Generation Xers have long been stereotyped as slackers. Noah Atlas, director of the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s child nutrition program, thinks there may be at least one way the label applies:

“My generation didn’t cook,” he said.

Parents of Generation Xers “didn’t think it was an important thing. They pushed us to excel in school,” he said.

The 41-year-old Minnetonka resident hopes to spark a love of cooking in his generation and future ones with his new book, “ChefElla and her Famous Cupcakes,” a recipe in story format.

“That’s her thing,” he said of the title character. “It’s not solving mysteries. It’s making food.”

The story follows a little girl who wants to make a batch of cupcakes for her friend and does so using healthy ingredients. The book includes tips on washing your hands and clever suggestions like using an ice cream scoop to measure out batter. It also details how Ella solves things when “eggtastrophy” strikes. Atlas, who has been a chef, works in words like “mise en place” and “sous chef.”

Atlas, the father of two daughters, Ella, 12, and Ally, 9, hopes the book encourages parents to cook with their kids, even if the kids just do part of the process.

“What would be the difference if you took two more minutes and let them help you?” he said. “Whatever they become in life, they’re going to need that skill.”

The idea for the book came about after Ella had a bout of serious digestive issues due to a stomach virus when she was in first grade. “She was not eating anything at all,” said Atlas’ wife and Ella’s mom, Stacy. “It affected her whole life.”

After seeing a specialist as she lost weight, Ella was on medication for about a year, but a conversation with their pediatrician about her diet inspired changes. They started swapping out processed foods in favor of whole ones, which seemed to help.

“We’re such a pill-popping nation,” said Stacy. “I just wanted her completely off meds. Ella’s tummy revamped our life. It really put our whole family in a better place.”

Stacy initially started writing the book and then passed the project on to her husband, the family’s main cook, who finished it. A few years later, he started a blog, where he now posts recipes weekly. Like the book, the recipes on the blog favor whole foods.

“I try to approach it in a way that you’re not scared off,” he said. “You don’t have to buy a thousand ingredients to go do it.”

“They’ll all really easy,” said Susan Buckman, of St. Paul, a family friend and mother of two who follows the blog. “I like that he’ll add different things to make it healthier, which I wouldn’t think of because I’m not a professional chef.”

Before his current position, Atlas worked in product development at Cargill and in restaurant and supermarket management.

Atlas started his Anoka-Hennepin job last July, and he refers to students as “guests.”

“It’s something that I always wanted to do,” he said. “Institutional food doesn’t have to taste institutional.”

He said school food programs face their own challenges these days implementing healthy foods. For example, new federal regulations, like those this year restricting sodium, can be hard for the students to swallow. If kids, who have more choices than ever outside of school, aren’t used to eating that way, he said, “it’s going to taste different.”

Atlas said that he never really thought of putting out a book, but he always has wanted “to change how people think about food,” he said. The book is self-published.

Comfortable with cooking

He wants people to get more comfortable experimenting when cooking — subbing in or leaving out ingredients if you don’t have them — and worrying less about making mistakes. “We still laugh in our house about horrible mishaps,” he said.

“I’m kind of a train wreck in the kitchen, but that’s OK,” said Stacy, who called herself the perfect audience for the book and blog. “I’m 40 years old, and I’m just starting to learn how to cook, and that’s OK.”

Also, Atlas hopes his blog and book inspire people to simply enjoy the process.

“Cooking for others makes you feel really good,” he said. “Everyone likes that feeling.”


Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.