LVNGbook CEO Shaun Chavis: Delivering innovative recipes to enable healthy home cooking from diverse food traditions
Shaun Chavis is a longtime cookbook editor with degrees in culinary arts and gastronomy. After a friend felt overwhelmed by a health diagnosis that required a significant change in diet, Shaun was inspired to develop a business that would help people feel more confident about eating well in ways that fit who they are.
She interviewed more than 100 people and discovered seven out of 10 feel stressed by lists and meal plans they receive from doctors and hospitals. She decided to create LVNGbook, a platform that combines good food, nutrition, behavioral science, culture, and technology to make healthy eating for medical conditions easier, accessible, affordable, and enjoyable.
LVNGbook partners with retailers and health organizations to help people eat in ways that prevent or manage chronic conditions while strengthening personal confidence, cultural ties, and social connections. With a registered dietitian who creates guidelines and approves each recipe, LVNGbook uses a recipe API to license healthy recipes for conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Its diverse team of recipe developers specializes in creating easy, family-friendly, tasty recipes that reflect a variety of cuisines.
In this conversation, The Kassan Group founder Jenny Kassan chats with Shaun about how LVNGbook is doing the work to drive the development of an inclusive, regenerative economy.
Jenny Kassan: One of the hallmarks of a regenerative economy is the ability to be innovative, agile, and meet the challenges of the day. What practices do you use to ensure that your business is flexible enough to adapt to a changing environment while staying true to your foundational principles?
Shaun Chavis: This is one of the reasons I started LVNGbook. I used to work for Time Inc. (now Meredith). The recipes they licensed were usually a few years old, and the persona most publications and recipe developers use as they create content around home cooking is dated and doesn’t reflect the increasingly culturally diverse U.S. population.
Large publishers also aren’t using their influence to make environmentally sustainable eating mainstream. Magazines such as Cooking Light and Eating Well talked about it in feature stories, but didn’t build it in as a part of everyday cooking. In 2021, Epicurious announced they were going to stop writing beef recipes. That’s at least 10 years too late. Right now they should be helping consumers who eat meat learn how to buy it from restorative farms.
I felt I could do it better. Being able to adapt quickly is important because the environment and international conflict both impact the price and availability of food. These changes are rapid and unpredictable. I listen to our customers and ask about how they’re talking to their end users about healthy eating, and I listen to end users about the challenges they have putting healthy meals on the table.
JK: Can you give us an example of an environmental factor that influences your recipes?
SC: Sure, here’s a good example: For years now I’ve been in the habit of checking in with Seafood Watch frequently because best practices for eating seafood in a sustainable way change regularly. Over the years, the species that see recovery or experience jeopardy constantly shift. Or there are new practices to support, such as restorative ocean farming. This kind of change will happen with many foods, and we’ll all need to keep an eye on what and how to eat in light of environmental change. In fact, it’s happening now. I just read about a man who is working to create a market in the U.S. for African vegetables that are more drought resistant, such as Nigerian spinach.
JK: Moving our interdependent world toward a regenerative economy means empowering participants to contribute to the health and well-being of the larger whole. That seems particularly relevant for LVNGbook with its focus on individual health being supported through a network of professionals and providers. How do you motivate customers to take ownership of the change they want to see?
SC: Storytelling is powerful. People are 22 times more likely to remember a story than they are facts and figures. It’s important to tell stories in a way that enables people to see themselves in the narrative.
I usually start the LVNGbook story with an experience almost all of us can relate to: Going to the doctor and being told to eat for better health. Most of the time when people approach me after I give a presentation, they tell me about their own struggles to eat for good health. That tells me they’ve put themselves in the story, they understand the pain point, and they see how LVNGbook could make their lives better. From there, it’s easier to talk about that on a larger scale, and the impact our solution could have in improving health outcomes and lowering health care costs.
JK: As we collectively face challenges on a global scale, to what extent is social entrepreneurship “borderless” in your view?
