We spoke with TV and movie star James Van Der Beek about how he handles picky eaters, how he gets food on the table fast for his big family, and his new Thanksgiving charity initiative.
James Van Der Beek & Family (Photo provided by Libby's Vegetables)
Credit: Libby's Vegetables

James Van Der Beek wants you to share your green bean casserole for a good cause this Thanksgiving. When you post a photo of your casserole with the hashtag #LibbysGivesThanks, Libby's Vegetables will donate a can of farm-fresh vegetables (up to 500,000 cans) to Meals on Wheels in support of their mission to improve the health and quality of life of seniors. We talked to Van Der Beek about why this cause is so important to him and more, like the food he never gets tired of and his favorite way to cook any meat.

EatingWell: What inspired your partnership with Libby's Vegetables? 

James Van Der Beek: I've long appreciated Libby's for their preservative-free canned vegetables that you can get at just about any grocery store, like the ones that I grew up shopping in. And they're rewarding people for sharing their green bean casseroles, too. For me—I just started cooking a lot more since moving to Texas—the casserole has become a very, very real, very appreciated thing. 

The organization that they're partnering with, Meals on Wheels, is an organization I remember my grandfather volunteering for when I was a kid and [I also remember] the amount of pride that it brought him to deliver a nutritious meal to other seniors, along with a really meaningful social visit. It was something that really impacted me. 

EatingWell: You and your wife Kimberly have six children, and you said you've been cooking a lot more. Who taught you how to cook?  

Van Der Beek: I didn't cook at all before I met my wife, Kimberly. And when I met her, I realized she was not going to mess around with somebody who didn't cook. So I was like, I better figure this out. I first started buying pre-made elements of meals at the grocery store and then combining those, and then eventually I found a couple footholds that I could start experimenting with because I was very intimidated by recipes and by all the measurements. Being dyslexic, that was another layer of like, oh man, am I gonna screw this up? So, [I cooked] pancakes, steak, and then I moved into some pastas—really simple stuff—and then I started exploring salmon and [other] fish a little bit. But, Marissa, who helps me and Kimberly with the kids and is a beautiful human being, made the green bean casserole—it's her recipe, actually—and she'll sometimes give me a lesson. Marissa cooks with the kids sometimes during the day and they love it. And then Kimberly and I will cook with the kids at night, if we can, if everyone cooperates. 

EatingWell: Are you dealing with picky eaters? You do a fair amount of traveling, so they must experience a lot of different types of foods.

Van Der Beek: They do. It's funny, we do it buffet-style with this many kids. About three kids ago, we stopped plating for each of the kids. We just put it on the table and we let them decide what they want, how much of it, and so it's kind of on them to not go hungry. It's how we survive. Some of them are pickier than others. But really, we're big on just having to try things. Just try, you don't have to eat all of it, but just try it. And if anybody is really picky, that's the one I'll single out to help make the next thing, because if a kid helps you make the dinner or make the meal, they're way more likely to try it and to give it a chance.

EatingWell: When you're traveling, what does a family meal look like? How do you make sure you and your family are eating healthfully? 

Van Der Beek: With the RV, obviously it's tricky. It's a lot of fun. Canned vegetables also can be a real savior, if you know what to do with them. And then every once in a while, a little treat. 

EatingWell: Aside from green bean casserole, what will your Thanksgiving look like this year?

Van Der Beek: We always kind of end up with a lot of people. We end up with some combination of friends and family. We also take in a lot of Thanksgiving "orphans," people who don't have family in town, and it just ends up being potluck style. We provide the turkey and everyone else provides the sides, and it ends up being a really, really joyous occasion. We've got a beautiful comfy table outside. So weather permitting, we'll do it there. There's usually a campfire, some guitars get pulled out afterward—it's a real community gathering.

EatingWell: How has having kids changed the way you cook or eat, or changed your relationship to food in general?

Van Der Beek: Food, to me, used to be just an emotional thing that was meant to satisfy me, and now we look at it as medicine, as building blocks for recovery and also for gathering. It's where you can really have focused time with your family and navigate everybody sharing without interrupting, and practice listening. At our house, we're still trying to get the hang of that.

EatingWell: What's a dish that you never get tired of? 

Van Der Beek: I have a real weakness for a good burger. If you tell me it's bison, then that's it, now I feel good about it. There's a burger chain here called Hopdoddy which is really good. They have some really creative, amazing burgers, and they serve regenerative bison.

EatingWell: What do you do in a pinch, when you need to get the six kids fed quickly? 

Van Der Beek: I'm pretty utilitarian when it comes to speed. If I realize dinner's on me, and Kim is with the baby, I'll sometimes go to pasta; I'll do a penne pasta. If I had made salmon earlier that week, I'll do a penne alla vodka sauce with some salmon. Also, I do have some frozen venison which I can defrost really quickly. And as much as I love cooking over a wood fire—that's my preferred way to make meat—I'll do it in a skillet. 

EatingWell: You recently moved from California to Texas. They're basically like two different countries; how has that changed the way you and your family eat?  

Van Der Beek: We live outside of the food delivery zone, so there is no Postmates happening here. It has really made me plan out meals. We've actually started a garden, which yielded a little bit. Literally today we had some zucchini, tomatoes and basil, almost a meal from the garden. There's been a connection to nature and the cycles of nature. In LA, I don't think it ever occurred to me that grapefruit might not be in season. But here, I recognize those things. So even just eating with the seasons [is a change] because we're so much more acutely aware of what season it is and the natural rhythms of the year. 

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