7 Strategies to Keep Italian Food Healthy

Scallop Linguine with Tomato Sauce
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Italian cuisine is the best in world! Of course, my opinion may be biased. My dad was born in Italy and I’m from Argentina — the country with more people of Italian heritage than anywhere outside Italy. A mass migration between 1880 and 1920 has left Argentine cuisine greatly influenced by the flavors and traditions of Italy.

Authentic Italian cuisine can be very healthy, as it frequently includes crisp salads, olive oil, fresh fish and legumes. Of course, with creamy sauces, cheeses and cured meats, it also can be made quite unhealthy. Here are seven strategies I recommend to my clients to make the most of the healthy side of Italian food culture, whether at home or at a restaurant.

Keep It Simple

Simplicity and cooking from scratch — for instance, homemade pasta — are essential features of Italian cuisine. Most authentic recipes call for no more than five or six minimally processed, seasonal ingredients. Sticking to seasonal ingredients will make your dishes more flavorful and nutritious while keeping them as inexpensive as possible.

Do Not Skip the Salad

Many Italians have salad with both lunch and dinner. This double shot of vegetables is a simple way to meet your recommended servings.

But Do Skip the Bread Basket

A basket of garlic bread and bread sticks on the table can lead to consuming more calories at a meal than you realize. I recommend asking the server not to bring the bread basket to your table.

Pasta Is Not Bad!

Just be sure to consider portion sizes, sauces and added cheeses. If cooking pasta at home, measure the amount of pasta (about 3 ounces per person), cook it al dente (Italian for “firm to the bite”) and add plenty of vegetables including Italian favorites such as artichoke, eggplant and broccoli. In a restaurant, I recommend sharing pasta dishes and ordering tomato-based red sauces instead of cream-based sauces.

Eat More Fish

Italy is a Mediterranean peninsula and seafood is essential to the Italian diet. Include dishes with omega-3-rich fish two or three times per week. How do the Italians eat their fish? Just about every way you can image! Try adding anchovies, tuna, sardines and salmon to stews, pasta dishes, pizzas and risotto. Or, simply serve fish grilled or baked.

Fruit for Dessert

In my family, seasonal fruit was always the dessert of choice. Desserts with cheese or cream such as tiramisu or panna cotta are rich in calories, sugar and fat. Save these for special occasions, and order or serve one portion to share with your dinner companions.

Most Importantly, Enjoy Your Food

No Italian would think of having a TV on during a meal. Instead, every meal is a celebration in which all aspects of the meal — including lively conversation — are appreciated. Sharing meals promotes healthy food habits and provides an excellent opportunity for adults to show kids how to enjoy a variety of healthy foods.

As they say in Italy, “Buon appetito!”


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Romina Barritta de Defranchi
Romina Barritta, DTR, is a dietitian based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She runs GlobalDietitians.com, a networking site for food and nutrition professionals from around the world. She is Board member of the International Affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (IAAND). Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.