Happy Healthy Holidays

November 30, 2017

I spent a few weeks working in Italy this past summer and fall and was struck by how healthy Italian living feels with its slower pace and relaxed lifestyle. Italians approach life much differently than we do. They’re less concerned with how quickly they can get through a meal, instead savoring each bite with relish. Sure, fast food is making inroads there, but most Italians love food too much to succumb to the siren song of junk food.

I am in awe of how truly Italians live la dolce vita (and am admittedly obsessed with all things Italian). In our fast-paced lives, it seems to me that we live to work. Italians work just enough to have great meals with the people they love –  and the time to enjoy them –  believing that the rest of life will take care of itself. Italians place less focus on accumulating things, and they embrace life for all it’s worth. They don’t see what they don’t have; they see their lives as rich and full in the most important ways. They are compassionate, social, passionate and joyful.

As we move into the beginning of the crazy season we know as the holidays, we struggle with stress. Unlike Americans, my Italian friends and family eat and drink normally rather than think of the holiday season as an excuse to eat and drink excessively. Financial woes don’t keep them up at night because they aren’t spending past their limit. Time spent with family and friends isn’t stressful. The holiday season isn’t the frenetic and sometimes unpleasant time that we experience in America.

We seem to have lost sight of the joy that the “season of giving” can bring to our lives. We guiltily overindulge at every occasion, sleep too little, fret over “the perfect gift”, skip the gym, and face January feeling like we need a holiday to recover from the holidays. We avoid our families because they may not like the choices we’ve made in our lives. Instead of showing them how lush and delicious our compassionate lives are, we argue, lecture, and preach.

Joy to the world, right?

In Italy, the holidays are just another reason to live passionately and well. They still take their daily evening passagiatto before dinner (and sometimes after), as walking before the evening meal aids digestion. The holidays provide other reasons to walk: to socialize, to admire the decorations of the season, to breathe in the cool evening air, and to get exercise. In Italy, Christmas is not about big gift boxes, rushing around shopping or outdoing the neighbors’ decorations. It’s an opportunity to slow down, linger at the table, indulge in friends and family, laugh and love. It’s a time to savor culinary traditions reserved for this time of year.

Feasting is a way of life in Italy, but Italians are champions of fresh, local food, cooked from scratch. They don’t need a special occasion to cook dinner. It’s the way that they live day to day, shopping for produce, creating sumptuous meals from the most simple, wonderful ingredients – vegetables, whole grains, beans, herbs, and olive oil – and savoring each mouthful of what we now know to be the healthy “Mediterranean Diet.” While many Italians eat some animal food, it plays a smaller role with veggies, grains and beans as the stars of the meal.

Most Americans admire the health (and bodies!) that most Italians enjoy, but it’s so easy to have, it’s silly. First, Italians do not stress over each bite, but savor tastes and textures, letting their bodies tell them when they are full, because they eat slowly. And while they enjoy dessert daily (seriously… daily) they live by the ‘three bite rule:’ after 3 bites, you no longer taste the sugar, so they savor their three bites and move on. How yummy!

The holidays are no different. While there is an abundance of special occasion treats made just at this time of year, their three-bite rule still stands. They can relax and enjoy the indulgences of the season without busting out of their Armani slacks.

It’s not just urban myth. According to research at Leicester University in Britain, Italians stay healthier longer than their European neighbors (not to mention us Yanks)… Italian men by ten years and women by a staggering fourteen years. The secrets?

First, they skip junk food and go home for lunch every… single… day. Eating home cooking is one of the most important facts of life there… and the holidays don’t change that. The daily riposta or pennichella (little rest) after lunch helps Italians to keep stress levels manageable, and eating at home keeps their intake more normale (normal).

Next, all the pasta feasts that are common during the holidays (and every day) don’t seem to land as heavily on Italian hips as they do here. They eat a sensible portion of pasta; they do not drown it in oil or butter or cheese; but most important, they cook their pasta “al dente”, slightly undercooked so as not to trigger an insulin release that sends them off on a carb binge.

Finally, they exercise. They aren’t “gym rats” straining in the weight room (fully one-third do not participate in any sporting activities) but… and this is big… more than 28% of Italians make their way through their days on foot (we are at a woeful 12%). So, as most of us are settling down in front of the television after dinner, many Italians are walking… again.

We would be wise to take a page from the lives most Italians live. Walking daily, eating just enough and indulging reasonably through the holiday season will result in our actually enjoying the holidays for what they are: a time to gather loved ones around our table, cook gorgeous dinners from fresh ingredients, sit back and count our blessings, and live, even for just this short time, la dolce vita.

Here are some of my favorite recipes for cooking during the holiday season. Since they are all simple and easy—but also present beautifully and are delish, I can use them for daily dinners and special feasts.