Ah, Primavera! Longer days and more sunshine are enough to make everyone a bit happier after a long, cold winter. But just as spring is the season for some home cleaning, it’s also a good time to think about cleaning up our diets. There’s something about winter that makes us reach for heavy, hearty foods. Unfortunately, eating this way year round can take its toll. March is National Nutrition Month. Maybe this is because, as Pinterest and my Instagram feed tell me, March is when summer bodies are made. Regardless, while it’s smart to watch what we eat, as a chef, I can tell you that this doesn’t mean you can’t eat amazingly delicious food and still get in shape.
In my home country of Italy, we love to eat. A lot. Food is intrinsically woven into the daily rhythms of our lives. However, we are also a very slim nation. According to one 2009 study, Italians have the fifth-lowest rate of obesity in the world–in spite of being the home of all of that carb-heavy pasta. To compare, the U.S. has the highest rate of obesity in the world. So what’s going on? How does this paradox work? I’ve got a couple of Italian secrets I’d like to share with you.
First of all, one word: ingredients. Italians make it a point to use only the best, but we aren’t snobs about it. In fact, it’s part of the culture whether you’re rich or poor. We eat a lot of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Most villages in the country side have markets where you can always find something fresh and local. Luckily, this trend is catching on across the U.S. as well and there are now green markets popping up everywhere. More people than ever now have the opportunity to eat food just like they have in Italy forever–straight off of the farm.
Secondly, Italians cook with olive oil. Olive oil is an extremely versatile food and a healthy fat whose benefits science is just beginning to understand. For example, it’s loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids that are good for your heart. It also happens to be very tasty. When cooking at home, always try to substitute a quality extra-virgin olive oil for something high in saturated fat like butter. It’s good on almost everything and, especially if you’re using an extra-virgin oil, packs a sharp tang that adds an exciting flavor to your favorite foods. One of my favorite sides is a baked potato, substituting the artery-clogging butter with a flavorful Italian extra virgin oil.
While you’re making changes to your diet for the better, it’s important to remember that food is above all something to enjoy. This is true whether you’re making it or eating it. If you start having fun in the kitchen, you’ll learn to see cooking as a joy instead of a burden. As a chef, there is literally nothing I find more creative than bringing together ingredients that, while wonderful on their own, create something bigger than the sum of their parts when I’m done with them. It’s a way to express yourself.
It’s also an occasion for coming together. Try to cook more meals at home and — this is the part that is both very important and very Italian — enjoy them. Spending a few well-made meals a week in the company of family and friends is part of what makes Italian cooking so distinctive. In the modern world, we are all busy people, so if you can’t find time to make every dinner with the passion it deserves, start off small with one or two home cooked meals a week.
Likewise, you don’t have to always eat like a saint to succeed. The key to success with a healthier diet is making little changes you can easily keep up over the long term. Part of that is not going so extreme that you can’t live a little. This means that you should incorporate small rewards like sweet desserts — as long as they’re in controlled portions. I’d like to share one of my personal favorites with you — Bauli Mini Croissants. Each croissant is just 50 calories a pop, so it satisfies your sweet tooth, without wreaking havoc on your waistline. Even more important, skipping desert after dinner often just means you’ll eat more later in the evening — the worst time for anyone to consume calories.
Bauli Mini Croissants are a fun and irresistible way to enjoy the full sweetness and delicious taste of croissants in a smaller, bite-sized snack. A favorite, tasty snack in Italy, the Mini Croissants come in handy, easy-to-pack bags which make for a great snack at home or on-the-go.
Mini croissants such as these will help keep the bigger picture of your new healthy diet on track. They are rewards for perseverance, but still, you won’t feel you’re missing out on anything. With a little bit of exercise and some smart changes in diet this spring, you’ll be well on the way to having a great summer.