Paula Deen’s sons, Bobby and Jamie, have stood by their mom through a lot—the ups and downs of transforming a small sandwich business into a massive empire, and her 2012 Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. And now they’re joining her on Novo Nordisk’s Diabetes In a New Light campaign, creating a series of diabetes-friendly recipes.
Having grown up around delicious food—and now following in their mama’s footsteps by making their living in the kitchen—the Deen boys feel like they have a unique message to share.
“We want to let people know that being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes doesn’t have to erase the joy you get from food or cooking from your life,” says Bobby, whose new cookbook is called From Mama’s Table to Mine: Everybody’s Favorite Comfort Foods at 350 Calories or Less. “And you know what? The way that people with diabetes eat is the way we should all be eating.”
Spry talked to Bobby and Jamie about the Southern vice that Paula finally gave up for good, their favorite healthy substitution and the secret to getting kids to try any food—even sushi.
Spry: How have you supported your mom through the diagnosis and management of her diabetes?
Jamie: We’ve always stuck with Mom, through some rough times in business, and anything she feels like is worth doing, we’re right there with her 100 percent. And of course when it comes to her health, for Bobby and me to see her looking as good as she ever has and feeling better than she has in the last 20 to 25 years, it’s a tremendous positive.
Spry: Has she asked your advice about lightening up dishes?
Bobby: She hasn’t really asked—our mother is a very, very good cook, and she knows what to do to food to change its caloric content. She’s not a woman of many vices, but she did give up sweet tea, which is a big deal for a Southern woman! She’s drinking a lot more fresh water. She’s not at the gym bench-pressing, but she has embraced exercise like walking. So, she knows the steps to take and she definitely knows what to do with the food.
Spry: Has this changed the way your family approaches big holidays or get-togethers?
Jamie: I think Mom has said—and we feel the same way—that we try to do things in moderation. At a holiday meal, that’s when we’re going to do more of the traditional family recipes, so those days haven’t changed that much. But you’re talking about three days out of the year. The family gathering that we had last week, the first week of March, is different. Our Tuesday night dinner might have been fried chicken when now it’s grilled chicken, and fresh vegetables from the garden.
I have two small kids who are coming onto table food, so it’s been a family transition really. Mom knows how important it is that the boys eat better, and of course she wants to see her grandbabies as much as she can. So she knows if there’s good, healthy food we’ll have dinner over there with her once or twice a week.
Spry: That has to be hard, too, because as a grandparent you want to spoil and you want to be the one who’s giving them the good stuff.
Jamie: I got more toys than Toys-R-Us. Trust me, she spoils!
Spry: That’s true; there’s plenty of ways to spoil that don’t involve sugar! So, it sounds like your mom has made a lot of these decisions to make these health changes on her own, but that’s not always the case. Do you have any advice for readers who want their parents to eat healthier? It can be such a sensitive thing to say, “Dad, you shouldn’t be eating steak every night.”
Jamie: That’s a challenge—I can’t tell Mom to change the TV channel, much less to change anything about her diet! (laughs) She’s self-motivated and she’s always been, and stubborn in all the right places. But I think if you have a parent you want to eat better, you should maybe prepare a meal for them and let them enjoy it. Then you can say, “Look, this is really a healthy, good dinner for you,” and maybe drop off a recipe card.
Bobby: I think it would serve everyone better to eat a little bit closer to the earth, eat as many colors as you can—I mean it’s all the things you heard as kids. Fruits and vegetables are your friends. It’s also important to know is what an actual serving size is. If you hold out the palm of your hand and sort of cup it, well, you’re looking at a serving right there. Having said that though, Jamie’s right. People are going to do what they want to do. You can make suggestions but I’ve tried to just be more of an example without wagging my finger in anybody’s face. Just be supportive.
Spry: Tell me about some of your favorite ways to lighten up recipes. What are some of the substitutions that are stand-bys for you now?
Bobby: I am full-throttle into Greek yogurt, I think it’s a great way to cut sour cream or mayonnaise—or replace it all together. Greek yogurt is not only far lighter, it has probiotics in it that aid in digestion, so it’s just really good for you. I like the idea of a low-sodium chicken stock—I make lots of gumbos and soups and things like that. I have started inspecting recipes and looking at them and finding if something calls for a stick of butter or two cups of sugar, you can dial it way back. If you can replace bad things with something that’s better for you, that’s a no-brainer. But it can be as simple as using canola oil as opposed to vegetable oil, or using whole wheat bread, thin sliced, over white bread. Or you can even take the bread a step further and get the 7-grain or the 12-grain bread. What we’re encouraging people to do is to get back into the kitchen together and cook rather than getting your food passed through a drive-thru window.
Spry: Yes, but I think that home cooking can be really intimidating to people.
Bobby: It can be. And I don’t want it to be a lost art. I’m 42 years old and I’m really happy that my mother taught me how to cook and clean up after myself. And she taught me from an early age that there are no rules. She encouraged me to go exactly by the recipe the first time I did something but anytime after that I can do what I want—which has brought me to where I am today, recreating Southern favorites in a completely different way.
Spry: Are there some recipes, maybe passed down in your family, that you don’t touch, or do you think anything can be changed?
Jamie: I love my grandmother’s green bean recipe and I want to share that with my boys, but I don’t prepare it the same way. I don’t soak them in an extraordinary amount of fat and lard for hours when I can blanch them in a sauté pan with roasted almonds and a little bit of olive oil really quickly. And we talk about my grandmother, and the beans that she used to make, and how Bobby and I used to go out and pick the beans and the red potatoes. So you can keep the integrity of the dish and the memories and make it more beneficial for yourself and your family.
Spry: What do you guys think about snacking as part of a healthy eating plan?
Bobby: I like any kind of nut—almonds, walnuts, pecans. Fruits and vegetables with nice light dips. Popcorn is a very good snack if it’s not like the movie variety you know, that’s loaded with tons of butter and stuff. I love the movie variety! My brother does something with his son Jack called Ants on a Branch? No, Ants on a Log—where you spread peanut butter on a celery stalk and put raisins on it.
Spry: Are your boys good eaters, Jamie?
Jamie: Yes! Jack loves fish; that’s his favorite meat, baked fish. They both eat their vegetables really well. Jack loves broccoli. They eat different types of sushi. We’ve exposed them to a lot of different things. I tell people I feel like that’s where our success has come from, because you’ve got to show them different textures and flavors before they’re old enough to get an opinion and decide that they don’t want anything but grilled cheese. And you can say, “No, you like this,” and they’ll try it. There’s a song on Yo Gabba Gabba that says ‘Try it, you might like it,’ so we’ve sung that a million times. They like almonds, pistachios, Chex cereal and pretzel sticks. One of Matthew’s favorite things to have for lunch is hummus. He has hummus and pretzel sticks, and we cut him cheese off a block, and yogurt, and that’s his lunch. Or we’ll do like an apple chicken sausage without the casing. So that’s a really good lunch for a 21 month old. It’s not grilled cheese!