SC: It’s only borderless if we make it so. It has to be borderless in our mindsets first. There are so many stereotypes in our society that keep us from recognizing intelligence and innovation when it comes from marginalized people. You might have a brilliant solution for something with a solid business model and traction, but if you don’t look a certain way, some people have a hard time believing you’ve created something valuable—even when they’re staring right at it.
We need to change this mindset. It’s holding the whole world back. The answers we need are coming and will come from everywhere. With climate change, health disparities, infectious disease, and other challenges, many solutions will come from people in the marginalized communities who experience the impacts first.
JK: How do you see the practices and core values of your business as distinct from the “business as usual” status quo?
SC: Compared to mainstream food media, we hire more people of color to develop and photograph healthy recipes that reflect a variety of food traditions. Studies show that mainstream media does a poor job at hiring professional recipe developers who are people of color to write and create about their own food traditions.
It’s important to us to develop recipes that people recognize and feel good about incorporating into their regular repertoire at home. Science shows that people are more likely to stick to a long-term diet change if they can eat food that’s similar to what they’re already familiar with. People are also more likely to stick to diet changes if everyone in the home is eating similar food. And we know that certain chronic conditions impact people of color disproportionately. So it means a lot if we can give people healthy recipes for things they eat with their families, like ropa vieja or collard greens.
In the near future, we’ll work on how to write recipes so they’re accessible to people with different physical abilities. For example, if a recipe says it can be made in 28 minutes, whose 28 minutes is that? If you experience fatigue frequently or if you have joint pain, it might take you longer. Or a recipe might ask you to test the doneness of steak by touching it, but what if you have neuropathy? We’re working on language to make our recipes accessible.
JK: What do you do to resist the pressure to “fit in” to the old economy paradigms?
SC: I don’t feel pressure to fit into the way traditional media works because the way we reach our goals is different. We’re not selling magazines or ads. I’ve heard from a number of doctors who want what we’re offering because they don’t have other resources to give to patients who are Black American, Mexican American, Middle Eastern, or from other nationalities and cultures. Even U.S. regional recipes matter, such as healthier clam chowder or gumbo recipes. I believe the diversity we offer will be an important asset in value-based care.
JK: Who inspires you in the social impact world and what is the one question you’d like to ask them?
SC: Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of Chobani. I’d like to talk to him about how to create a vision for supporting employee well-being, how to collaborate with employees in creating that support, how to work through all the practical steps to make it a reality, and how to talk to investors about it.
JK: What is your theme song as a social entrepreneur?
SC: I have several: “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness, “Do My Thing” by Estelle, and pretty much the entire Black is King album by Beyoncé.
About Shaun Chavis
Shaun Chavis (she, her) is the founder and CEO of LVNGbook, a recipe publisher in Atlanta that licenses healthy recipes to health companies, retailers, and other clients.
Shaun is managing editor of Found Health, a company that offers evidence-based solutions for weight management. Her career includes 20 years as a journalist and media professional for organizations such as ABC News / The Walt Disney Company and Time Inc. At Time, she was the inaugural diet editor for Health, and later became a development editor in the book publishing division, specializing in healthy cookbooks for brands like Cooking Light and Weight Watchers. Shaun’s work has won two Luce Awards (Time Inc.’s highest honor), a James Beard Award, and made the New York Times Nonfiction Bestsellers list. She’s also been a cookbook judge for the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Shaun co-founded FoodBlogSouth, which became the largest food blogging conference in the Southeast US. She has a culinary degree and a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy from Boston University, and has taught in Boston University’s avocational culinary program and at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta.
LVNGbook helps people eat to prevent or manage chronic conditions in ways that strengthen personal confidence, cultural ties, and social connections. We license healthy recipes for conditions like heart disease and diabetes to B2B clients through our recipe API.
LVNGbook is an AARP Innovation Labs Portfolio company and a member of the AgeTech Collaborative by AARP. LVNGbook has also won support from the Microsoft Black and African American Partner Growth Initiative, the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, and WeWork Labs. LVNGbook was in the entrepreneurs showcase at SOCAP20.