Whether eating at a taverna in Santorini or enjoying a delicious Greek meal in your locale, this healthy plant-laden Mediterranean cuisine is a pleasure you must experience for yourself. Heavy on foods grown from the earth: lucious red tomatoes, freshly picked and pungent oregano and thyme, shiny and firm purple eggplants and fragrant olive oil. Salty, tangy Feta cheese sliced atop bowls of Greek salad. This is the food of Gods. This is Greek food. Visit a Greek restaurant and the variety of dishes offered is mind-boggling. Greeks love to cook and it shows! There are so many fabulous dishes to try, but if you aren’t familiar with traditional Greek food, you may be unsure of what to request. Whether you just want a traditional dish, such as Spanikopita, or have special dietary needs, such as vegetarian, diabetes, or high cholesterol, you can find something healthy and quite tasty . So let’s visit a Greek menu and give you some ideas for your next visit to either Greece or your local Greek restaurant. Opa!
Overview of Traditional Greek Menu Fare
Greek cuisine includes a wide variety of vegetable dishes, grilled fish and meats. The Greek diet makes wide use of olive oil, lemon juice, vegetables and herbs, grains and bread (they love pita bread!), wine, fish, and various meats, including lamb, poultry, rabbit and pork. Also important are olives, cheese, eggplant, zucchini, artichokes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and yogurt. Some dishes use phyllo pastry. Greeks also love their lemon potatoes and rice. Greek desserts are characterized by the wide use of nuts and honey. If you choose wisely, it’s quite easy to have both a delicious and healthy meal.
Heart-Healthy Meals: Grilled Octopus, Grilled Fish, Grilled Vegetables, Garides with Feta cheese (large grilled shrimp cooked en casserole with Feta), Greek Salad, Horiatiki Salad, Horta (Dandelion greens sauté with olive oil and garlic). If you have a history of heart disease, go easy on the red meat and cheeses. Enjoy more vegetable and grilled fish meals.
Diabetes-Friendly Meals: Dishes rich in vegetables and seafood should be at the top of this list. Greek salad, Vegetable Mousakka, grilled Octupus and fish. Poultry and lean meats. Pay attention to portions of rice and potatoes. Limit to I cup of starchy vegetable or grain per meal. If you want dessert, share with the table and have just a couple bites. Go for a walk after your meal to help lower you blood glucose.
Vegan and Vegetarian Fare: Gigante beans (vegan) known as Butter beans in the States, Spanikopita—traditional spinach and Feta pie baked in phyllo dough (vegetarian–contains butter and Feta cheese), Lentil soup, Meze Platter (vegetarian–includes tzaziki (yogurt and cucumber). To make it vegan, request extra hummus in place of the yogurt. Vegetarian Mousakka is a delicious vegetarian dish consisting of vegetables cooked en casserole topped with a Bechamel sauce.
Five Tips for Eating Well in a Greek Restaurant
- Avoid fried foods, such as fried calamari and fried fish. Choose grilled or broiled fish and meats.
- Start the meal with a Meze platter ( a tasting plate of various dips, usually including, but not limited to, hummous, babaganoush, taramasolata (caviar with yogurt dip) and tzatziki (cucumber with garlic and yogurt), or a Greek salad (romaine lettuce with tomatoes, cucumber, grape leaves, olives and Feta cheese) or Horiatiki salad (a Greek salad sans lettuce). A Meze platter can also be a meal for one person or have it along with a Greek salad for a party of two.
- If you are vegetarian or vegan, the protein- and fiber-packed Gigante beans (traditionally cooked in a rich tomto sauce) can serve as a dinner meal, paired with a Greek salad (sans the cheese if vegan) or a vegetable side.
- Baklava, a delicious pastry of phyllo dough, nuts, and honey is a mainstay of many Greek restaurants. It’s delicious, but quite rich. So order just one for the table.
- Portions can be large. Ask for a take-away box and bring half the meal home. Makes for an easy lunch or dinner the next day.
Lisa Stollman, MA, RDN, CDE, CDN was recently honored as the 2015 Outstanding Dietitian of the Year by the New York Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She loves traveling the world and experiencing new foods and cultures, and meeting interesting people. Lisa is the author of the ebook The Trim Traveler: How to Eat Healthy and Stay Fit While Traveling Abroad (Nirvana Press 2014) and The Teen Eating Manifesto: The Ten Essential Steps to Losing Weight, Looking Great and Getting Healthy (Nirvana Press 2012). Lisa maintains a nutrition practice in NYC and Huntington, Long Island where she specializes in weight management, diabetes and travel nutrition. Lisa is also the CEO of Eat Well Restaurant Nutrition where she collaborates with chefs to get healthy dishes on the menu. For more info on Lisa, visit here.