Growing up in Sweden, by Armenian parents, and grandparents that were born and had lived in the Mediterranean area, I dare to say that Mediterranean diet was the norm in our home rather than not. But because of the influence of the Swedish food culture and diet, I became very diversified in my diet. Now decades later, I live in the US and am constantly longing for those authentic dinners and treats (treats which mostly consisted of fresh fruit). But more than that, there is another aspect of the diet that I am acquainted with, which is, the lifestyle that comes with it. The big family dinners ( Remember the movie “my big fat Greek wedding”?), the hours of watching my mother and grandmother in the kitchen getting ready for that awesome, delicious dinner. The food was always fresh and my mother could not even consider a dinner without a large plate of salad as a side dish. Then there was the waiting for everyone to come home, so that we could have dinner together. Don’t get me wrong, it was not always bliss at the dinner table, but we knew that was our family time (no matter how weird we were) Yes, as a child I thought, if there was one thing I wished for my future family, then that would be it, to eat together as a family every night and remember the importance of having loved ones (yes, even in my own family there are challenges, always some drama at dinner table).
Mediterranean diet consist mostly of plant based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes and nuts. Mainly fresh and hardly any processed, if any. Very little red meat, more as a side dish rather than the main part of the meal. The grains used are usually whole. Bread, which is commonly served with every meal, has a benefit in this circumstance. The high fiber content in whole grain breads are necessary and healthy for us, unlike the refined breads we see at regular grocery stores.
Fats and Proteins
Another key difference are the fats they use, for instance they replace butter with olive oil. Olive Oil can help to reduce the LDL cholesterol levels when replaced with saturated or trans fats. There is a difference between good and bad fat. The American heart association recommends that majority of our fat intake should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This includes all your nuts, plant based oils, certain types of fish, such as the Salmon, olives and avocados. About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States each year and often time the cause of the heart disease is linked to poor diet, lack of physical activity and excessive use of alcohol. This concern is both among men and women equally. There is recent research saying that saturated fat is not all bad, but the the current recommendation by the American Heart Association, of cutting out saturated fats still remains in place.
Eating primarily plant based foods can have its own set of challenges. Specially if you don’t live near a good supermarket that sell organic or local vegetables. This is where some find it easier to eat what is easy accessible rather than the alternative. We see this growing problem is public schools. School districts everywhere are being faced with the same challenges of rising prices, availability and other structural factors. Not only is this a challenge for the school but also among low-income families. I know growing up, money was not an issue but ones I got married, things changed, like it does for most people. I grew up going to the market every Saturday morning, because vegetables and fruits where fresh, plentiful and actually cheaper. Unfortunately these conditions are rare, especially in the larger cities or even perhaps where there is low demand. The unique element with Mediterranean diet is that in an ideal world we would want to incorporate more than just the diet. The fact that most people walk instead of drive, or that most families have a strong social connections. All these aspects are part of a lifestyle that has become unfamiliar to most people, especially to our children growing up in a more complex works than we did.
Easy Side Dishes
With all these factors in mind, sometimes Mediterranean diet gets associated as expensive and time consuming. In reality it does not have to be that way. The internet is full of easy Med dishes. And sometimes it can be overload of information. Unfortunately I have personally tried to look up easy healthy meals for my family on the web and sometimes it can be difficult figuring recipes out, especially if you have no idea what is easy and tasty. Sometimes I’ve discovered that what I thought was simple, was not simple at all. Planning meals around a budget can be tricky and so planning becomes an important element in healthy eating on a tight budget.
Recently I taught a group of young girls in my neighborhood, who are getting ready to head to college, some easy, cheap meals. We had so much fun! That whole experience of being together, laughing, cooking and enjoying getting to know each other better was pure delight. These simple and yet rewarding moments are what makes life good and fulfilling. I learned that the size of my kitchen didn’t matter to these young ladies, the style of clothes I was wearing, definitely did not matter. But what mattered was that they felt safe and loved. Two important emotions that are crucial to every human being int this world.
These are some of the recipes we cooked that night
Tzatziki – side dish
Yield: 5 Cups Prep Time: 15 Min.
2 Cucumbers (or 1 English cucumber) Grated and drained
32 Oz. Greek Plain Yogurt
2-3 Fresh Garlic Cloves (Pressed)
1 Tsp Salt
1 1/2 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Tsp Mint Flakes
Cayenne Pepper (Optional)
Grate the Cucumber. Make sure you drain all the liquid that sipped out of it. Add pressed fresh garlic, salt and the yogurt. Mix well. Drizzle the olive oil,
sprinkle the mint and cayenne if you want. Serve as side dish or as a dressing for a pita bread and kebab sandwich.
Turmeric Rice – side dish
Yield: 5 Cups Prep Time: 5 min. Cook Time: 30 min.
1 1/2 cups (330 gm) white basmati rice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
½ cup chopped yellow onion
3 cups chicken stock (we used 3 tablespoon of organic chicken base + 3 C of water)
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, or tamari ( I personally use coconut aminos because of soy intolerance.
Rinse the rice in a fine mesh colander until the water runs clear. Drain well. Warm the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, set over medium-high heat.
Stir in the rice, turmeric, and curry powder, mixing well to coat the rice with the spices and oil.
Add the chopped onions, chicken stock or broth and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 18-20 minutes.
Do not lift the lid while cooking or the rice will become sticky. Remove the rice from the heat, stir to fluff, then replace the cover and allow the rice to rest for 10 minutes. Enjoy!!
We also made and served my version of a Greek Salad. With all the produce coming from our garden, I had the girls cut up some tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and lettuce.
We added some kalamata olives and feta cheese and they drizzled (actually more than drizzled) some virgin olive oil, a little bit of balsamic vinegar and salt.
The highlight for the girls was definitively the Hummus, the famous side dish. They were surprised how easy and quick it was to make it. I wish I could say that I had a home baked whole grain bread for them that day, but I am not superwoman – instead I bought fresh bread from the local bakery. I told them if they wanted to learn how to bake, they would have to come back another day. The girls did the math on our dishes and they figured out that even they could survive living like queens on a poor college student income, if they followed simple healthy recipes. The hummus provided the protein, the tzatziki provided the healthy dairy, the rice and grains…..you get the picture. Four ounce piece of oven baked chicken would have worked great – but on their budget it wasn’t necessary. Given they had all the nutrients they needed.
I am blown away…
with all the information that is out there for our benefit. Recipes and recommendations. But in the end it is what each one of us do with that info. So put your apron on (if you have one – not mandatory, I just spill on myself all the time) and get those veggies out – start creating – there is no right or wrong in the kitchen, only fun and creativity. Don’t get discouraged, after all, I did not even know how to boil plain pasta when Robert and I got married 30 years ago.