You’ve seen this one before: a Greek Orthodox Church decked head to toe in the blue and white colors of the Greek flag, people wearing Greek flag hats and T-shirts standing in long lines waiting to get in to the festivities, and kids scrambling past those in lines with ease because their traditional Greek costume—that sometimes looks like a Greek flag–is their free entry pass. Did I mention the Greek flags? It’s the highly anticipated annual Greek Festival. No matter where you live, you can find a Greek Festival near you. They are like Starbucks. There are no shortages of them. You could travel across America and find a Greek Festival every month of the year, except December, when even Greeks take a holiday break.
Greek festivals are something else. All those kids who passed by you earlier will soon be performing their dances throughout the day while battling the heat in their overly layered and heavy Greek costumes. Booths and shops tempt you to purchase items from far away Greece—or Astoria. More lines develop as people await delicious Greek treats, eats, and drinks—which are certainly the crown jewel of a Greek Festival, and which is the purpose of this column. Let’s enjoy our Greek festivals and not feel guilty about it.
If you are not Greek: You’ve been thinking about that gyro and baklava since last year’s festival, and you’re fine with standing in any kind of line to get to it.
If you are Greek: You’ve already eaten a year supply of gyros and baklava just this month, so you’re either a dancer, a parent of a dancer, a food line volunteer, or you’re jumping at the chance for another parea opportunity. Not only are you there to celebrate your culture, you’re also there to make sure all those non-Greeks, xenia, have the time of their lives. In the end, everyone is there to do what Greeks to best: eat, drink, dance and party.
Luckily, as Zeus would have it, traditional Greek food is naturally healthy, and the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world. It’s the over-consumption of these foods that is the problem, and overeating is something people do at every Greek festival. I’m 24-years-old. I have never missed Salt Lake City’s Greek festival (one of the country’s largest and most successful). I’ve learned much about the food we serve and I am offering some simple tips to make your Greek Festival easy on your waistline. Here are 5 small festival eating tweaks plus one simple suggestion to make your next Greek festival visit a lean one.
- First, fill your plate with vegetables and finger food. Every Greek festival will have them. Load up on salates (salad) or fassolakia (green beans in tomato sauce). Both are delicious and healthy choices. This is also a good time to add some finger items to your plate. While they may be buttery or contain fatty oils, they still remain healthy. So go ahead with some cheese and olives. Have a piece of tiropita (cheese pie) or spanakopita (spinach pie). All of these items, even if they are buttery or filled with filo, will fill you up fast and slow you down as you eat. By having a lot of variety on your plate, you’ll ultimately eat more slowly and eat less. Just don’t load up on them. And don’t gobble.
- Greeks love meat (what do you mean you don’t eat no meat?) so you’ll definitely be able to find protein at any Greek festival. Think Atkins diet. Load up on protein. The best options are skewered or baked meats, especially chicken or lean pork. If you must have pita, have a small piece. And try to avoid—seriously—gyros.
- No Greek festival is complete without lots of carbohydrate options. You’re likely going to find pilafi (Greek lemon rice), pastichio (Greek meat casserole), and patates (potatoes). Not to mention an assortment of pitas and bread. Here is what you must do: If you’re going to have any of these, pick a favorite and stick to it. (For example, don’t have potatoes plus rice). One and out. Again, don’t load up. Your plate should be full of salad, remember?
- Greeks are world famous for our desserts. We have baklava, rizogolo, kataifi, galaktoboureko, loukoumades, melomakarona and need I go on? I’m not even going to list all the rest because to a foreign ear it all sounds like gibberish and we just want to eat them, right? It’s true: everything in moderation. So, have dessert. Here’s the trick however. Order a plate full of different desserts, have one or two, but then save the rest and serve them at your next party, take them to a neighbors home, or bring them back to your festival table and share with everyone around you. You will make many friends. Just sit back, nibble on a koulouria, dip it in your Greek coffee and enjoy. Let everyone else have the Greek fanny, not you.
- Which is the final tip for today. What do I wash down all that food with? At most Greek festivals you’ll have an assortment of sodas, beers, wine, alcohol and the previously mentioned Greek coffee. That’s all fine, just don’t start screaming “OPA” to the security guards. Again, it’s moderation. Nothing ruins any Greek party faster than a loud drunk. Haven’t we all noticed throughout Greece, we seldom see a drunk local person? Why ruin your Greek festival by over consuming alcohol, which contains extra calories, and will cause you to eat more. It’s a double edged sword. If you can’t stick to plain water, I suggest wine. As for Greek coffee or frappes, the solution is simple—avoid the sugar. Sugar is the number one cause of diabetes in America, and no one is exempt. Order your caffeine either metrio (light sugar, light cream) or sketo (no sugar).
And here’s that bonus tip: get up and walk around. If they’ll allow it, join in for a Greek dance or two, even if you don’t know the steps. You’ll burn calories while you’re at the festival.
During a Greek Festival it’s inevitable to be tempted by every food, drink, and sweet option imaginable. If you failed at the above tips, and over consumed too much, start the next day, getting more activity and eating less, and don’t put yourself down for it. Enjoy everything there is to do at a Greek festival, but just don’t get a Greek fanny over it.