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Healthy Family Eating—Mediterranean Style

By Bob Barnett

Mediterranean Family Food“What’s wonderful about the healthy traditional Mediterranean diet for American families is how familiar it is,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, the Boston-based food issues think tank that, along with Harvard School of Public Health, brought the Mediterranean diet to public attention 20 years ago. “It’s not an unusual way of eating. It’s just really focusing on more fruits, vegetables, and beans.”

Read on for fun ways to start eating Mediterranean-style as a family—including recipes.

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Re-discovering the Mediterranean Diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet was discovered by legendary public health researcher Ancel Keys, Ph.D, one of the first investigators to establish a relationship between diet and heart health – in the 1960s. He loved the Mediterranean way of life so much that he took his whole family to Pioppi, Italy, south of Naples, for six months each year.

What he found was that many of the countries that border the Mediterranean sea have a extraordinarily healthy and delicious dietary pattern that’s low in beef and dairy foods, yet rich in grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. In many places seafood is served daily. Olive oil is the primary source of fat, rather than butter or cream. Adults often drink wine with meals, and even children are often given small amounts of watered-down wine with meals. There’s chicken and goat and lamb, but not huge amounts. There are modest amounts of dairy foods, mostly as yogurt and cheese, but not big glasses of milk at every meal. Red meat is rare. Processed foods were very rare and expensive before 1960, when the diet was originally studied in Italy, Greece, Croatia and Serbia. Dessert is often fruit, or, in Greece for example, nuts and honey. Later studies have found that similar traditional dietary patterns can be found in Spain, Portugal, southern France, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Turkey, and other Mediterranean countries.

The Mediterranean diet has been in the news recently because a major clinical trial published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that it can lower the rate of cardiovascular disease by 30% compared to a standard low-fat diet. But it’s also a family-friendly way to eat. And it’s good for kids. It can have healthy fat from olive oil and nuts and foods like avocadoes but that doesn’t mean it leads to obesity. Studies show that kids who adhere to a traditional Mediterranean diet are less likely to be obese or overweight – and regardless of their weight, their arteries are healthier. Kids who eat this way may also be less likely to get asthma, other studies find.

Here are some ways to bring it into your family life.

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Take a Mediterranean Trip Without Leaving Home
“It’s fun to plan your meals around a trip to Mediterranean countries,” says Baer-Sinnott. Once a week, pick a new country, and make a dish from that land. “Think about what you can make with your kids. Even simple things like a can of chickpeas – make a salad with a nice fruity olive oil and lemon juice and some herbs. You can go to Greece by making a shish kabob with rice pilaf, and a Greek salad with feta cheese and tomatoes and cucumbers and olives. In Greece, they don’t even use lettuce. A Spanish Paella is a bit complicated, but Spanish rice is easy – just mix tomatoes and rice together. Dunn Gifford, the founder of Oldways, often made this for his kids.”

It’s not always changing habits, but the Mediterranean diet is pretty flexible. It’s not restrictive. If you like meat, use hamburger in a mixed dish, or try a small amount of sausage with pasta and greens. Fond of mac and cheese? “Instead of the orange stuff in a box, try a healthy pasta meal, with a small piece of grated pecorino cheese, and a few veggies,” suggests Baer-Sinnott.

The more you can plan Mediterranean family meals, she says, the easier it will be to change other habits. “There’s very little snacking, in part because you are full from a really nice meal. When lunch is a homemade minestrone soup with whole grain bread, you’re more satisfied and it will stay with you longer. Highly refined foods make you hungrier.”

It takes a little work, but it’s worth it, she says. By making healthy family meals, she says, “You’re teaching your kids that food and healthy eating is just as important as homework and success. A little planning helps, as does having a great pantry. It’s not about being perfect, but making a commitment to have dinner together two or three times a week, and having healthy snacks.”

To make it easier, Oldways has many resources on its site. It has also published a mini-cookbook with recipes and diet plans for a month of menus, available for $10. The folks at Oldways have graciously shared these two recipes from that cookbook:

Pasta with Avocado Sauce       Serves 6

Use farfalle or any other kind of whole-wheat pasta with this delicious, creamy sauce.

1 pound whole-wheat farfalle
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
1 small ripe tomato or 4-5 cherry tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (optional)
Salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. While the pasta is cooking, combine the garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the avocados, tomato, and basil and pro¬cess until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Drain the pasta and serve topped with the sauce. Garnish with a bit of Parmesan cheese.

Bean Dip    Makes 2 cups

Turn to this protein-rich mixture as a snack with raw veggies, or use in place of mayonnaise in sandwiches and wraps. It will keep for a week, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, sliced
1 (15-ounce) can black or pinto beans, garbanzos, or lentils
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes, until they are very soft but not brown. Transfer the onions to a food processor along with the beans and walnuts. Blend for several minutes until smooth.

Recipes from Oldways 4-Week Mediterranean Diet Menu Plan; used with permission

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Bob Barnett, who edits the KnowMoreTV sections on Family and on Men, is a health journalist. He met Ancel Keys 20 years ago, and stayed for supper.

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