What living in Italy has taught me about food
and feeding my family
I recently spent a month back home in Australia after almost three years away and something about this visit felt different. I suspect it was because it was the longest I had remained in Italy since moving here in 2005 without going home. Maybe being a forced homebody for the past two years too makes me feel more rooted in my Italian life than ever before.
One of the things that felt starkly different to me on this visit was how feeding children was approached and viewed. Meals just felt more stressful, like we aren't just here to enjoy each other's company, we are here to get food down little people's throats, with quite a lot of judgement over what they were or were not eating. I also felt a lot of casual diet culture pressure being thrown around, like being told gelato or pizza is good or bad, or certain foods being restricted. These are things that I had really forgotten about because we simply don't experience them in our community in Tuscany, where pizza is considered a perfectly balanced meal and gelato an ideal kid's snack.
When we returned to Italy, I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief – relief at being able to relax again and not be judged if my children want a gelato on a hot day, relief at simply being able to have a peaceful, casual dinner with my family where we can chat and connect. It made me realise that a lot of the differences that I was feeling over food are actually cultural.
I've been living in Italy for almost two decades. My husband is Italian, my girls are Italian, they go to Italian schools and have really only known the Italian way of life in their short lives. It's not that diet culture doesn't exist here – it does, and you're bombarded with it with seemingly harmless yogurt ads and it's quite common to get a straightforward commentary on exactly how much weight you've gained or lost from a relative you haven't seen in a while. But – and I've been trying to put my finger on it for the past couple of weeks – there is simply a different relationship with food and feeding, one that is so strong that it radiates through the every day, from family meals to school snacks to the long summertime habits.
I can remember a time when I didn't understand some of the things that were done so differently – admittedly it was well before having children, when holidaying at the beach in Tuscany with my sister in law with her kids, I was aghast at the idea that the children would eat cookies for breakfast, and would nap all afternoon long so that they could stay up until midnight eating gelato.
But once I did have children in Italy I realised I had gotten so many things wrong (ha!). The beach, where all Tuscan families flock to in July and August, is literally too hot to be on with children in the summer afternoons. It's so hot that playgrounds come to life only after the sun goes down. Children's jumping castles and carousels open from after dinner time (so 9pm) until midnight. Gelaterie are open until midnight too because everyone – babies, children, teenagers, grandparents and their dogs – wants to enjoy the cooler night air without a gelato melting instantly in your hand. I thought it was all insane until I actually experienced it with my own child and then it was like a lightbulb moment. It all makes perfect sense here.
Now, I don't know what we would do without our local gelateria. It is a lifesaver in the summertime when it is sweltering and going out for gelato is the one thing we look forward to during the long, hot days at home – standing in a line of small children and families for gelato at 10 or 11pm before walking home and going to bed is an almost daily ritual in the summer. I can see why Sicilians even eat it for breakfast, stuffed in a brioche bun.
The cookies for breakfast thing took me a long time to come around to as well. One look at the local bar or pastry shop and you'll realise that something sweet for breakfast is the preference in Italy – usually a cornetto, perhaps jam-filled, or a custard-stuffed, sugar-crusted sfogliatina, or even a slice of cake, to go with coffee. I do love a good scrambled egg on toast or maybe muesli, but I couldn't do cake for breakfast so I struggled with this when I first moved here (I didn't even drink coffee, but have since learned to adore a cornetto and espresso for breakfast). But when my eldest was young one of the few things I could get her to eat at all was a soft boiled egg with toast fingers, and my Tuscan mother in law was mortified that anyone, but especially a child, would want to eat a soft-boiled egg on its own in the morning instead of her other grandchildrens' favourite, cookies dipped in milk. She would be eating a pastry filled with rice pudding, a Florentine favourite, with her orzo, or barley coffee.
When I asked an American writer friend of mine, Vera, who lives in Florence, about what cultural differences she appreciates about living in Italy she replied similarly, “I love how acceptable it is for kids to eat sweets, especially at breakfast. We eat really good quality sweets and since they're never forbidden, my on never goes overboard with them. He knows there will be another chance for something delicious soon. It's wonderful how destigmatized eating sweets is here in Italy! Or perhaps not destigmatized... because there was never a stigma?”
It's not just a more relaxed attitude over what sweet things might be acceptable for children (and adults alike) but other things too – many Italian friends had their first taste of wine at the table with their family at ages as young as 8, maybe watered down, or be allowed to dip biscotti into dessert wine, as my husband Marco remembers. He was also given bread sprinkled with sugar and red wine as a snack as young boy – many Tuscans in his generation will get nostalgic over the memory of this snack too. And his nonna used to love scooping up the dregs of the coffee-logged, undissolved sugar out of the bottom of the espresso cup with the teaspoon and feeding it to the grandchildren.
Seeing food and drink as something joyful and to be savoured and as an opportunity to be with people and connect is one of the things that I feel Italians have really turned into an art form. Food is not just fuel, and mealtimes are not just for the act of feeding, it is an opportunity to connect with someone. It is also culture and identity, it is family and traditions, it is not something to feel “guilty” about.
From a really young age, eating together is a priority. At pre-school and elementary school, school lunches are always eaten together – the children sit with their teacher and their entire class at the table and they all eat the one same meal together. Dinner time is the time to be together as a family and young Italian children have relatively late bedtimes – often well after 8:30pm on a week night, if not later. The reason is because families want to eat together, so the children wait for their parents to come home from work, dinner is made and they sit down all together to share it.
