When Gill Holcombe, a single mother of three teenagers, saw pictures of parents shoving burgers and chips through school railings in Rotherham because their children didn't like the new healthy menus, she thought: "They don't have to do that."
Unlike most of the nation, though, Gill Holcombe decided to do something about it, after seeing the images from Jamie Oliver's school dinner campaign. Three years on, her simple cookery book for time-poor – or just poor – mothers has become one of the publishing sensations of 2009.
The robust guide with handy tips and recipes for dishes such as chilli con carne and chicken nuggets has climbed into the bestseller lists and been reprinted four times in the past 12 months. A fifth reprint is on its way, a second book is being finished, two more have been commissioned from a London publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.
Ms Holcombe is also holding talks with TV producers to bring her homespun wisdom to a prime-time audience. In some ways, the success of the book echoes that of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the guide to punctuation which taught a new generation how to use apostrophes. Both were published by small regional firms, but the differences include the length of Ms Holcombe's extravaganza of a book title: How to Feed Your Whole Family a Healthy Balanced Diet, with Very Little Money and Hardly Any Time, Even If You Have a Tiny Kitchen, Only Three Saucepans ... Unless You Count the Garlic Crusher...
Then there is the fact that, unlike Eats, Shoots and Leaves author Lynne Truss, Ms Holcombe had never written a book before. She was writing recipes for traditional British dishes such as toad in the hole in between juggling her job as a part-time nanny and feeding her own children.
When How to Feed Your Whole Family... was published in October 2007 there was little interest but, slowly, bloggers wanting to trim their grocery bills started praising its vibrant prose and practicality. Further mentions came on the moneysavingexpert.com website. Then the journalist India Knight, author of another cheap-living guide, The Thrift Book, name-checked it.
At one stage, shortly before Christmas, Ms Holcombe's book overtook Nigella Lawson's Christmas cookbook on the Amazon website. Since then it has being selling around 2,000 copies a week, a total of about 45,000 so far. "It's been a big seller for us," said Chris McVeith, marketing director of Spring Hill Press. "The peak was before Christmas ... but it has been selling steadily ever since. It has sold an awful lot for a small publisher." At Waterstone's book chain, How To Feed Your Whole Family ... has been in its top 10 best-selling cookery books for two months.
For Ms Holcombe, who divorced more than a decade ago, the aim of her book was to show other parents that they could cook simple, tasty dishes without heating up ready-meals – which are more unhealthy, more expensive and more work. By the time a pizza can be delivered cold, parents can cook simple dishes such as shepherd's pie she says. "I know what it's like to be poor and busy," she said this week.
"I'm not somebody who's living a middle class lifestyle with lots of money ... I just wanted to be able to say, 'Yes, you can do it'. You don't have to a yummy mummy or a domestic goddess, but you don't have to be a slummy mummy either," she said.
"Somebody said it was the first cookery book they didn't feel intimidated by," Ms Holcombe added. So far she has received only a £750 advance and a further £1,000 in royalties.Reuse content