets. And she ends the posts with tips for storing, reheating, and freezing the dish.
Clarke, who was a marketing major at Notre Dame, started Well Plated in 2012, at a time when blogs were just starting to gain popularity, but it wasn’t necessarily a career move.
“Nowadays, there are people who get into blogging with the idea that it might be an income. When I started, that did not exist,” says Clarke, who worked for Target’s corporate headquarters and as a consultant before making Well Plated her full-time gig in the fall of 2014.
“I was really scared. I had only worked in strictly structured business environments where your career path is fairly set. And then you get into blogging and it is just a completely different mindset,” she says. “I would say that it took me a full year to get used to it and now I love working for myself. Whereas before, I found it very intimidating not to have a clear path set for me, now I find it very exciting that I get to identify opportunities and determine what the path will be.”
A typical week at Well Plated includes one or two days in the kitchen, perfecting recipes and taking photos and videos of the finished products. The rest of the time, Clarke spends on the online aspect of the business, writing content and using search engine optimization to track her site’s performance and analyze trends to see what kind of recipes people need or are interested in, so she can brainstorm what she’ll cook next.
“We’ve been tricked into thinking that enjoying a healthy diet means that we need to spend a ton of time in the kitchen or we need to spend a lot of money. Cooking can be intimidating and eating healthy can be intimidating, and it doesn’t have to be,” Clarke says. “Or we think, well, if I’m going to eat healthy, it has to be bland chicken or sad salads with dressing on the side. Life is just too short for that. I believe that healthy food and healthy recipes should be accessible to everyone. When you make something that you are proud of and it can nourish you and nourish your family, that is just wonderful. The fact that I can be part of making that a reality more often for people by removing those barriers is just so inspiring and exciting to me.”
To make some of Erin’s recipes or check out the cookbook, visit wellplated.com.