If you pay attention to health trends, you've likely heard some buzz about the Mediterranean diet. In 2020, the Mediterranean diet was named the best overall diet by U.S. News & World Report for the second year in a row. For parents looking for effective ways to encourage their family to make healthy choices, the Mediterranean diet can serve as an excellent framework to set up lifelong habits.
"The Mediterranean diet is a very sustainable approach to eating healthy and well," explains Marjorie Craven, a registered dietitian at Children's Health℠. "It encourages positive changes, like eating more fruits and vegetables. This approach to eating can help children grow and meet their nutritional needs."
Learn what makes the Mediterranean diet healthy and kid-friendly ways to incorporate it into your family's routine.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers have found that these individuals tend to live longer and are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer or cardiovascular disease. Rather than prescribing strict food guidelines, as many traditional "diets" do, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fish, combined with an active lifestyle.
"The Mediterranean diet isn't just about what foods you eat, but it's about living a healthy life and enjoying time with family and friends," says Craven.
What can you eat on the Mediterranean diet?
While there are no strict rules about what to eat and what not to eat on the Mediterranean diet, the main principles of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and seafood
- Avoid added sugars, processed meat, refined grains and oils and highly processed meals
- Eat poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation
- Limit red meat
- Eat as a family
- Regular physical activity
What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for kids?
Following the Mediterranean diet allows families to focus on what they're likely missing in their meals, including fruits, vegetables and seafood.
Craven offers seven major benefits of the Mediterranean diet – or lifestyle, as she calls it.
1. Fruits and vegetables come first
Many Americans plan their meals around a protein – whether that's chicken for dinner, a turkey sandwich for lunch or eggs for breakfast. The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits and vegetables first.
This approach ensures servings include the important vitamins and minerals needed to maintain a strong and healthy body.
"The nutrients in fruits and vegetables are essential to our health and growth, particularly for children," she says. "If we're missing one of these key building blocks, the body struggles. It can be harder to pay attention in school, our sleep can be affected and we may feel more irritable and sluggish."
2. Whole grains play an important role
Whole grains are an excellent source of dietary fiber, which is something kids and adults don't get enough of. Fiber offers many benefits, including:
- Keeping kids "regular" and eliminating
- Helping you feel full, longer
- Help with maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease
3. Healthy fats have a place
Fats often get a bad rap at mealtimes. Healthy fats, like unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, help absorb vitamins and fats children need to grow and thrive. Good sources of healthy fats include:
- Chia seeds
- Fatty fish, such as salmon
- Olive oil
- Peanut butter
4. Eat more seafood
There are many health benefits of eating fish, and seafood takes center stage in the Mediterranean diet. Fish is a high-quality protein with many important nutrients, like vitamin D, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids. It's also thought that seafood can improve heart health, brain health and vision.
5. Dairy can be good
Dairy is important for a child's growing body, notes Craven. "A lot of popular diets eliminate dairy, but it's very important for children to eat dairy products and drink milk to get the calcium their body needs," she explains.
6. Flavor food with spices
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes flavoring food with spices – instead of salt. "Have fun with your children as you try different dishes and spices to see which ones your family likes best," Craven encourages.
7. Families eat together
Mealtimes are a social activity in the Mediterranean, an important part of the lifestyle. "Enjoy the meal and each other's company," says Craven. "Eating together strengthens family bonds and allows you to model healthy eating habits for your children."
How to adapt the Mediterranean diet for kids
The Mediterranean diet is safe for kids to follow, but Craven does offer parents advice before introducing it. The first – and most important piece – is all about the name.
"Avoid calling it a diet," she says. "A lot of negative things can happen when we use the word diet. Food gets labeled into good and bad foods, and that mindset can take away the joy of eating. Instead, call it a lifestyle and invite the entire family to join in. Make the experience positive and fun."
Other kid-friendly ways to introduce the Mediterranean lifestyle include:
- Be consistent. It can take 15 times or more for a child to be exposed to a new food before they try it. Craven encourages parents to keep going and not give up on picky eaters.
- Get active together. Find fun physical activities to do together, like taking a walk or having a dance party.
- Go slowly. Introduce one new change at a time instead of overhauling all eating habits.
- Involve your child. Go to the grocery store together and prepare meals together.
Kid-friendly Mediterranean snack recipes
When parents are ready to introduce the Mediterranean lifestyle to kids, Craven offers a few simple snack ideas:
- Cheese with a piece of fruit
- Fruit with low-fat yogurt
- Vegetables with hummus
- 100% whole wheat bread with peanut butter
Always talk to your child's pediatrician before changing eating habits. There may be medical concerns for avoiding this lifestyle or ways your family should modify it based on your child's health needs.
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