Using the Mediterranean Diet to Improve Family Health
The Mediterranean diet has been named “Best Diet Overall” and is shown to prevent diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and certain cancers, as well as increase longevity. These facts may be enough to convince parents to adopt the Mediterranean-style eating pattern. But what about their kids? Don’t worry, says Amy Riolo, American Diabetes Association author of The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, 2nd Edition: A Flavorful, Heart-Healthy Approach to Cooking. Embracing the Mediterranean diet as a family—finicky eaters included—is easier than it sounds. “With its emphasis on naturally nutritious and flavorful real food ingredients, your kids will enjoy and even crave this healthier way of eating.”
The Mediterranean eating pattern centers around seasonal produce, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy, and small amounts of meat and sweets. On top of that, it incorporates the lifestyle of the region, which includes enjoying shared meals with family and friends, and getting lots of exercise and physical activity.
Riolo offers the following advice for introducing more Mediterranean-inspired foods to your children and guiding them toward a lifetime of lasting wellness:
• Eat mostly home-cooked food. “In the United States, modern research confirms that children perform better in school and adults are happier and healthier when they eat more healthy, homemade foods and share them with loved ones,” says Riolo. “To raise health-conscious kids and ensure that they develop good eating habits, commit to eating home-cooked meals the majority of the time. Besides improving your health and maintaining social distancing, it will also be more economical.
• Eat as a family. Mealtime should be a family event. Don’t allow your children to grab a plate and head upstairs to eat in front of their computers or the television (and don’t do this yourself). Instead, sit down together and enjoy each other’s company while you dine. Encourage your children to talk about their day at school and share how your day has been.
• If it is impossible to share dinner time because of work schedules, aim for other “communal” meals in your household—whether it be breakfast, weekend meals, or even healthful, later-in-the-evening snacks. The bonding time is every bit as important as the meal. The whole family can’t be together? No problem…even eating with just one other person regularly has significant health benefits.
• Offer healthy Mediterranean-inspired snacks. Skip packaged and unhealthy snacks that are full of salt, fat, and sugar, and offer your children fresh and whole food options instead. Sliced fruit and nuts make a great after-school snack. Other snack ideas include: hummus spread on cucumber slices, bite-size frittatas, or raw carrots dipped in marinara sauce.
• Make vegetables a mealtime staple. Children who learn to eat their veggies from an early age will grow to enjoy them throughout life. Enjoy plant-based meals often, and if a main course includes fish, or meat, dress it up with extra veggies. For example, add cherry tomatoes, zucchini cubes, and peppers to lamb kabobs. Or add eggplant and wilted spinach to your grilled chicken dish. If you’re roasting a salmon filet, add some potatoes, onions, and fresh asparagus to the pan as well. And don’t forget to supplement most meals with a fresh green salad.
• Grow some food. “Plant some seeds with your young children and watch them grow into vibrant veggies,” says Riolo. If you live in a condo or apartment grow your veggies hydroponically indoors. “This teaches your kids about where food comes from, and they will love eating something they have grown themselves. Tomato plants are a great choice, and so are lettuce, green beans, bell peppers, and cucumbers. Or you can start a windowsill herb garden full of mint, basil, parsley, and cilantro.”
• Dress up pasta (a kid favorite!) with healthy ingredients. Pasta is universally loved by children, and it’s a great option for a weeknight dinner. Just remember to make it healthy with fresh Mediterranean ingredients. Start with whole-grain penne, add plenty of fresh veggies, and a splash of extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle a little fresh parmesan cheese on top. You and your kids will love the sophisticated yet simple flavors.
• Introduce fish in kid-friendly ways. As a staple protein of the Mediterranean diet, it is recommended that people eat fish two to three times a week. Introduce small portions of mild fish such as grouper or cod to help them acclimate to new flavors and textures. You can also serve up fish in kid-friendly ways by making homemade “fish sticks” or croquettes. Top them with a tasty salsa or offer a dipping sauce, and soon your child will be a lifelong seafood fan.
