It’s 7 p.m. After an afternoon of homework and an evening of baseball practice, ballet, and piano lessons, you swing by the nearest fast food joint to pick up dinner. By the time you get home, the kids will be starving.
This scenario is all too familiar for many families always on the go.
John Besh--chef, father of four, and author of My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, makes the case that dinners don’t have to suffer as a result of hectic schedules.
Besh, who grew up in southern Louisiana, has a passion for cooking foods that have strong Southern roots. He often makes jambalaya and red beans with rice for his family. “I want to give my kids something that makes them feel connected to the place the food is from,” he says.
Part of Besh’s book came about due to an awakening. “It was like, 'Oh my God, I’m a chef, and my kids are eating on the run too often,'” he says. Below, the acclaimed chef offers bites of advice on cooking healthy meals even with limited amounts of time.
P&C: How do your eating habits from when you were growing up differ from or relate to your family’s eating habits now?
Besh: I grew up with five siblings, so the dinner table was the gathering point of the family. The culture revolved around that clock; extracurricular activities and sports ended at a time so you could still get home for supper. We ate whatever was in season, but took much of it for granted, as many of us do growing up. Now, we’re trying to get back to that mindset of coming together around the dinner table. School nights are a time of the week when I’m not usually at home, which runs counter to the way I grew up. To avoid processed foods, we often use leftovers from Sunday supper during the week to preserve the home-cooked experience. I’ll cook an extra chicken on Sundays.
P&C: The bit about extracurriculars and sports ending in time for dinner — that seems to run counter to modern families’ lifestyles, too.
Besh: My four sons travel from baseball practice to soccer fields to football fields, and when I look around, so many of their peers are being raised on fast food. We’re at a perilous state as a culture, so that if we don’t get back to family table or something wholesome and homemade, we risk losing valuable parts of our culture that get passed down around the table. Many great lessons I learned — from etiquette to communicating as a family — took place at the dinner table.
P&C: Do you reserve one special meal when your family can all be together?
Besh: Sunday supper is the meal we’ve always shared together. During the week, I make breakfast, since that’s a meal where I can sit down with the boys. I wake up an hour earlier so I can be with them.
P&C: As families try to coordinate around many busy schedules, how can they still make dinners healthy?
Besh: I focus on health in a very loose sense. I want to prepare food that’s healthy, but also that my sons will eat, realistically. They’re not drinking wheat juice. I’ve introduced Vietnamese cooking into their repertoire, and now my son Jack loves stewed Southern greens and black-eyed peas. I’ll take the peas and greens and add chicken stock, and you have the makings of a great Italian wedding soup. It’s a really good, hearty meal for a family on the run.
P&C: So, essentially, lots of thinking ahead.
Besh: If you have to roast a chicken, why not just roast two? One will feed my entire family, if I make another, I can use it for another meal that week. Just put the chicken carcasses in a pot with onion, water, celery, carrots — and an hour later, you have a wonderful chicken broth. You can be empowered to cook good, home-cooked meals even with limited amounts of time.
P&C: What does your kitchen look like on a typical school night? Do your sons help out?
Besh: Our school nights are fast and furious. The boys may jump in the kitchen and help [my wife] Jennifer toss the salad, but children today are much busier today than we were. Lots of simple recipes can be prepared in advance, such as Asian Chicken Salad and Sloppy Joe Sliders.
P&C:Tell me one favorite school-night staple that your entire family eats without complaints.
Besh: Jambalaya — it’s the South Louisiana version of fried rice. I throw in turnips and lots of things my kids might not normally eat.
P&C: Any weeknight routines?
Besh: Mondays are red beans and rice day. That’s another quintessential New Orleans meal. After meals, everybody pitches in to clean up.
P&C: What is the most important lesson that food has taught you?
Besh: The meaning behind eating a meal at a table. From the beginning of time, the table is where we celebrated everything from birth to death. The older I get, the more I realize how sacred time around the table is. It won’t last forever, so live and enjoy and eat and make it fun.
Download our iPad app, Parent & Child PLUS, for two of John Besh's favorite recipes for weeknight dinners, Asian Chicken Salad and Sloppy Joe Sliders.
Megan Hess is the digital editor for Parent & Child.
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Photo: Andrews McMeel Publishing