Like many adult children, the older I get, the more time I spend reflecting on my parents' life and the many traditions they passed along to me and my siblings. Raised in Chicago, my parents were Italian-Americans who grew up with the same traditions that have been passed down in Italian families for generations. The Italian approach to life has been well-chronicled in bestsellers such as Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun, but we shouldn't overlook the valuable lessons the Italian approach to food can teach our children about healthy eating and living. In today's fast food world, I believe these traditions are more important than ever. Here are my five favorites:
1. The Mediterranean Diet is for kids too.
In February, a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that a Mediterranean Diet rich in fresh food including olive oil, fish, nuts, fruit, vegetables and meat can help prevent cancer and heart disease. These ingredients have been part of Mediterranean cultures for centuries. The Mediterranean Diet is not a diet at all really; it is a way of life. It is not about depriving oneself of pleasure, but rather indulging it. The key is to foster the love of these foods from an early age rather than trying to break bad habits further down the road. Living la dolce vita, or "the good life," is achievable for everyone. It is a life that focuses on good food, family, tradition and community.
To begin, two basic but life-changing changes can have a dramatic impact in your family. First, substitute olive oil for butter or other oils in cooking and eating. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my children dipping their bread in olive oil and garlic instead of using butter. Believe me, I'm not forcing them, it is delicious. Vegetable oil and margarine are artificial fats. Dump it. You don't need to ban butter for life, but if you can cut your consumption in half, you have a victory. Second, try to not eat processed food for one day each week and see how hard it has become to avoid it. A simple rule of thumb is don't eat anything baked or cooked if you don't know where it came from. Read your labels. The quick list of things to avoid -- fast food, processed lunch meats and cheeses, soda, most canned and frozen foods -- is obvious. Not convinced this is bad for you? Processed food is one of the leading causes of obesity in this country and offers little to no nutritional value. Get rid of it one day at a time, purge, say a prayer, do whatever you need to do to break the habit, but do it. When people say my child won't eat like that, it's just silly; they can't like something they've never been shown. Shop smarter, there are enough companies offering healthy snacks out there that there are alternatives. Five oranges at Wal Mart cost roughly the same as one large bag of Lay's Potato Chips.
2. Fruit and vegetables taste good.
I've seen the parenting articles telling me to hide vegetables in my children's food by grinding it up and disguising it. What does that teach a child? I can assure you, no Italian would even consider doing this. Seasonal fruit and vegetables can and should be served at every meal (including breakfast!). The most important way for them to learn to love food is through choice. We give our three boys options so they can see what they like and develop their own tastes. Prevents the "eat your broccoli or else" standoff. Italians grow up with antipasto plates with choices of fruit, cheese, meat and olives as their snack plate. No one is expected to eat everything, you pick and choose. Some kids are more adventurous than others, so use colors as a guide -- all white food bad, a variety of colors good. Clean and cut up fruit, carrots, celery and leave it out after school -- you don't need to make Oreos as an option. You don't need fruit sticks, fruit drops or fake fruit whatever. Just fruit. See if it disappears. Cookies are not snacks, they are treats -- keep them that way.
3. Stop offering custom menus for each meal.
My husband and I are from big families; we are each one of eight children (that's a whole other post), and I can assure you there was no such thing as adult food and kid's food. Honestly, it would have been laughable and impossible. We always ate the same food as our parents. My mother and father, both cooks, had their own signature dishes and even though we didn't always like the choice, we had to eat our dinner. My kids are normal; sometimes they don't like the look of our dinner, but they know they have to try it, even if we have to wait until the cows come home. I'm busy, I can't whip out new recipes every week, but I do try to introduce something new maybe once a month, or give them each a chance to pick their favorite meal for me to make on a weekend. Ask yourself if you are serving your child the same meal for dinner two to three nights a week. Where is the balance in that diet? We may have Italian heritage, but trust me, I feel the pull of American culture like anyone else. We can't have a home-cooked meal if I'm driving to four different activities, but we are talking about habits, not absolutes. Our goal is to eat healthy the majority of the time, not to never eat a French fry.
4. Ditch the kid's menu.
Stop restricting your family-night-out dinners to bad pizza parlors with video games. In Italy, you will see children welcomed warmly into any restaurant. They are allowed in fine restaurants and casual restaurants alike, they sit, play and socialize for hours. Why do we rush ourselves in and out of restaurants, order their meals early, living in fear that our children will cause a scene? the whole thing is stressful. The first step in our restaurant rehabilitation is to ditch that horrible kid's menu. Stop ordering mac and cheese, pasta with butter or chicken nuggets. Just do it. Enough with the pasta noodles bathed in butter at restaurants, this drives me nuts, and is not an Italian dish. Chicken nuggets? Yeah, not food. I don't care who makes them, they are ground up chicken parts. Yuck.
In Italy, a restaurant will adapt almost any dish for a child off the menu. "Can we have the spaghetti with Bolognese?" To this, you will hear "Perché no?" or "Why not?" It is my favorite Italian expression; it says why wouldn't we try to make you happy? This is like breathing for them. American restaurants will do this too. I am always asking for children's portions or half-portions of adult meals. Just like adults, a real menu gives children options. Variety encourages children to try new things, to love their food. Have you ever heard an Italian complain about eating their meal? Uh, no.
5. The slow food movement can have a positive impact on your family.
If you haven't heard about the slow food movement, it was started in Italy in 1986 by a group of Italians who were alarmed at the growing industrialization of our food and the connection between the plate and our planet. Although the meal is at the core of Italian life, even Italians were not immune to the shrinking of mealtime by an ever-busy population. The founders believed this was infringing on the very culture of Italy. The Slow Food movement can have a positive impact in all of our lives, regardless of heritage. In today's busy culture, I know that there is not enough time to have a three-hour meal daily, but I also know that it is possible to sit and eat our food together more often than not.
I know that if I cook with my children and invite them to measure, stir and help create even a simple recipe, then they are more apt to eat the food they help prepare. I know that we are a more cohesive unit if we make time to come together, share our day and eat together a few times a week. For our family, perhaps one of the best parts of dinner is the shared experience of eating a meal. In the U.S., Italian restaurants call it "family style." In Italy, it has no such name, because it is just the normal passing of delicious plates of food at the table and chattering about the day's events. In Italian, they say 'mangia bene,' or eat well. Eat well and the whole family can enjoy it and it doesn't need to come with a toy in a box.
Imagine asking your 16-year-old to prepare an entire meal for the family. Many Italian teenagers could rise to this challenge easily, but many American teens wouldn't know where to begin. This is because Italian children have been cooking, doing the dishes and hearing the story of their families alongside their mothers, fathers, grandparents and cousins the whole of their lives. Italians are famous for Sunday night dinners, but you don't need to be Italian to enjoy a long, relaxing weekend meal.
Even if you didn't grow up with healthy eating habits, it is not too late to give yourself and your children the gift of healthy eating and living. It will help make them independent (teaches them to take care of themselves), alert and informed (know where your food comes from, helps them to avoid processed sugar) and social (cooking is rarely quiet and invites discussion) in so many different ways.