In traditional Mediterranean diets, mealtimes were not just about nourishment, but also about community and connection — a way for friends, neighbors, and most importantly, family to come together over a shared meal. While young children might not have consumed everything on the table, such as red wine, the plates of children looked remarkably similar to those of their elders. There was no special “kid food” shaped like cartoon characters. Rather, Mediterranean families used mealtimes as a way to bond and connect across generations, passing down their stories, traditions, recipes, and techniques.
Including more healthy foods like vegetables, beans, whole grains, and seafood is not the only reason to embrace family-friendly Mediterranean meals. Today, we are learning that a person’s overall happiness and physical well-being is heavily related to whether they belong to a strong community and have quality social connections. In fact, evidence suggests that lack of social connection is just as great of a detriment to health as obesity, smoking or high blood pressure. Thus, it’s not surprising that the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet pyramid emphasizes lifestyle attributes such as eating together at the table.
In the Mediterranean, a meal is generally a time and an occasion to slow down, something to be savored. Family meals can be a time to unplug, to turn oﬀ the cell phones, to disengage from digital devices and social media. Sharing a nourishing meal (fueling our mental and physical well-being) and engaging in stimulating conversation with friends and family are amongst life’s simple pleasures.
Part of the fun of sharing a meal together is preparing it together. Involving your children in meal preparation can teach essential life skills, encourage them to expand their palates, promote healthy eating, build conﬁdence, and, perhaps, most importantly, encourage family bonding. For instance, make-your-own pizza night is a perfect way to connect and have fun in the kitchen — roll out your own whole grain dough (either homemade or store bought), layer on the sauce, and customize with your favorite toppings.
Mezze, tapas, small plates — a style of dining in the Mediterranean and Middle East — facilitate socializing and lingering around the dining room table. Mezze often make up an entire meal and typically feature cold and hot dishes , vegetarian and meat items — something for each member of the family. Served family-style, a tapas/mezze spread may include a combination of bread, dips and spreads (e.g., hummus, baba ghanoush), salads (e.g., tabbouleh, chopped salad), fruit, and sweets. Sometimes a mezze/tapas includes more substantial dishes such as kebabs or Spanish shrimp cooked with lots of garlic, olive oil and smoked paprika. Serving unfamiliar foods in small bites, tapas style, is also less daunting for children when encouraging them to try something new.
Sheet-pan dinners are an ideal way to get food on the table fast and without skimping on nutrition and ﬂavor. If there’s one dish everyone should know how to make, it’s a simple roast chicken. Roasting a chicken isn’t complicated, especially when roasted on a sheet pan. A few ideas for Mediterranean-inspired sheet-pan dinners include Greek-style roast chicken thighs with oregano and/or rosemary and lemon and roasted vegetables, balsamic-glazed chicken with potatoes, or a slow-roasted ﬁllet of salmon rubbed with harissa.
Moroccan tagines, slow-cooked savory stews traditionally made in a cone-shaped earthenware cooking vessel, are a delicious, family-friendly dish that can be made with any combination of ingredients — meat, poultry or ﬁsh together with vegetables and/or fruit. In addition to Moroccan stews, there are a plethora of other one-pot dishes for your family to enjoy, including rice-based dishes such as risotto and paella, egg-based dishes such as shakshuka and frittatas, and vegan or vegetarian dishes such as paprika-spiced Spanish chickpeas and spinach (espinacas con garbanzos) and Tuscan kale and white bean vegetable stew.
Remember, in the end it’s all about spending quality time with family and friends. And sometimes, food just tastes better when you have someone to share it with.
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