The Mediterranean diet has been named Best Diet Overall and is shown to prevent diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and certain cancers, and 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. Embracing the Mediterranean diet as a family—finicky eaters included—is easier than it sounds.
Switching kids over from typical processed ‘kid-friendly’ foods to a Mediterranean diet might seem challenging, but it’s absolutely doable. In my book, The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, 2nd Edition: A Flavorful, Heart-Healthy Approach to Cooking, I offer 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, fish and 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. Here are a few more tips 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. To raise health-conscious kids and ensure that they develop good eating habits, commit to eating meals at home the majority of the time. There’s nothing wrong with occasional restaurant meals, but they should be the exception instead of the rule.
Sit down together and 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 kids 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. If that’s still not possible, set up Skype or Facetime calls with kids to eat “together” when possible.
Offer 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 at an early age will grow to enjoy them throughout life. Enjoy plant-based meals often, and if a main course includes meat, fish, or poultry, 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 and pasta dish. If you’re roasting salmon, 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 your own veggies.
Plant some seeds with your young children and watch them grow into vibrant veggies. 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 green beans, bell peppers, and cucumbers. Or you can start a windowsill herb garden full of mint, basil, parsley, and cilantro.
Dress up pasta 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 themed 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 kids cooking.
From an early age, get your kids involved in the kitchen with age-appropriate tasks. 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. 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. When you offer them plenty of fresh and delicious choices, they will adopt healthy eating habits that they can carry into adulthood.
Amy Riolo is the author of The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, 2nd Edition: A Flavorful, Heart-Healthy Approach to Cooking (American Diabetes Association, May 2019, ISBN: 978-1-580-40702-1, $22.95). She is an award-winning, best-selling author, chef, television personality, and educator. Amy is a food historian, culinary anthropologist, and Mediterranean Diet advocate who makes frequent appearances on numerous television and radio programs both in the United States and abroad, including FOX TV, ABC, CBS, NBC, the Hallmark Channel, Nile TV, the Travel Channel, Martha Stewart Living Radio, and Abu Dhabi Television. For more information about Amy, please visit www.amyriolo.com.