10 Greek Eating Habits That Will Boost Your Health

Greens are your friend.

Besides the staple Greek salad on restaurant menus (which turns out is actually not the correct name for the feta- and kalamata olive-topped greens), Greek cuisine isn’t as widely-available as other ethnic cuisines. But Maria Benardis, health coach, chef, and author of Cooking and Eating Wisdom for Better Health, is trying to change all that. She’s going old school, using the recipes, foods, and guiding principles of ancient Greece to put healthy and delicious foods on the table. Benardis sums up her perspective on cooking by quoting Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine,” she says. “Everything on the table has an effect on your body.” Here are eight tips we should all be stealing from the chef — and the ancient Greeks who inspire her — that will help you prepare healthier meals, improve your relationship with food, and maybe even shed a few pounds.

1. Always start the meal with a salad

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“Salads are always served first on a Greek table,” says Benardis. In fact, Greeks traditionally love their salads so much that in ancient times, they were often served as dessert! “The aim of a salad is to stimulate the appetite before the main meal,” she says. Plus, you'll begin to fill up on veggies, which will prevent you from overeating the main entrée. And you won’t find any bottled dressings on Benardis's table — she makes her own with these wholesome ingredients: “Since ancient times, salad dressings still include a combination of olive oil, vinegar, herbs, lemon juice, salt, and honey,” she says.

Fun fact: That popular combo of olives, tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, and onions you’re whipping up? Although many refer to it as a Greek salad, the Greeks actually call it a kalamata or villager’s salad.

2. Make cooking an experience

All too often a packed schedule forces us to grab takeout on the way home, or to pick up the phone and order delivery. And while we won’t always be able to step away from our obligations to prepare and enjoy a home-cooked meal, making an effort to incorporate what Benardis refers to as “agapi” into our lives can help us de-stress and be more mindful about the food we're eating. “Agapi is a joyous, harmonious state of mind, free of chaos,” says Benardis. “In Greek culture, cooking is a spiritual experience that's highly celebrated and respected. Cooking connects us to ourselves, to other people, and to nature.” She encourages people to create a cheerful mood when cooking: “Dance, play music, sing ... let your inner child come out once in a while, and don’t take cooking too seriously.”

And that includes getting your head out of the cookbook and experimenting. “Pleasure and joy from cooking can be obtained when there is humor involved,” says Bernardis. “Allow your senses to do the cooking and decide how much of an ingredient you wish to use in a dish — don’t be governed by what recipes dictate the measurements to be.”

3. Disconnect during mealtime

After you spend time preparing a meal, you’ll want to give it your undivided attention. “It’s also important to practice love and agapi when eating,” says Benardis. “I believe that it’s disrespectful to answer phones and watch television when eating, particularly in the company of others. This interrupts the harmony, the flow of energy, and the time that’s needed to enjoy a meal that in the end nourishes and heals your body and soul.” Being mindful of the food you’re eating, and focusing on the meal in front of you, helps increase satiety and the enjoyment of mealtime.

4. Rely on herbs

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Take one look at her recipes and it’s clear that Benardis is a fan of herbs — one variety or another pops up in almost all of her dishes or is the star of the meal, like in this Fresh Herb Salad. “Herbs are a great way to boost the flavor of dishes without the added calories,” she says. “I add herbs to teas, stews, desserts, salads, Greek filo pies, soups, slow cooker vegetables — and meats, fish, and poultry that are about to be grilled or baked.” And while fresh, raw herbs are great, don’t be afraid to get creative with them. “I also submerge them in salt with some lemon zest and use the salt to flavor my dishes,” says Benardis. “Or I sometimes deep-fry them to add as garnish to a dish and use them to infuse my olive oils and herbed feta cheese.”

