The Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve heart health while preventing obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Learn how to introduce the Mediterranean diet to your kids.

By Karen Cicero and Nicole Harris
Updated: June 19, 2019

Fish, whole grains, veggies—these probably aren't your kids' favorite foods, but it's worth your time to start incorporating them into your family’s diet. Here’s why: the Mediterranean diet ranked number one on the U.S. News and World Report’s best diet list in 2019. It’s been associated with plenty of health benefits, ranging from improved heart and brain health to a decreased risk of diabetes and cancer, according to U.S. News.

What’s more, a 2014 study of 9,000 children ages 2 to 9 in eight European countries found that those who most closely follow a Mediterranean diet are 15 percent less likely to be overweight. This is important since nearly one in three American children/adolescents are overweight or obese today. Plus, since obesity rates increase as kids get older, the Mediterranean diet can get youngsters on the right track before their tween and teen years.

What's so special about the Mediterranean approach? Researchers of the 2014 study think that the high fiber content and healthy fats found in foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and produce may help prevent kids from overeating. "This is the first study I've seen that makes the connection between the Mediterranean and obesity in kids,” says Lauri Wright, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and mom of three. "We already know that this type of eating plan is healthy in many other ways—like helping to prevent heart disease—so it's wonderful that it may have extra benefits for children too."

How to Introduce the Mediterranean Diet to Kids

Of course, you're not going to be able to switch your child's eating habits overnight, but take these steps to make your family's meals and snacks more Mediterranean:

Upgrade your drip. Does your kid drip his baby carrots in creamy salad dressing? Exchange this condiment – which is high in saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, and calories – for healthy hummus.

Make pizza at home. Using thin whole-grain crust, make pizza yourself (find a recipe here). Top it with whatever veggie your kid likes—even if it's corn.

Start eating more seafood. With the Mediterranean diet, you should eat fish and seafood often. Let your child give seafood a try in a no-pressure situation, like when it's on a buffet or when she's having a bite of yours. Eventually, work your way up to homemade fish. When you're ready to move onto grilled fish, top it with a salsa made from your child's favorite fruits.

Build on veggie success. Chances are, your child likes a lot of different kinds of fruits and a few veggies. Combine a favorite with something that's unfamiliar or not as well liked (such as corn with red onions or cucumbers with radishes or watermelon with baby spinach) to increase the chance that he'll eat it. Salad can be a tough sell, so start with mild butter lettuce and add a lot of fun familiar ingredients (like dried fruit, sunflower seeds, or orange wedges). Kids may also enjoy salads more if they're chopped. Even though it takes longer to prepare, you'll have a happier, healthier eater as a reward.

Avoid red meat and butter. The Mediterranean diet involves very little red meat like beef, lamb, and pork. To get adequate protein, opt for high-fiber beans or fish. Also swap butter for heart-healthy olive oil.

Satisfy during snack time. Curb hunger between meals with nuts, low-fat cheese, yogurt, fresh fruits, and veggies. These items are also full of healthy nutrients!

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