When I was 22, I bought a one-way ticket to Italy. And it changed my life.
I still remember that transformative moment when I swirled a wedge of crusty Italian bread into a sumptuous pool of rich, green, fruity extra virgin olive oil. That moment, and the many, many delicious moments that followed while I was a culinary school assistant in Florence, set me on my path to my life's calling. Which was to be surrounded by the best food I could at all times.
I discovered and relished in an entire new world of fruits and vegetables that had never graced my table while I was growing up. Purple tinged baby artichokes. Dozens of shades and shapes of mushrooms. A sea of exotic (for this girl) greens, from baby chard to purple-hued kale and brazenly bitter dandelion greens. I saw firsthand how simple it was to prepare vibrant foods like fish in a fresh tomato sauce, or chickpeas and chard with a shower of garlic. And the exponential pleasure that seemed to emerge from the act of eating when I shared these foods with friends over a glass of wine.
Perhaps most importantly, this is when I learned the essential skill of how to enjoy healthy portion sizes of staple starchy foods such as bread, pasta, polenta, faro and more. Modest plate sizes met modest portions. I also saw how richer indulgences, like lasagna with layers of homemade meat sauce, heavenly béchamel and fresh cheese were truly reserved as special occasion splurges, perhaps once a month, but not daily or weekly. And it didn't take me long to realize that upon closer look, the people strolling the streets eating hefty scoops of gelato were actually tourists, not locals.
Basically, in addition to enjoying a bit of la dolce vita, I was fortunate enough to have stumbled into one of the world's healthiest eating styles by accident. As someone who arrived in Italy with no roadmap of what healthy eating really looked like, these experiences profoundly shifted my relationship with food. Now, more than 20 years later, some of the most powerful nutrition lessons I share with others are still those I learned during my days in the trenches-or shall I say, at the table-in Italy.
1. Define "value" as the highest quality possible, not the cheapest price.
Growing up, I had been taught the best value was food that gave you the largest quantity for the lowest price: that expensive parmesan cheese? Ignore it, and grab that stuff in the green canister instead. In Italy I learned (or rather, tasted) that you really do get what you pay for. Foods that use premium ingredients or traditional production methods can cost more because the inputs are very different — but that means the final product is of a higher quality as well. We are now beginning to see how this translates into specific nutrition advantages. Authentically aged Parmigiano Reggiano, for example, is rich in protein plus probiotics that fuel a healthy gut. The good news? if you are willing to cook a bit more yourself (see below), you can often splurge on higher quality ingredients while keeping your food budget in check.
2. Cook more, and eat out less.
One simple act — cooking more — may be greatest step you can take for your highest level of health. Not only does it give you the confidence of knowing exactly what went into that meal (see above), it is the secret to eating well on a budget. The reality is, buying truly clean and healthy foods on the go is expensive and even elusive in many regions of the country, derailing our best laid plans. And the research is well-established that when people cook themselves, the nutrient quality rises while the not-so-good for you ingredients (such as heaps of added sodium) drop. And investing in a few strategic pieces, such as a slow cooker, can bring you slow-cooked taste with minimal time.
3. Include seasonal and local foods in your diet.
"If it's a true tomato you want, then wait until July and August". This Italian maxim was shared with me while I was enjoying a simple yet unforgettable lunch in Cortona at the home of famed chef and foodie Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Long before "farm to table" became passé on menus and in food marketing in the US, Italy's foods have migrated with the seasons; impossibly light cappellini pasta with fresh tomatoes in July move into nutrient-rich brassica family foods (like the famed cavolo nero) and braised beans in colder months. Seasonal foods not only deliver optimal flavor and taste at the best price, they ensure you rotate through a variety nutrients and minimize potential exposure to toxins (i.e. eating different varieties of fish throughout the year) rather than repeating the same staples week after week.
4. Take what you need, but no more.
This is perhaps the most basic common sense of all, if the biggest cultural shift from the U.S. Italians do this for economic reasons-serving modest portions shaves grocery bills and reduces costly food waste (according to the EPA, in 2012 Americans tossed out about 35 million tons of food, up 20% from 2000, and costing the average American family $1,350-2,275 in food losses each year ). They also do this for health reasons: traditional pasta dish sizes in Italy are about the size of a fist, not a football. And Italians know that big portions make you tired. Personal experience taught me that perhaps there's one other reason as well. I couldn't help but notice that eating too much made it harder to fit into those beautiful expensive Italian clothes, the ones that have real zippers and real buttons-as compared to my American clothes made with those forgiving, stretchy fabrics and elastic waistbands.