What I Learned about Food & Nutrition in Italy

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My passport is tatted, it look like it’s active.

I play on these planes, y’all catch me in traffic

- Beyonce

There is nothing more fulfilling about international travel than the experiences you bring back with you. They truly last a lifetime and continue to be a source of inspiration in every aspect of life. I just returned from Italy where I got into some great adventures with three of my sorority sisters and best friends. We explored, ate a lot of pasta, visited amazing sites, ate a lot of pizza, exercised a little, and had all the gelato. Along the way, I picked up a lot of lessons about Italian culture. I also picked up some great gems about food and nutrition.

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Keep it simple…and fresh.

Have you ever wondered why so many other cultures seem to survive off the same heavy carbohydrates that we are conditioned to believe are bad in the States? Yet, they don’t deal with nearly as many health issues. I was really nervous about what eight days of pasta and pizza would do to my fitness routine. However, not partaking was not an option (I love me some pizza, ya’ll. Pizza is definitely BAE). What I loved most about the food in Italy was its simplicity. Here, we load our pasta with a lot of sugar, creamy sauces and meat. Authentic Italian pasta and sauce is often made fresh and by hand. The focus is on the spices and the flavor. Beloved favorites like classic spaghetti is made of pasta, fresh tomato sauce, and basil. Done.

Portion Control…maybe.

 A sample of my vegetarian main course, or “secondi,” during our cooking class, zucchini cups and roasted potatoes. The full menu we helped prepare consisted of bruschetta and a potato pizza crust as our “antipasti.” We also had spinach-stuffed ravioli, cavatelli pasta with roasted vegetables, and we finished with a peach panna cotta for “dolce.”

A sample of my vegetarian main course, or “secondi,” during our cooking class, zucchini cups and roasted potatoes. The full menu we helped prepare consisted of bruschetta and a potato pizza crust as our “antipasti.” We also had spinach-stuffed ravioli, cavatelli pasta with roasted vegetables, and we finished with a peach panna cotta for “dolce.”

The fact that American servings of food are typically double what other countries serve is no revelation. However, we were able to enjoy a lot of our favorites and not have to worry about our waist lines because the portion sizes were much smaller than what we’re accustomed. That’s not to say that Italian meals cannot be heavy.

A typical dinner is four courses. An “aperitivo,” or appetizer, consists of small dishes to nibble on like olives, nuts and cheese. The “antipasti” comes next and is slightly heavier. This is where you may enjoy bruschetta or prosciutto. The “primi” is the first course to come with hot food and is generally where pasta is enjoyed. Risotto, gnocchi, lasagna, or soup are common dishes. The primi may also contain fine ingredients, like truffle or seafood. Next is the “secondi.” This is when you will enjoy various meat and seafood options. Often, the “insalata” or salad is served following your main course. Finally, meals are often ended with “dolce,” “caffe,” or “digestive.” That’s dessert, espresso, or wine. We’ll get to the coffee in a minute, but let’s just say the wine is definitely worth the calories.

I do believe the benefit to this way of eating is no different than our recent fitness fixation on eating five to six small meals a day. While dinner is heavy, lunch and breakfast are typically lighter. I am sure there could be an argument made to keeping your metabolism revved up this way.

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Skip breakfast? Or, keep it light.

I am not a fan of skipping breakfast, ever. However, mornings start with either a cappuccino or espresso, and a pastry. By day three or four, I was dying for just scrambled eggs. However, the culture is to start the day standing at a coffee bar, having your shot of espresso, and getting on your way. As a coffee lover, the hardest part was coming back to our coffee. Italian coffee was so smooth! What you were not going to do was stand at that bar and order a grande caramel latte with four pumps of….whatever! In fact, the very first Starbucks was set to open in Milan the week after we left and there was a lot in the news about how the company would have to bring their coffee up to standard. Many cities in Italy are largely pedestrian, so I was able to make the argument that I’d just end up walking my croissant off anyway.

My favorite part!

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While in Rome, my line sisters and I took a cooking class. It was the highlight for each of us. We started the class with a trip to the market to grab locally grown fruits and vegetables, learned how to make our own pasta and tomato sauce from scratch, and were taught a new technique for roasting the perfect vegetables. Our chef talked with us a lot about the process of accommodating tourists with so many diet restrictions. She noted she works with a lot of local vendors who are not used to making their pastas gluten-free and the increasing challenges that come with creating menus.

To date, both of my international trips have included cooking classes and deeper lessons into the culture of food. Both times, these have topped my favorite memories. There is something to be said about cooking together and how quickly it allows for bonding and barriers to be broken down. If you are planning a trip soon, check out what cooking experiences may be available and try one out. You won’t regret it!