• Enjoy “theme” meals. One night a week, pick a theme, such as a favorite vacation spot, a place your children are studying in school, or a place you would like to visit. Prepare a favorite dish associated with that theme, and follow up with an activity that ties in with the theme. You might serve a hearty minestrone on “Italy” night, or enjoy homemade whole wheat French bread during a French-themed dinner, or explore Spanish cuisine with a fragrant and delicious seafood paella.
• Get your kids involved in the cooking process. “From an early age, get your kids involved in the kitchen with age-appropriate tasks,” says Riolo. “Toddlers can ‘help’ you mix ingredients together in a bowl; school-aged children can select recipes, help you shop for groceries, and prep and slice veggies and other ingredients (while supervised). And older teens can learn basic cooking techniques and help you prepare meals.”
• Embrace simple desserts. Treat your kids to an occasional sweet treat, but don’t make it an everyday thing, says Riolo. When you do offer your children dessert, make sure it’s made with healthful ingredients. Desserts in the Mediterranean region tend to be lightly sweetened and are often fruit-based. Try Greek yogurt lightly sweetened with fruit slices, a green smoothie, or a summer fruit salad.
“The Mediterranean diet sets kids up for a lifetime of good health,” concludes Riolo. “When you offer them plenty of fresh and delicious choices, they will adopt healthy eating habits that they can carry into adulthood.”
Penne with Eggplant-Tomato Sauce (Penne alla Norma)
Excerpted from The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, 2nd Edition: A Flavorful, Heart-Healthy Approach to Cooking
Serves: 8 | Serving Size: 1 cup | Prep Time: 5 minutes | Cook Time: 40 minutes
This is a traditional first course offered in trattorias and homes throughout Italy. Norma was the name of an opera by Bellini that was popular when poet, writer, and scholar Nino Martoglio was so impressed by the dish that he declared it a masterpiece, like the opera. This dish is so loved that other noteworthy acts are now referred to as “alla Norma,” meaning “successful” or “grandiose,” in some parts of Sicily. This is one of my family’s favorite dishes.
2 large eggplants (2 lb total)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 box or bottle (26 oz) no-salt-added strained tomatoes or tomato purée
Pinch crushed red pepper
6 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
1/4 tsp unrefined sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 lb dried whole-wheat penne rigate, or gluten-free pasta
1/2 cup pecorino Romano cheese
Preheat broiler. Using a sharp knife, slice eggplant into 1/4-inch slices, and place on a baking sheet. Brush the eggplant with 2 Tbsp olive oil, then broil for 5–7 minutes per side until they are dark gold and cooked through. Set aside to cool. (This step can be done a day in advance.)
Heat remaining olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until it begins to release its aroma, but do not allow garlic to turn color.
Pour in tomatoes and stir. Add crushed red pepper, basil, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes.
When eggplant is cool enough to handle, stack three slices together, and chop into dime-size pieces. Repeat until all eggplant is chopped.
While sauce is still cooking, bring a gallon of water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook until al dente.
After sauce has cooked for 20 minutes, turn off heat, remove lid, and add eggplant pieces and cheese. Stir well. Cover and simmer sauce over medium heat until pasta is done cooking (10–12 minutes).
Drain pasta. Toss in sauce to coat. Serve hot garnished with chiffonade of basil (if desired).
2 Starch, 3 Nonstarchy Vegetable, 1½ Fat
Calories from Fat 90
Total Fat 10.0 g
Saturated Fat 2.1 g
Trans Fat 0.0 g
Cholesterol 5 mg
Sodium 150 mg
Potassium 440 mg
Total Carbohydrate 45 g
Dietary Fiber 9 g
Sugars 6 g
Protein 10 g
Phosphorus 215 mg
Healthy Living Tradition
Learning to make homemade tomato sauces and incorporating fresh vegetables will transform your meals into authentic, healthful Italian experiences.