One of the main reasons I decided to become a dietitian and focus on the Mediterranean diet is my mom. If she did not insist on cooking Greek food while we were growing up in the U.S., maybe things would be different. But she did, and because of that I ended up loving vegetables, eating very little meat and blogging about the Greek diet.
So it seemed fitting to start with advice from my mom who yes, cooks the best Greek food (she really does) but who is also a hardcore fan of Greek food; according to her every other cuisine pales in comparison. So I really wanted to know how she was able to preserve the traditional Greek diet and to teach her children to love this food even though we lived thousands of miles away from Greece.
“The food in America was bland and heavy”
When my parents arrived in the U.S. in the late 60’s, the first thing they noticed was that the food in America was somewhat bland. As a young woman with little cooking experience she realized that she had to learn how to cook if she wanted to eat the flavorful and fresh Mediterranean fare she grew up with…
My mom also noticed that people were eating too much meat. For Greeks, it was unimaginable to have meat as the main course, meat was either an accompaniment or a celebratory food to be enjoyed during holidays and special occasions. Food just seemed “heavy” to her and too much. The portion sizes also appeared huge to my Greek parent and they also were surprised at the size of the American breakfast: eggs, bacon, pancakes…it was all just too much.
At that time, it was not known (except within scientific community) that the Greek diet circa 1960 was one of the healthiest in the world, my parents and most other Greeks were told that the diet of “rich” America was healthy and that the diet of poor nations such as Greece was nutritionally inferior. But my mom just wasn’t convinced, she could not accept the fact that large servings of meat along with (mostly) canned vegetables swimming in butter (remember this was the 60’s) was healthier than her favorite seasonal vegetables cooked in olive oil and tomato accompanied with feta cheese. And she was right, it wasn’t healthier.
So she bought a Greek cookbook written by Hrisa Paradisi (I use the same book) and learned to cook her favorite dishes. Her need to eat food that she liked from her home, coupled with her strong love of Greece resulted in cooking mostly Greek food for us. And I am so happy she did. So here is her advice:
My Greek Mom’s 5 Food and Diet Rules
1. Learn to cook. Yes this is very important, otherwise you’re at the mercy of ready-to-eat processed foods and restaurants. But it is also important because the Greek diet is based on fresh non-processed foods. So get my cookbook or start with some the simple recipes here.
2. Reduce animal products. My mother would cook meat for us only 2-3 times a week, the rest of the time we would have a vegetable casserole or beans. When we did eat meat, it was fresh not processed, so no hot dogs or ham or bologna. She would also have us follow the Greek-Orthodox fast during holidays, which was a balanced eating pattern, but most animal products were prohibited.
3. Meals should be accompanied only with water or wine (for adults). My mom recalls how shocked she was when she realized that people in the U.S. were drinking sweet soft drinks and milk with their meals. For her, from a culinary point of view this was unacceptable but from a nutritional one as well; why drink your calories?
4. Use olive oil as your main source of fat. This is a rule that is unbreakable for my mom. Olive oil was used for everything, not just raw, not just on salads…everywhere. The majority of olive oil used in the Greek diet is actually cooked. My mom would sprinkle some olive oil along with oregano on toast instead of butter, she fries eggs only in olive oil and has dozens of dessert recipes that use olive oil. So for the most part, yes olive oil can be your main source of fat. Expensive? Not really. To put it into perspective: paying 3 dollars for a small bottle of water, now that’s expensive.
5. Add lemon and oregano. This one is classic “mama” as we say. With my sister and brother we joke about how my mom adds these two ingredients to almost everything: salads, meat, potatoes, fish, greens, vegetables. I remember once we were at TGI Fridays and we ordered some sort of American style appetizer and my mom asked the waiter for some oregano because she thought it was bland. But jokes aside, adding these ingredients is not only easy, it increases the nutritional value of any food: lemon being an excellent source of vitamin C which is not only an antioxidant, it also increases absorption of iron thus a great addition to meat. As for the oregano, well it is an antioxidant powerhouse; go here for a latest study that promotes it to a super-herb.
Rules sound great. The only exception I would make would be #3. I’ve had a lot of meals where an iced tea was served, cold mugicha or even hot tea. Non-sweetened I should add.
where can i get the cook book by Hrisa Paradisi that you mention so often
Hi Amy, at this time it is only available in Greek.
I have found several copies on Ebay (UK) fairly cheaply (in English). They write her name as Chrissa Paradissis. Hope this helps.
Thank you for sharing Rachel
This is some great advice to anyone looking to enjoy delicious tasting food, while minding their overall health as well. You are lucky to have had a Greek mother to share with you not only her advice, but her cooking as well! You are right when you say that American food has a certain tasteless air about it if not prepared correctly. This is true even to this day. Fortunately, for those who don’t have the time or skills to cook, there are more restaurants than ever offering up the very kind of foods your mom made for you. Fresh ingredients, bold flavors, and the convenience of being in your hometown, Mediterranean restaurants have a lot to offer lovers of Greek food. Thanks again for sharing!
Being married to a Greek man and having lived in Greece since the eighties I wholeheartedly agree with your mamas rules , and my own rules are nearly identical, but another important rule is to eat plenty of fish, doesn’t matter what fish, as long as it’s FRESH and WHOLE , not sold in fillets!!
Thanks for sharing Susan!
I’m Greek American and love good Greek food but not all of it so great. The meat is always overcooked as are most of the vegetables. As for American food being heavy, I don’t think there could possibly be a dish “heavier” than pastitsio..blech.
As with all cuisines, it depends on who is making it. Also it is important to note that pastitsio tends to be more of a touristy dish and actually a special occasion dish for the Greeks years ago as it contained expensive ingredients such as beef and bechamel, which were not even part of their daily diet. Even so, it should not feel heavy if made correctly.
Pastitsio, made well, and served with a light salad is food of the gods.
Great article! I live by these rules, passed down to me from my Greek father. We are lucky, indeed.
Yes Diana, I agree!
thanks for all the great info and recipes
Thanks Donna! Glad you are enjoying them!