How to eat clean at a traditional family dinner

How to eat clean at a traditional family dinnerFor most people, tradition is something that follows us whether we want it or not. Being a martial artist from a very young age, I always understood the importance of a balanced nutrition and did everything in my power to stay on track. That, unfortunately, did not always coincide with my mother’s traditional Greek cooking. Don’t get me wrong, a Mediterranean diet is still one of the best worldwide, however, there are always those traditional dishes that will leave you feeling bloated, gassy and drained.

Being invited to a traditional dinner/lunch is an interesting test of strength for everyone who needs to follow a specific nutritional plan. Each cuisine follows a specific combination of ingredients that may result in an amazingly tasty plate but is not always that healthy.

Plus, you must realize that in some cultures making alterations or requesting ‘clean’ foods can be interpreted in different ways and even coming off as an insult!

I have faced this challenge multiple times and while I was able to protect my nutritional beliefs and still not offend anyone, I now have a reputation of being ‘weird’ when it comes to food. I still find it entertaining how people choose to kill themselves with food and society calls that ‘normal’ while I choose to eat in a balanced way that improves my body and health and I get labelled as ‘abnormal and weird’.

So how does one survive this trial? Do you know how to eat clean at a traditional family dinner and still stay in shape and true to your diet? This is what you need to take into consideration in order to make it through:

1) Know your food allergies

This might seem like common sense but I often talk to people who seem to be ignorant in this area.

First of all, you must take a food allergy test to understand what you are allergic to.The test will reveal to you exactly what ingredients do not work with your system. Once you know that, always ask ahead of time about the ingredients of the dishes you will be presented with.

In this way, you will be able to avoid allergens (such as soy, nuts, lactose or spice allergies), enjoy your meal safely and as an extension you will be able to choose the lesser of nutritional evils.

 2) Always focus on protein-based foods

If you are eating seafood, you should be ‘nutritionally’ safe as most of them are protein based. Great examples of seafood are grilled fish, shrimps or octopus. Most of them are cooked without extra oils.

If the menu has beef or chicken, it will most probably be cooked with oil (or a combination of oils) using a massive combination of spices. There is nothing you can do about that but as long as you don’t overeat carbs, you will be fine.

Personal recommendation:

  • Identify the protein source in the food and eat just that. For example, if I must eat a very fattening stew with different types of carbs in it, I will focus on eating only the meat in the food.

3) Avoid fried foods

If something is fried, avoid it. That is the rule. Some exceptions apply. For example, if everything on the table is fried, you will not survive with only salad and asking for something boiled or grilled might not always be an option.

Personal recommendation:

  • Just make sure to remove any excess oil and any bread coating on top (if any).

 4) Avoid dressings and sauces

Gravies, dressings and sauces are usually overwhelmed with different kinds of oils that will overload your digestion and make your waistline grow.

Keep it simple. A great salad dressing is vinegar and olive oil. A simple tomato sauce is great as long as it does not have any weird vegetable oils.

Personal recommendation:

  • If you eat somewhere where people pour gravy on the food, ask for no gravy or at least ask them to put just a tad so that you can try it.
A tradtional family dinner table

Would you be able to find the right combination of foods while eating at this table?

5) Try to avoid things you cannot identify

If it’s made into a paste and has a color you cannot identify, skip it. This way you will save yourself from unwanted surprises. If you are still feeling adventurous, ask for the ingredients.

This, on the other hand, requires that you actually have solid nutritional knowledge of good and bad food combinations.

6) Do not combine foods from the same food group

One of the most important rules in eating healthy is to never mix foods from the same food group. For example, if you are going to eat carbs, stick to only one kind such as potatoes.

As a rule I never mix potatoes with rice, or pasta with potatoes, pita bread with rice or hummus (most ethnic cuisines require such combinations as they enhance taste and digestion).

Personal recommendations:

  • While I usually do not combine different sources of proteins either, if my selections are limited, I often opt for that as it is the lesser of all evils.
  • If the food is purely vegetarian, I would try to focus on eating only one source of carbs that I can find (like potatoes)

7) Do not over-eat

The fact that a food appears light does not mean that you are fully aware of its fat content.

