Children who follow a Mediterranean-style diet—think nuts, grains, legumes, fish, fresh produce—are 15 percent less likely to be overweight or obese than kids who don’t eat typically these foods, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. If the idea of having your children fill up on falafel in lieu of French fries is Greek to you, no worries—it’s easier to than you think to incorporate Mediterranean fare into even the most all-American diet.
Here are 10 simple ways to get started:
- Be fresh. Ample amounts of fresh fruits and veggies are a crucial part of the Mediterranean diet—and good health in general! Keep a stocked fruit bowl in the kitchen at all times and regularly offer salad or a crudité plate (perhaps with kid-friendly ranch dressing) at dinner.
- Go for the grain. Whole grains are a staple of the Mediterranean diet—sugary cereals and buttermilk pancakes…not so much. I find it’s easiest to get kids to eat whole grains in the morning, when you’ve got maple syrup to sweeten the deal. Whip up buckwheat pancakes and serve with fruit. Or try KIND Healthy Grains granola, which is made with amaranth, quinoa, oats, millet, and other “super grains.” With milk, honey and fruit, it’s a kid-friendly concoction.
- Make a WB&J sandwich. Rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, walnuts are a staple in Mediterranean cooking…but not many kids are willing to give up birthday cake for baklava. That’s OK—try using raw walnut butter instead of peanut butter with your kids’ favorite jelly for a delicious and exceptionally nutritious brown-bag lunch.
- Serve more fish and less meat. Make burgers from salmon, tuna or trout, or serve fish-kabobs with tomatoes, peppers and pineapples. Mix omega-rich wild albacore tuna with Greek yogurt or olive oil instead of mayo and serve it in toasted pita pockets for lunch.
- Be nutty. Expose your children to all different kinds of nuts, in their most raw and unprocessed form. Invite them to sample hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds and more.
- Let them eat hummus. My 3-year-old devours hummus. (That wholesome garbanzo-based dip is actually the only way we can get him to wolf down raw vegetables.) Store-bought varieties often include less-than-kid-friendly spices like chili pepper and oregano, but if you make your own by pureeing chickpeas with water, sea salt and a little mild tahini, you might please pickier palates.
- Use olive oil instead of vegetable oil. You can do lots of things with olive oil—even bake with it—if the flavor is mild enough. Vanilla-infused extra-virgin olive oil is suitable for cakes, French toast, or drizzled over fresh fruit.
- Chip, chip hooray! Swap out potato chips for chips made with legumes. Instead of Doritos, try Beanitos Nacho Cheese, which are made from white beans and contain 6 g of fiber and 4 g of protein per serving.
- Go light on the dairy. Go for low-fat milk products instead of the heavier counterparts, or see how your kids feel about non-dairy alternatives such as almond milk, which is higher in calcium and lower in calories than cow’s milk. In general, try to cut back on foods like pizza and ice cream, and look for healthier alternatives.
- Don’t be afraid to introduce foreign flavors to your children. It’s true that most little ones like bland fried foods in various shades of beige—it’s not true that you can’t influence them to go for more exotic textures and tastes, including authentic cuisine of the Mediterranean countries. Your child could adore dolmas (rice-stuffed grape leaves), devour baba ghanoush and love falafel. I say take everyone in the family to the best Greek restaurant in town, shout, “Opa!” do a little bellydancing…and make foreign food fun!