You've probably heard that the Mediterranean diet can make your heart healthier, protect against cancer and even help you live longer. But did you know it also is a great pick for kids? "The Mediterranean diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish and healthy fats. Nutrients from these foods help support optimal growth and development while also promoting a healthy weight," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you'd like your family to enjoy the healthful benefits of Mediterranean meals, these easy steps can help you get started.
Build a Strong Base
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, delivering vitamins and minerals that growing bodies need, carbohydrates for energy and fiber for smooth digestion. Instead of making meat the main event, use plant-based foods as the foundation for hearty meals such as pasta with vegetables, minestrone soup or stir-fried veggies over brown rice.
Get Friendly with Beans
You won't find lots of red meat or even much chicken in this diet, but there are plenty of beans and lentils. "Beans are a powerhouse of nutrition," says Sheth. "They are loaded with plant protein, fiber, carbohydrate and are naturally low in fat." Beans also supply potassium, magnesium and iron. Add more beans to your diet by slipping chickpeas into salads, tossing peas into rice or tucking mashed pinto beans into a quesadilla.
Opt for Seafood
Fish plays a starring role in the Mediterranean diet. It is a top source of heart- and brain-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, plus it's packed with protein. Seafood cooks quickly, making it perfect for quick meals such as grilled shrimp tossed into pasta marinara, or tuna stirred into whole-wheat couscous.
Lose the Fat Phobia
Healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds are an important part of the Mediterranean diet. In addition to making olive oil your go-to cooking oil, toss pine nuts or slivered almonds into sautéed green beans, spinach or asparagus. Let kids design their own trail mix using their favorite dried fruits, whole-grain cereals, nuts and seeds, suggests Sheth. If you have small children, use caution with nuts and seeds because they present a potential choking hazard.
Kids love just about anything they can dip says Sheth. Dunking veggies into Mediterranean-inspired spreads such as hummus, tzatziki (a creamy cucumber yogurt dip) or baba ghanoush (made from eggplant and sesame) keeps them happy and it sneaks in a serving of vegetables at the same time.