January is all about fresh starts. Whose resolutions haven’t included eating better, exercising more, quitting smoking, or participating in more cultural activities? My resolution is to adopt Italy’s Mediterranean lifestyle. Italians have long been envied for their rich, celebratory lifestyle, but it’s the simple elements of well-being in lifestyle and diet that have made their culture one of the healthiest and most respected.
What does this lifestyle suggest? Of course, Italians don’t have all the answers for living the sweet life; nor does every Italian live by the wisdom of their own cultural heritage. But in general, when compared to the numbers in the U.S., the people of Italy’s Mediterranean culture enjoy greater longevity, are less stressed, and show lower levels of heart disease, obesity, cancer and chronic diseases. It seems that a lifestyle based on the Mediterranean diet, combined with plenty of physical activity and social interaction, makes for a strong body and soul.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is comprised of mostly plant-based foods – fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Olive oil is the main source of dietary fat. Dairy products such as cheese and yogurt are eaten regularly, but not in large amounts. Seafood, poultry and red meat are eaten on special occasions, not as part of a daily fare. Wine is typically consumed with meals. The preferred dessert served after meals is a piece of fresh fruit, which refreshes the palate, provides a sweet finish, and adds multiple vitamins and fiber. Rich desserts are served on special occasions and eaten in small amounts. Italians don’t like to snack between meals, and you will not likely find them munching on cookies, candy bars or potato chips.
Freshness, simplicity and purity are the most important components in Italian cuisine. Italy has taken vigilant measures to keep its food chemical-free and not genetically engineered. When it comes to food, we often get more than we pay for. We’ve all had the experience of reading ingredient labels and finding long chemical names listed, making us wonder if we’re actually eating food or plastic.
It is not only what you eat that counts, but also how you eat. Italians love simple eating, so even the most exquisite-looking dishes don’t take nearly as much time to prepare as you might imagine. Breakfast is the simplest meal of the day; just a cappuccino or caffe-latte – which is basically half coffee and half hot milk, and barely sweet biscotti or a piece of bread to dunk in coffee. Pranzo/lunch, – or dinner if served as the main meal, might include a small amount of pasta, rice or soup for the primo piatto/first dish; some chicken or fish for the secondo/second dish, with a contorno/side dish of vegetables and a green salad to cleanse the plate. Dessert will be a piece of fresh fruit. Cena/supper, if it is not the main meal might be just a bit of this and that placed on the dining table. It is served at about eight or nine o’clock and reflects a winding down of the fueling of our bodies. It might be a cooked vegetable, a light dish of pasta, a piece of grilled chicken or fish, a salad, a bit of frittata or simply a small plate of cheeses – just enough food to take you through the rest of the evening. And here I’m talking about how Italians eat at home and keep in mind that all of these meals are eaten piano piano, very slowly!
Mealtime in Italy is also a social experience and a kaleidoscope of sensations, where sights, smells, sounds and textures come together to sustain the total person. The main mealtime assures at least one block of time when the whole family can gather together, to talk about their days, argue about politics, and talk about the latest news or gossip. Sunday dinners are just a bit more formal, when generations of family and friends are invited, and a few special dishes (meant to make the guests slightly envious) are likely to be served.
After dinner, especially during the warmer months, a passeggiata is in order – a long leisurely stroll through town with no particular destination in mind.
Although this lifestyle still exists in Italy, certain modern realities have entered the scene, just as they have around the globe. Italy is changing and a certain “Americanization” has made its way into Italian popular culture, influencing lifestyle and eating habits. We need to return to the food culture of the Italian countryside and the so-called “poor-man’s“ diet of the Italian immigrants who were forced to economize on food. The simple comfort foods eaten by generations of Italians not only taste good but are also very healthy! We need to get back to eating fresh, non-processed whole foods that actually contain the nutrients we need to fight disease.
You too can resolve to learn more about the simplicity in the authentic Italian kitchen so that you can eat better, more wisely, and more joyfully right at home. And don’t forget to also add some other elements of the Italian lifestyle –savoring time, paying attention to family and friends, putting your best foot forward and maintaining a positive attitude that embraces life. And get ready for the best year yet!