5. Serve greens with everything

“Leafy greens are essential in Greek cooking,” says Benardis. “I recall the many trips to the mountains with my grandmother during my childhood years living in Greece to gather various wild greens that we would toss in salads, add to stews, or simply boil and dress with olive oil and lemon juice.” In ancient Greece they were used for medicinal purposes, and to this day Greeks consume a high volume of wild greens, which are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, she says. Children are even taught to identify different types of wild greens, and it’s not unusual to see them playing the ‘horta hunting games’ during organized family excursions to gather them, says Benardis. Regardless of what you’re preparing, there’s room for leafy greens: Throw a handful in soups,smoothies, omelets, salads — you name it!

6. Use wholesome ingredients -- and know where they come from

Benardis shares a story about one of her favorite ingredients to incorporate into mousse: mastic. The resin comes from a tree that can only be grown in Greece, so when people try to grow it in other places, the tree dies, she explains. While most of us don’t have an exotic tree growing in our backyard, the moral of the story is to stick to ingredients that are in season and local to where you live. The first way I source my ingredients is to visit the local farmer’s markets, which sell a variety of seasonal fresh organic ingredients at lower prices than their retail counterparts,” says Benardis. She then supplements those organic ingredients with foods from grocery stores and local international food stores that sell imported Greek and European ingredients. Take a hint from Benardis’s recipe box and plan your meals around what’s in season in your area. Not only will youshave money off your grocery bill, but you’ll also be able to mix up your menu and try new ingredients.”

7. Keep it simple

Forget processed foods with a laundry list of ingredients. Benardis says that “each dish should be simple: made with a bit of oil, a pinch of salt, and cumin.” This back-to-the-basics approach will have positive effects on your grocery bill, health, and waistline. “In Greek cookery, ingredients are used moderately and simply, and they do not overpower the other ingredients,” she says. “The aim is to achieve harmony and balance so that each ingredient sings.”

8. Add a little cheese

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The rule of balance and simplicity applies to our favorite dairy product as well. You'll find many Greek dishes, like these Barley Stuffed Bell Peppers, finished off with a sprinkle of feta. A touch of cheese adds a hint of salty flavor that perfectly complements the fresh herbs and seasonal vegetables on your plate. Applying this trick to your own diet will allow you to feel like you’re indulging, which will make your meal more satisfying and may help prevent binges where you dive head first into a big bowl of mac and cheese or a pie of greasy pizza.

9. Wrap it up

“The ancient Greeks were obsessed with wrapping,” Benardis says. “They wrapped mashed foods, like meat, vegetables, and grains.” While this was the Greeks' solution to eating before forks and spoons, we can all use the trick to incorporate more greens into our meals. Benardis gives domaldes (a traditional Greek recipe for stuffed grape leaves) a modern twist by wrapping a quinoa and veggie mixture in kale leaves and serving with a Greek yogurt and cumin sauce (the herb was thought by ancient Greeks to be anti-cancerous, Benardis adds).

10. Enjoy dessert -- but make it from scratch

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“Plato believed food should have simple flavors and wrote that ‘even sweets should sing with their simplicity,'” says Benardis. That means no processed cakes, cookies, or ice cream with mile-long ingredients lists. Yes, there’s room for a sweet treat in a Greek diet, but they’re completely made from scratch. “In my household, dessert was a staple at the end of a meal. It took form as simple and fresh seasonal fruit, yogurt with honey, nuts and cinnamon, or something more complex, like baklava.” This mindset is a bit different from how many of us experience dessert: scarfing down a cookie or doughnut in a moment of weakness. Think like a Greek when it comes to sweets: Allow yourself to indulge, but only in treats you're making yourself. That means no cookie or doughnut trays at the office or oversized pieces of cake at your friend’s birthday party. Not only is this a no-brainer way to limit the amount of dessert you indulge in, but it will help you control binges that result from giving into a sweet craving with processed foods. Take the time to make your own homemade sweet treat, and sit down to savor your creation.

10 Greek Eating Habits That Will Boots Your Health was originally published on Everyday Health.

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