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What We Can All Learn From Italian Mealtime Culture

Valentina Olivadese, MSHN

Italians love food. It may sound like a stereotype but trust me, it’s the truth. 

I’d know. I was born and raised in Italy, after all. 

Of course, I cannot speak for all the sixty-million plus people who live on the boot-shaped peninsula kicking the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. But I can speak for all I have experienced growing up in the land where pizza is gourmet food and where mealtimes are almost sacred. 

I can also confidently speak about how different Italy and the United States are when it comes to food and mealtime culture. And believe me, in some regards they are very different. 

I’d know. I’ve lived in the States for over a decade now.

The first difference, and the one that struck me the most when I first moved to the United States, was how little time is spent having lunch. Most people I know dedicate 15 to 30 minutes to lunch and often eat at their desk while working. Some people don’t even have lunch on a daily basis! My experiences with lunch in Italy could not be more different. 

Growing up I remember my mom often reminding my dad to rush to the store or a government office before noon. Why? Because after 12 o’clock stores and offices would be closed until at least 3pm. Every employee and store owner expected and wanted to have plenty of time to go home and have lunch with their families.

Things have since changed in Italy and most offices and stores are open at lunchtime now. However, if you do visit a store or office at lunchtime expect longer waits and reduced personnel. What are you even doing visiting an office or shopping at 1pm? Why aren’t you enjoying your lunch with family, friends, or colleagues? 

Mealtimes are not just a sacred time for family and friends in Italy but also a time of pleasure and leisure. There’s a saying in Italy: “a tavola non s’invecchia” —at the table one does not grow old. The longer one can spend at the table, the better. Every meal is a chance to relax, enjoy, and chat at length from appetizer to dessert and espresso.

Topics of conversation around the American tables are also very different in my experience. Americans at the table usually talk about food while eating. They comment on how healthy or unhealthy the food is, what’s “good” and what’s “bad,” about calories, nutrients, and restriction. In the words of Paul Rozin, professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, “there is a sense among many Americans that food is as much a poison as it is a nutrient, and that eating is almost as dangerous as not eating.” 

Have a meal with Italians and the most you will hear about food will revolve around its taste, how different it was when their mom made it, and how they would have cooked it (better) instead. Food talk is limited to the first bites though, replaced for the rest of the meal by talk about politics, society, gossip, and family. Health or dieting rarely come up.

I think that Italians and Americans care about health equally. However, health is not what first comes to the mind of an Italian when thinking about food. Pasta doesn’t mean “carbs” or “gluten” in Italy; it means “al dente” or “Sunday family lunch” or “mom’s ragout.” In Italian culture, food is first about pleasure, sharing, and family.

I was lucky to be born in Italy and to carry the Italian culture for meals in my blood. While recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the eating disorder that came with it, this innate sense of approaching food and meals with respect and love was a lighthouse in the fog of my disordered eating. But I do believe that the Italian positive attitude toward food and meals can be learned. 

How do you start eating like an Italian? See more in food than just calories and nutrients and health and restriction. Use every meal as a chance to connect with those you love. In other words, make food about something more than just you. 

Valentina is on a mission to promote wellness through fearless, joyful eating. After suffering and recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Valentina earned her Master’s Degree in Holistic Nutrition at American College of Healthcare Science. Valentina is now launching Valiant Nutrition, which she hopes will become a source of hope and relief for chronic dieters and people who struggle with disordered eating and trauma.