What Kids Eat Around the World: Italy

The stereotypes are true: Italians live to eat, and their kids are no exception. Though you will see dusty jars of baby food on supermarket shelves, many mamme still opt to home-prepare baby’s first foods, often a milled vegetable soup, drizzled with olive oil and topped with grated Parmesan. Lucky babies!

Italian food is vastly regional—drive 30 minutes in any direction and you’ll find a completely new set of traditional foods (pasta and pizza are constants, with some exceptions, though the shapes and saucing of the former run an infinite gamut). Italian children are trained from birth to sit through long meals, although they are also encouraged to get down from the table and run around between courses; these days, in fact, there are even some high-end restaurants with large spaces adjacent to the dining rooms for kids to play in, complete with babysitters and activities on-site.

Breakfast most often means cookies and cake, along with a big bowl of warm milk or hot chocolate to dunk them in. The breakfast cookie options at grocery stores are staggering—most tend to not be too sugary, but there is plenty of chocolate. Indeed, the idea that chocolate is beneficial for children in the morning is prevalent. You’ll often see television commercials for chocolaty, cream-filled cakes that refer to “giving your children the energy they need to get through the day.” But let’s be clear: Sweets for breakfast are not just a kid thing. Many Italians continue eating this way through adulthood—it’s not uncommon to enjoy a quick cornetto (think: sweet croissant) with your cappuccino at a coffee bar before work.

School lunch is as impressive as the famed French school lunches, although arguably less challenging, because Italian food is inherently kid-friendly. Still, there is an assumed culture of serving the kids a single meal and expecting them to eat it, and meals from home are prohibited (though there have been some court challenges to this rule and parent victories in recent years). Lunches are overwhelmingly prepared from scratch in both public and private schools, with government-driven incentives that favor organic growers. Lunches begin with a primo of pasta (such as pasta tossed with pesto, beans, tomato sauce, or vegetables), risotto, or soup (like vegetable soup or tortellini in brodo). Then it’s time for a secondo like chicken or turkey cutlets, roast beef, tuna, meatballs, mozzarella, or boiled eggs. There is always a vegetable (carrots, peas, salad, mashed potatoes, spinach), a piece of bread, and a fruit to finish it off. Menus are designed in collaboration with the cooks and a nutritionist and are sent home so that families can refer to them to prevent duplication at dinnertime.

School lunch is as impressive as the famed French school lunches, although arguably less challenging, because Italian food is inherently kid-friendly.

Unlike lunch, kids are allowed to bring snacks from home to eat mid-morning, and families tend to pack them generously, with the idea that some sharing and swapping might be going on. Think: a panino, a pair of small pizzas, or pizza bianca (salted but otherwise naked pizza crust); that said, packaged foods are huge for snacks, so it will just as likely be a store-bought piece of cake or crostata (jam pie). After-school snacks tend to be lighter, like fruit juice, although teens and college kids can often be spotted picking up a slice of pizza or a rice ball from takeout pizza joints. Gelato is another afternoon favorite.

Now that it’s not uncommon for both parents to work outside the home, dinner is sometimes light, but it’s still not unusual to have a multi-course meal at the end of the day. Those families with small children might serve a hardier version of the milled vegetable soup with some pastina or meat added. A primo, secondo, and veggie sides are the usual fare, and beans are quite common, either as a part of the primo or as their own side dish. Dine-in pizzerias typically only serve in the evening, so a common way to cap off a day with a huge lunch is with dinner in a pizzeria (the pizzas are thin-crusted and light, and dinner is quite late, so this isn’t as crazy as it sounds). One might reason that the key to how Italians have held onto their food traditions is how very well everyone eats here, all day long. Who would be tempted to do anything differently?

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