Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Mediterranean Diet –for Real

    My perception of the Mediterranean Diet was probably similar to that of most Americans: eating plenty of rice, lentils, red wine, hummus, diverse vegetables and small portions of fish and meat. That was the picture in my head until I took my third trip to both France and Israel—two Mediterranean nations—over the past two weeks. This time around, I sat back, and observed not only the French and Israelis, but my own family and how they ate when offered food.

    I suppose that I always "got" the food part. Many of the foods listed above are staples for me. And I've always tried to serve lentils, plenty of greens, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes—even those grown in our family garden—to my kids and husband. But there's more to eating Mediterranean style than just tossing some lentils on a salad or having a glass of Merlot with dinner.

    The part that most Americans leave out--not because we reject it, but simply because it's not really part of American mainstream food culture--is the slow eating, a preference for seasonal food, and pure enjoyment of meals with family and friends. We also leave out the distinctly different portioning of the various food groups. Mediterranean plates are heaping with plant-based grains, fruits, and vegetables, and offer meat in proportions that seem like a "side dish" to most Americans.

    Sure, France and Israel, in many respects, are worlds apart culturally. But they share a number of foodways. First, food is taken seriously in these countries. It's not something you grab and snack on as you run down the street to your office. It's something to which you devote time to savor and to really taste. (When you actually taste your food, you'd be surprised at the flavors you can detect.)

Second, the meal is about more than sustenance. It's about celebration and enjoyment. In France, I sat down with my husband and two small kids to have a several course meal at a "nothing fancy" brasserie near our Montparnasse hotel. We enjoyed cantaloupe soup (delicious), stuffed mushrooms (also great), a simple salad, and then steak with pepper sauce and French fries. We had a half-bottle of red wine between us adults, and enjoyed every minute of it. We people-watched, held hands and caught up with each other and watched the passers-by. The kids enjoyed the food less, but did enjoy dining al fresco and the rare Coca-Cola that we allow them when on vacation. Not at all French, but somehow highly pleasing.

I am suspecting that the reason that this trip altered my thinking on Mediterranean food was that I had to get my kids to enjoy Mediterranean food as much as I and my husband do. And you know what? It wasn't easy. American kids are used to the very narrow category of fare that we've called "kids food." This category includes some of the foods highest in saturated fat, salt, cholesterol and sugar known to mankind. I have never allowed my kids to make these foods the bulk of their diets, but the security of seeing the foods on a menu in a country in which nothing seems familiar would be enough to make them dive into nuggets and fries all week long.

Fortunately, in this part of the world, there are no "kids'" foods—at least not at restaurants. There's only "food." And I like it that way. So I think that my kids were pretty hungry for several days, despite having plenty of food choices around them. If my kids would just try even a few of the various foods that are new and unfamiliar to them, they would get healthy doses of all the nutrients they need and they'd probably feel a lot better. They are opening up a bit after eight days in the Med region (out of pure hunger, I think), so there's still hope that they'll eat lamb, eggplant, and other delightful treats. They are also learning to slow down and enjoy time with their family while eating. After all, they've have no choice. They can't leave until we pay the bill!

It may be too much to hope for that my kids will go home asking for the foods they've experienced here. But I believe that this exposure—this opening of the mind and the observation of alternative foods on their plates—is a learning experience in itself. I am seeing that each time a plate appears before my kids (ages 7 and 3), their curiosity piques a bit more. At some point, they'll recognize these dishes as "normal," although it may not be until they are adolescents or adults. Without this real Mediterranean experience, these dishes may not have made the same impression. I am hoping that at least the 7-year-old will remember them.

There are nutritionists who would bemoan their kids' rejection of many of the healthy foods that these countries have to offer. I am actually thankful that my kids can experience them and taste them if they choose. Since I can't force-feed my kids, I simply encourage them to eat the foods and I explain why these foods are so terrific for the body. I hope that someday my kids will crave the same flavorful, fresh, healthful foods that they saw in France and Israel during their childhood. I have a feeling that it's a matter of palate maturity. My son is already digging pita and cheese. Well, it's a start!

So, parents, don't give up on trying to get your kids to keep plants top of mind while filling their plates—wherever in the world they may be. Keep eating your healthful foods, setting a great example, and presenting a variety of healthful foods—even if they are unfamiliar—to your kids. Exposure can be a key to future interest, tasting and then, if all goes well, regular consumption.