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OK, so you're not sharing a nice Chianti with your tots (that would be wrong), you're not exactly in Italy and it's still too cold to dine alfresco. But you can certainly eat like the Italians do – and the French, and the Spanish and the Greeks. Recent research out of Spain and published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms the long-held belief among scientists that following the Mediterranean diet – which focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, fish and nuts, olive oil instead of butter or margarine and, yes, red wine – reduces the risk of major health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, Parkinson's disease and even Alzheimer's disease.
So how can you adapt this healthy diet for the whole family? "Include lean proteins, legumes, nuts and seeds in your meal plan," says Diana Steele, registered dietician, author and owner of Eating for Energy, a Vancouver-based nutrition consulting company. "We obviously don't need to smother our food in olive oil and we certainly aren't going to give our children red wine, but any red juice – and particularly Concord grape juice – is rich in phenolic compounds, as are all sorts of fruits and vegetables."
Without getting too technical, phenolic compounds are a class of chemicals found in plant foods (and wine) that are loaded with antioxidants and all kinds of other good stuff – and the Mediterranean diet is chock-full of them. The trick to getting them into your kids, says Steele, is variety and convenience.
"We often get in a rut of sticking to the same fruits and vegetables that we know they like, but then they get bored of those," explains Steele. "So I suggest offering one new fruit or vegetable during the week, or each day, if you want to be more aggressive with it. Research shows children, especially picky eaters, often need 21 exposures to a new food before they'll try it."
Steele says changing up the presentation helps, too. "If they didn't want to eat the kiwi when it was cut in half with a spoon, try peeling the skin, cutting it into pieces and putting it in a fruit salad with a bit of yogurt on top. If your child won't touch squash, make pumpkin muffins. If he won't eat cooked carrots, offer him raw [ones] with hummus or tzatziki dip. If he doesn't like broccoli, purée it into a soup. Blend lentils into tomato sauce."
It's just as important to make the right kinds of foods convenient to eat. "When children are hungry, especially when they're age nine or 10, they'll help themselves. So when they open the fridge, do they see a bowl of grapes or are all of your fruits and vegetables hiding away in the crisper?" asks Steele. "If not, they'll go for the most convenient thing, which could be the chocolate-covered granola bars in the cupboard. You can make healthy foods into convenience foods by having them washed and cut up and easily available in the fridge or on the counter in a fruit bowl."
Sandy Earle, a mother of three from New Westminster, B.C., says her family always ate fairly healthily, with the exception of the occasional high-fat cheese, canned soup and potato chips. Since adopting the Mediterranean diet, she's banished those foods from her kitchen.
"By not having them in the house we don't even miss them," she says. "And I have received no resistance from any family members. In fact, my son remarked the other day that we're eating better now than we ever have. I'm also lucky that everyone is fairly open to trying new things and they're not too picky!"
Earle, who has lost over 15 pounds and increased her energy levels since eating the Mediterranean way, says she now spends more time shopping at her local fruit-and-veggie store and less at the grocery store – just like an Italian. She also began thinking ahead.
"I plan out lunch while making dinner the evening before. Sometimes I make soup on the weekend or in the evening and then it's in the fridge (or freezer) for everyone to grab for lunch. I'm actually surprised at how little time this takes. I think people use the excuse that they don't have any time when, with a little thought and organization, you can actually save yourself some time."
Luckily for Earle, her family "is pretty good about pitching in" when it comes to meal prep, she says. And that's vital in changing – and keeping – kids interested in healthier eating.
"Get them involved by taking them grocery shopping and having them pick out the fruits and vegetables," says Steele. "Teach them how to look for apples that don't have bruises. At suppertime, bring a chair over to the kitchen sink and have them peel the carrots with you – and chop them, even. Show them how to use the knife properly. Get the kids to help you in the garden – or start a community garden if you don't have your own – planting and harvesting the fruits and vegetables. Then have them help you prepare a meal with what they've grown. They can use the veggies to make funny faces on their homemade pizzas or the fruit for kebabs that they can dip into yogurt. Make food fun!"
By being actively involved and invested in what they put in their mouths, kids will make better choices now and throughout their lives, even if they're not Italian. And that's something you can raise a glass to – yours filled with red wine, the kids' filled with grape juice. To your health!