Down-Home Dinner Strategies from Chef and Mom Kelsey Barnard Clark
As a mom of two young kids and a working chef, Kelsey Barnard Clark is all too familiar with the challenges associated with getting dinner on the table on weeknights. "I have a family of four, and I think the biggest difficulty with any family that has young kids or kids of various ages is pleasing the masses without having to make four different specialty meals," she says. For weeknight meals, Clark leans on crowd-pleasing dishes that can be amped up with add-ins to customize the flavor to suit each family members' taste. "I really try to be as realistic as I can with feeding these kids," she says. "If we're eating something spicy, then I'll keep it mild so that my nine-month-old and my four-year-old can eat it. Then we can add things to it for us."
Clark is the chef and proprietor of KBC in Dothan, Alabama. She works days and typically cooks dinner at around 2 p.m. "I pick up my oldest at three and my youngest around then, sometimes earlier, and for me it's always easier to get dinner started before they're home," she says. "That way, when they are home I can be attentive and present." A slow cooker is another solution to getting the bulk of dinner prep out of the way earlier in the day.
How She Gets Ahead
Clark is all about meal prepping, whether that's setting a slow cooker in the morning or cooking staples on Sundays to be reheated during the week. "No one likes to cook when they feel like the pressure's on," Clark says. "My biggest tip is to do whatever you can to save yourself time." One of her go-to recipes comes from her new book, Southern Grit: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Cook ($29.95, barnesandnoble.com). It's a whole roasted chicken with vegetables flavored by the pan drippings.
"It's probably my favorite dish, period," she says. On Sundays, Clark often cooks multiple roast chickens, and during the week she'll use it to make chicken salad for sandwiches and top salads with pieces of chicken. For dinner, she'll make chicken Parmesan (using panko breadcrumbs and tomatoes from her garden), add the chicken to pasta dishes, simmer it in a curry sauce and serve it over rice, and more.
Turn Up the Heat
To save time when cooking proteins on weeknights, Clark recommends turning up your oven. "I literally never turn my oven below 400 degrees, unless I'm braising something," she says. Clark also teaches virtual cooking classes and tells home cooks to not be afraid of turning their ovens above 400 degrees or using the broil function. She cooks fish in the oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes all the time, and it achieves a similar effect as searing it on the stovetop without the mess or smell. Plus, there's no skill required to do it.
As for pantry and freezer staples, Clark's favorites include jarred tomato sauce (for a semi-homemade pasta sauce), frozen peas (for a vegetable side that's ready in a snap), frozen lima beans (for beans and rice), and frozen fish and shrimp (which can be thawed in minutes). Bouillon cubes are another pantry item that add a lot of flavor without having to simmer something for an hour or more.
If you didn't plan out what you're eating for dinner on a particular night, don't stress. Figure out what your go-to meal is and have those (ideally non-perishable or frozen) ingredients on hand at all times. "Don't try to pull out all the stops when you're in a hurry and stressed out," Clark says. "Just go to the basics. Master a few great dishes and a few great sauces, and that's how you mix it up."
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