My mom told me that in the years following the Great Depression, her school served red beans and rice one day, white beans and rice the next and lima beans and rice the next. Then the same menu started over. She lived to be 84, apparently no worse for her early diet.
Beans and rice together make a complete protein equivalent to that in meat. Without meat, they provide a powerhouse of nutrition for vegetarians and were an excellent choice for Depression-era school children when the price of meat was prohibitive. With meat, beans and rice are just as good for you but carry the extra load of fat. My strategy is using lean smoked ham, which makes them taste almost as good as a fatty ham bone does.
The other ace in the hole is that beans and rice are cheap. You can cook up a pound of beans and cup of rice and feed a family of four for just a few dollars. Better yet, cook two pounds and have another whole meal to go in the freezer.
The controversial menus at schools today offer choices including pizza and hamburgers, and many parents are troubled that their children don’t eat properly. About the only hope parents have is to make sure their children are getting good nutrition at home to offset the fried foods and sweets they get everywhere else. One birthday party alone means ice cream, cake, chips and sometimes candy and cookies. And my grandson often goes to two parties each Saturday.
So what might a parent do besides serving beans and rice once a week?
Sometimes I think we could borrow a few more ideas from the past, before high-fat snacks in a bag became the norm.
One of my friends says her favorite after-school snack was a hot baked sweet potato with plenty of butter. Change that to a little butter. Two of my favorites were egg salad and pimento cheese sandwiches, which I usually took to school for lunch with pickles on the side. Drop in a granola bar for a lunch-box snack.
Breakfast can be a rushed affair – getting kids off to school, parents to work and everybody including the pets, fed. Some of the tips I’ve learned are buying whole-grain cereal without sugar and bread with whole-wheat flour as the first listed ingredient. (There are breads with grains and nuts in their names that are no better for you than white bread. On the label, the main ingredient is the key.) To make breakfast more interesting, assorted fruit such as grapes and a few slices of whatever is in season will kick it up a notch. Plain instant oatmeal with dried fruit or nuts is an easy choice. And most kids love containers of yogurt flavored with fruit. If cooking, eggs and pancakes from a mix are about as quick as anything. Just add a handful of blueberries to the pancakes. It’s hard to beat the nutritional value of blueberries.
You’ve heard of a chicken in every pot. One of the greatest advances of the 21st century is a rotisseried chicken in every grocery store. They’re a little more expensive than roasting your own but finding your favorite place to buy them and splurging once a week can save time getting dinner on the table and sometimes provide leftovers for sandwiches the next day. I wonder if Herbert Hoover and Huey Long would be surprised that women who once manned the kitchen now come home after a full day at work, plus errands, assorted lessons and sports events?
Boxed mixes and side dishes are often high in sodium; takeout entrées can be loaded in fat; while simple, fresh ingredients are a staple for chefs. Using fresh ingredients can be just as quick and easy while replacing expensive ready-made products filled with preservatives. Searing meat, steaming rice, baking potatoes and stir-frying vegetables all fall in the category of quick and fresh. A head of broccoli or cauliflower can be steamed in minutes and doctored up with a little butter and Parmesan cheese. A bag of fresh spinach will cook in seconds with a splash of olive oil and a sprinkle each of salt and garlic powder.
I don’t offer a guarantee on this but I must tell you: My daughter’s grades went up when I started squeezing fresh orange juice for breakfast. I swear. But I understand if this goes a little too far. I don’t have scientific proof anyway.
And here’s my last advice to all of those working parents concerned about what their children eat. Make a list and shop in advance. If the food is handy, you’ll serve it. If it means an extra trip to the store, you won’t. Then the fast-food alternative becomes too seductive and it’s back to chicken nuggets or fried shrimp, pepperoni or extra cheese, double or triple burgers. You know the drill.
WHITE BEANS AND RICE
1 pound dried white beans
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1/2 pound lean smoked ham chunks
Water to cover beans, 3 to 4 cups
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons whole Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 cups water
1 1/2 cup rice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Rinse and sort beans. Soak overnight or for 6 hours.
In oil, sauté onion, bell pepper and celery until soft. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add ham and water to cover. Add bay leaves, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer over low heat until beans are done, about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. If beans become dry, add water. For creamier beans, smash some of the cooked beans on the side of the pot with the spoon. Add parsley when beans are done.
Meanwhile, bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add rice and salt. Cover and turn heat to very low and cook rice until there’s no water in the bottom of the pot, about 20 to 30 minutes. Do not stir while cooking. Part the rice with a knife to check for water. Rice is done when water is absorbed.
Serve beans over rice. Serves 4 to 6.
Possible add-ons: smoked sausage sautéed in a skillet and hot sauce served at the table.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into strips
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1/2 can sliced water chestnuts or 1/2 can
baby corn or both
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut chicken into strips. Heat oil to hot in large, heavy skillet and sauté chicken strips, about 3 minutes. Add onions and peppers and sauté for about 2 minutes, stirring. Add water chestnuts or corn.
Mix cornstarch and water until cornstarch is dissolved. Add to skillet, reduce heat and stir until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add soy sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve over rice. (See above recipe for cooking rice.) Serves 4.
1 10-ounce package sharp cheddar cheese
1 2-ounce jar pimentos, drained
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Grate cheese in a food processor. Add pimento strips and process for a few seconds, leaving chunks of pimento in mixture. Stir in mayonnaise until desired consistency is reached. Makes enough for 6 to 8 sandwiches.