You might be wondering how do they get the kids to wait until so late to eat dinner? The afternoon merenda, or after school snack, plays a big part in getting children out of a “hangry” state so they can make it until dinner time. What this snack is obviously varies from household to household but in Tuscany it is commonly a panino (my eldest's favourite is two slices of Tuscan bread or focaccia with salame, prosciutto or, if she is in the mood for something sweet, chocolate hazelnut spread), or perhaps a simple pane e olio (bread with a generous drizzle of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil), a slice of pizza a taglio or crostata (jam tart) and in the summer it could be gelato.
Aperitivo is another way to enjoy a nibble before dinner (literally it comes from the word “to open”, as in it “opens your stomach”) and I have always loved this ritual, one we only get to do maybe once a week on Marco's night off. It might be around 7pm or so. He and I will get a spritz, the girls might get juice or limonata and we'll share a bowl of chips and nuts, then go home and make dinner. It's just a really nice moment to be together and outside, usually perched on a bench, where we'll spot people we know walking past who will stop and chat, and the girls might see a friend or make a new one. Aperitivo time is an important social past time in Italy, a moment to pause or catch up over a glass of wine. Someone wrote to me about her doing this with her children (4 and 6 years old), “I love that they adapt [to] this culture and enjoy it together with us and it's a time to slow down and be together – just us or with friends.”
Someone wrote to me about the family meal and it sounded exactly like our Tuscan household and our approach to eating together: “My Italian family's (and now in-laws too) focus on eating together at the table made food primarily about enjoyment and sharing, rather than a means to being fed. I'm almost certain eating with my family as a child meant that I was encouraged to try new foods and appreciate the effort to prepare a meal. I can't imagine not doing the same with my future children.”
Italy has taught me that being at the table is about being together. I personally want the family table to be a place where we can connect and we can't do that if we aren't relaxed. I want my children to remember feeling safe and happy at the table. Mariù, my eldest, has been an anxious eater since about the age of 3 or 4 (she's now 9). She used to turn down playdates because the thought of eating or being offered certain foods she didn't like in front of other people made her so nervous and would go whole days at school basically fasting. Her stomach (like all of us) is where she feels the biggest impact of any kind of emotion and I can just tell from the look on her face now when she has that feeling. No matter what it is on her plate, even her very favourite comfort food, she will very suddenly feel not hungry if that peace gets disturbed.
So I focused on helping her have a positive relationship with food by making sure she could play with it – we would make pasta, pizza, cakes, gelato at home, we even did a series of video recipes together, and it didn't matter if she ate it or not, we were just exploring. I would let her play with flour or dried beans and legumes – make pictures with them, just run her hands through them. I would take her to the market with me and we would play a game naming the fruit and vegetables, we would visit my friends' farms and see goats getting milked, mozzarella being made or collect eggs. And I do think that living in Italy made all of this so much easier for us.
She's finally moving out of this phase now, but this is one of the reasons why peaceful mealtimes became so sacred for us. I didn't want to see her looking panicked, tears running down her face, over a harmless but seemingly offensive ingredient or meal, it is terrible to see this kind of anxiety in your child and my heart goes out to parents who have to deal with this (side note, if you are someone who needs advice on this, you should look up the wonderful Katja Rowell MD aka “The feeding doctor”, her instagram is full of great advice for parents who have trouble feeding their children, but also antidiet too).
I love that in Italy everyone knows something about food and is willing to talk about it. Seasonal eating is really the norm, thanks to strong traditions that tie certain foods and dishes to every month of the year and also thanks to the abundant fruit and vegetable markets in every town where you can literally see the evidence of the seasons.
Another friend, Terri Salminen, recounted to me her childhood growing up as an expat immersed in the Veneto with memories of catching fireflies during long dinners with friends and neighbours, “If you ask me what had a positive impact on my view of food, I would have to say it is all the talk about raw ingredients, about food on the table and how it was cooked — of equal interest to men and women! — and of course all the conversations about the food to be prepared and shared at the next opportunity to meet. I learned from Italian culture to stand still and love the sight of an artichoke or tomato, to appreciate an unsalted bread roll or a leftover piece of grilled polenta.”
It reminded me that there is an entire book basically dedicated to exploring this, Why Italians Love to Talk about Food by Elena Kostioukovitch, where she writes, “The aroma of a simmering ragú, the bouquet of a local wine, the remembrance of a past meal: Italians discuss these details as naturally as we talk about politics or sports, and often with the same flared tempers.”
The fact that people often know a producer or have a friend or family member connected to food helps this appreciation of where food comes from too – there is that friend who makes their own wine, or has their own olive trees, a cousin who has ducks and chickens and will bring you free eggs, a neighbour who has a tree brimming with persimmons (or bitter oranges or a grove of artichokes), a cleaning lady who's brother goes hunting for wild boar or deer and each season comes around with a huge chunk of it to stash in your freezer, the hairdresser who forages mushrooms round the corner from his daughter's pre-school. Yes, these are weirdly specific because they're all real people in my life!
Eating intuitively, not demonising, forcing or restricting food, understanding where food comes from and taking an approach where meals are about being together and feeling loved, is what we needed to get through the past several years of difficult eating with minimal stress and also what I want for me and my family anyway – it makes it so much easier to try to raise two girls to love themselves, enjoy life and be confident and respectful of their own bodies. I feel so grateful that we are living in a culture where this positive outlook on food is exactly what is celebrated every single meal.