Plus if you are presented with foods cooked with spices you have not tried before, your digestive system might be in a bit of shock so try not to fill your stomach no matter how tasty the food may be.

Personal recommendation:

  • Eat very slowly. In some cultures or families, if someone sees an empty plate, they will fill it up again for you. It is part of taking care of your guest (my father tends to do that).

8) Do not use any salt or condiments

Excessive salt use is a great way to increase your waistline and lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.

Always taste your food before adding extra salt. In most cases, the dishes always have enough salt. In the case of exotic/ethnic dishes, they might even be overloaded with it.

Using extra salt will up the sodium content which will lead to water retention and cardiovascular problems.

As for the condiments, even though I do not think that mayo can or should be added to ethnic foods, someone might be tempted to try it. If you are one of those people, just remember that your food has been cooked with an excess of fats already and adding more fat to your plate will only assist in making your belly bigger.

9) Limit the consumption of alcoholic drinks

Most of the times, awesome family dinners are accompanied with alcoholic drinks.

Alcohol has the tendency to disrupt digestion as the body now focuses on getting rid of the alcohol and cannot focus on extracting energy from your food.

It also dehydrates you and can affect your judgement which can lead to overeating.

On top of that, most alcoholic drinks are made of estrogenic substances (such as hops in beer) which can lead to hormonal imbalances in both men and women.

Other alcoholic drinks such as snaps or liqueur have an amazingly high level of sugar which is not something you should have in your body. The combination of alcohol, impaired digestion and sugar can make you a fat making machine in no time.

Personal recommendations:

  • If you are asked to drink, drink slowly and ask for something pure. (caution: pure alcoholic drinks are much stronger).
    Opt for more pure alcohols such as ouzo, arak or a good quality wine and do not over-do it. One to two glasses is enough to keep you healthy and enjoying your meal.
  • A good way to make sure you don’t drink too much is to take small sips from your glass and to not allow others to fill it up (as it usually happens).

10) Dealing with peer pressure

Eating out with your family or being a guest at an exotic/ethnic dinner can be quite challenging for all the reasons I mentioned above.

Keep in mind that not all people are nutritionally educated. This means that your food choices or ‘preferences’ will not only make you appear peculiar but it will raise a serious amount of questions from everyone present.

Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that answering the same questions over and over again can be so annoying and tiresome. (‘Why are you eating this way? Are you sick or something? Why is this way of eating healthy? etc)

No matter how much you try, no matter how much knowledge you have, answering these questions is completely pointless as not only will it fail to educate them but in addition, it will frustrate you along the way. Just smile and say something like “This is what I like to eat” and try to tell them what they can bring you.

You must realize that the reason behind their questions is because they want to understand you better so that they can serve what is best for you. This is something that comes pre-installed in all good hosts who care about their guests and it is perfectly normal. They will try to please you. If they do not understand you, they will feel powerless to do so and that will make them feel bad and in some cases even dishonored. Instead of trying to educate them, just tell them what you can eat (skipping the reasons why).

Speaking of honor, it is very important to honor the invitation you have received in one way or the other.

And yes, you should always be careful about what you put in your body, but at the same time you must always remain respectful. Sometimes you will be asked to try something that you shouldn’t be consuming. If that’s the case and you find yourself unable to decline, try to make ends meet. Go for the lesser of evils by combining the tips mentioned above plus the following:

Personal Recommendations:

  • My first and best choice is always getting a big plate of animal protein without any bread, sauces, potatoes and other stuff.
  • If on the other hand, I find myself somewhere where there is nothing that I can truly eat, then I would focus on getting as much salad as possible without any dressing or with pure olive oil and apple vinegar.

Eating with family or being a guest somewhere while following a specific nutritional plan is never easy. Following the contents of this guide will help you make the right choices (or the least bad) so that you can still have fun, try new flavors, eat a healthy portion of food and at the same time please your host or family.

Have you been in a similar situation? What was the menu like and how did you handle it? If you could do it again, what would you do differently? Leave a comment about it below!

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by Nick Sigma
C.W.C, E.H, YRT-200

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