A Recipe for Joyful Living

Celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis shares her advice for a happy, healthy new year.

Posted in , Dec 20, 2013

Giada De Laurentiis

We all know about new Year’s resolutions, those big promises we make to ourselves every January first–lose 10 pounds, join a gym, give up eating ice cream before bed.

And we all know what happens. We start backsliding by the second week, and by the end of the month, we find ourselves in our pj’s with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, feeling like failures. Again.

Don’t get me wrong–I believe in good health. But I also believe in being realistic. (Last year my biggest resolution was to take some time off, a real family vacation, which we hadn’t done in six years, and we actually managed that.)

So take a bit of advice from someone who cooks for a living. No Spartan diets, no self-recrimination, no punishing workouts, just a few sensible guides to eating right. You can eat well and still eat right. Your family will feel better and you will too.

You might even drop a few pounds, but mostly, you will be happy because you will be feeding body and soul. Here’s my recipe for well-being.

1. Gather round the table.
In my family, as in many Italian families, meals aren’t just about eating, they’re about sharing and connecting. Maybe that’s why it takes us so long to eat! We’re too busy talking and laughing. We love each other and we love food. It’s in our genes.

My great-grandparents owned a pasta factory in Naples. My grandfather Dino De Laurentiis made his name as a movie producer, but he started out as a boy selling pasta door-to-door.

I was born in Italy, but we moved to America when I was young, and one of the things we brought with us was the Italian idea of a big weekend lunch, a meal that can start anytime after one-thirty in the afternoon and might stretch on into the early evening.

It’s not the prelude to the day’s activities, it’s the main event.

Sunday afternoons we’d gather at my grandfather’s and everybody would crowd into the kitchen. One of my earliest memories of cooking was making pizza.

My grandfather, Dino, gave each of us kids a ball of dough and we would roll it out with a rolling pin–think of how fun that was–and then add toppings: salami, olives, peppers, cheese. He’d put them in the oven and we’d laugh and play and joke until they were ready.

A meal wasn’t just about food, it was about togetherness. About love.

Those family meals always began with a blessing from Grandfather, a big spiritual thank-you for the food and for us. He had survived tough times during World War II and knew what it was to go hungry. He was grateful.

When you eat slowly, talking to people you love, bonding with them, appreciating what’s on your plate, you eat healthier. You live better.

You don’t have family close by? Invite friends to share a meal with you. Welcome them into the kitchen. I’m honored when someone asks me to help them cook. That’s when I know they’re really letting me into their life.

2. Eat a little of everything, but not a lot of anything.
This is my number one rule about eating. I don’t believe in diets. Food is not the enemy. Diets are tough to stick to and cause a sense of deprivation, often resulting in roller-coaster weight loss and gain, not to mention mood swings.

I’m not a yo-yo. You don’t need to be one either. Instead adopt a balanced way of cooking and eating that works for you. If you make smart choices, your taste buds will grow used to them. Your body will tell you what it needs.

I learned a lot about good eating from my mom. She always made dinner from scratch. Not fancy things, basic things. Meatloaf, pasta, lasagna, chicken, risotto, polenta, meatballs, and always something green on the plate–broccoli, spinach, arugula.

My parents never really overindulged. It’s hard not to when you go out to eat. Restaurants serve giant portions and you feel compelled to eat every bite.

At home, you have more control over the portion sizes. And when you cook it yourself, you’re more likely to appreciate all the good flavors. Besides, it’s cheaper.

Even today, cooking all day long in a TV studio, I can’t wait to cook at home for my family. I feel like a dancer following my own choreography, reaching for a little of this, a little of that. 

My husband, Todd, is from the Midwest and loves meat, so I’ll grill a small steak for him and add a fried egg on top. I’ll do a quick penne with spinach sauce or fettuccine with broccoli rabe for our daughter, Jade.

It makes me happy to know I can make them happy. I nourish my soul by nourishing my family.

3. Grazing is good.
While breakfast is absolutely the most important meal of the day, you can forget that old rule about not snacking between meals. Five smaller meals are so much better for you; they are easier for you to digest than three big ones, and make for a healthy metabolism.

Instead of the highs and lows and feeling like you’re starved or stuffed, you stay even-keeled throughout the day. Try it. Your body adapts to this routine and begins to work much more efficiently.

Vegetables, legumes and fruits–all packed with fiber–make up most of what I eat. When I want pasta (which is often), I have it at lunch so I have more time to use its fuel during the day.

At dinnertime, I pack in a little more protein to hold me until morning, and I make sure to give myself plenty of time to digest before I go to bed; I aim for three hours or so before falling asleep. Most doctors will tell you that’s best.

For snacks I always have a ziplock bag of almonds handy. If I go out, I tend to order several appetizers instead of an entrée. If we’re invited to a buffet, I pick up a small plate and fill it. That way I don’t overeat. The ideal serving should be about the size of your palm.

4, Tune in to your body.
When I was younger I was totally addicted to sugar. I relied on it to give me energy boosts throughout the day. In fact, I would eat less “regular” food in order to leave room for dessert. If it was chocolate, it was for me: chocolate-covered almonds, graham crackers, cookies, chocolate anything.

I put tons of sugar in my coffee and iced tea. I was also into the Italian custom of dipping sugar cubes in espresso and sucking on them.

This didn’t affect me much when I was in my twenties. I had more energy in general and didn’t see a huge downside to eating that way.

When I became pregnant, however, everything changed. I was responsible for this little life inside of me and I took the saying “eating for two” to heart. My body needed–and my baby deserved–better. This made me rethink my whole lifestyle, my whole relationship with food.

So I started making little adjustments here and there, changing bit by bit. I cut down on my sugar intake. I ate more, which makes sense because I was pregnant, but I was eating more vegetables, protein and whole grains and a lot less junk. I started using organic ingredients and produce.

And guess what? I felt better–even better than better. Pregnant. It was a miracle.

Once Jade was born, I didn’t revert to my old habits. I was named Giada, which means jade in Italian, because of my green eyes. We gave our daughter the same name, just Americanized.

Jade has taught me so many things, but I like to think of this new lifestyle as her first lesson, her first gift to me. A blessing that changed my life.

5. Celebrate.
In Italy, certain holidays are associated with certain foods. Just the way Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving, Italians eat fish on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally it should be seven courses of fish–seven for the seven hills of Rome, or for the seventh day, when God rested, or maybe because seven is the most often used number in the Bible.

In our family, we don’t have all seven courses, but we always have fish, and at Easter, naturally, we eat lamb. Lamb ragù or stuffed lamb shoulder or lamb chops.

And on New Year’s Eve it’s lentils. They’re supposed to bring prosperity (probably because they’re round, like coins). Let me recommend my mother’s vegetarian “meatloaf,” which is full of lentils, good for you and good to eat as well.

There’s no reason to compromise taste for the cause of good health. They can go hand in hand. They do in my kitchen and can in yours. Food is a connection to who we are, how God made us and how we can make our loved ones happy. Buon appetito. Buon anno. Happy New Year.

Try Giada's mother's recipe for vegetarian "meatloaf"!


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