Over winter break, I, a measly Midwestern Nutrition & Dietetics major, stepped out of the cushy comfy-ness of my country for the first time in my life. I spent two weeks traipsing Salerno, Italy with my fellow Nutrition majors, seeing sights and eating mind-blowing food. Italy was the perfect place to begin the exploring I've been dreaming of, but as a first-time international traveler, I found myself constantly comparing what I was learning to what I knew about American eating habits.

As I was catching a glimpse of the everyday lives of southern Italians, I looked back on my own culture through a new lens. Here are nine(ish) American eating habits that Italian culture has no place for. 

1. Our Elaborate Breakfast Traditions

When we wake up in the morning here in the states, we crave bacon, pancakes, eggs, cereal, French toast — the list goes on and on. Italians, however, drink coffee, then maybe eat a croissant and some fruit. Some don't eat breakfast at all. This could be due to the fact that they start their day later than we do, putting their lunchtime at about 1 or 2 pm. Regardless, if you're anything like me, your American stomach can't handle this whole 'no breakfast' thing.

2a. Our Coffee

In Italy, coffee or "cafe" is strictly espresso. To get the low-concentrated American coffee you're thinking of, you have to order an "Americano" - and even then, it will be stronger than what you're used to. A day in Southern Italy starts with at least one teeny-tiny shot (but usually several) of espresso from a bar down the street for less than a Euro. 

2b. Our Cappuccino-Drinking Habits

Italians have this unspoken rule that most tourists are completely unaware of, myself included pre-Salerno. Here in the heartland of America, I wouldn't think twice about picking up a cappuccino in the afternoon. I mean, I need an afternoon or even night cup of coffee as fuel to get my studying done, and I'd prefer milk be involved. In Italy, though, they don't care.

They never, ever, EVER drink cappuccinos after 11 am. It is an absolute no-no. Our sweet Italian tour guide made sure we understood this, explaining the widespread belief that drinking milk after lunch will bring your digestion to a screeching halt. By then, it's espresso only — ordering otherwise will out you as a foolish American, and they won't like you very much.

3. Taking Leftovers To Go

Eris Rolves

In Italy, you finish all your food in the restaurant. To a restaurant owner, a clean plate means you loved what they served you. Some were visibly disappointed when there was still food left on my plate, and would excitedly say things like "Oh, you liked it!" when I ate it all. My determination to not disappoint these sweet people meant that I was never not full and my stomach is still traumatized

This also means that Italians eat a lot. All my life, I was under the impression Americans ate too much. But after watching a woman my size (full disclosure: I am a stick) devour some sort of enormous cheese- and spinach-filled bread dish in mere minutes, I realized we were not alone. 

4. Our Mindless Eating

Lissane Kafie

Here in the good ole USA, eating is just another chore to check off of our to-do list, as evidenced by our love of fast and convenient food. Some days, I have to sit and think hard about whether or not I ate lunch. This mentality would make the average Italian cringe.

Food is an art, and every meal is an event. Each dish comes out one at a time, as opposed to being all placed on the table for simultaneous consumption. They always eat with others, allowing them to take their time and enjoy the beautiful and delicious food they've prepared. Eating is the most important part of their day — they wouldn't dare rush their food or let it go unappreciated. 

5. Drinking Tap Water

Upon sitting down in a restaurant in the US, the first thing the server often does is bring you an ice cold glass of water, free of charge. In most of the Italian restaurants, we visited, however, we had to ask specifically for water. When it came, it came bottled, in a sparking and regular variety, and with a charge on the bill.

I spent the whole trip wondering if there was a stigma against staying hydrated in this country. Further investigation revealed that there's actually nothing wrong with their tap water, according to someone who lived there for a decade and a half. It's rather hard and can sometimes taste funny, but they mostly choose bottled water because it seems more sophisticated. 

6. Our Lack of Olive Oil Consumption

tea, sweet, milk, coffee
Susanna Mostaghim

American eating habits involve butter and other various forms of saturated fat when it comes to cooking and flavoring food. For us, olive oil is just a trendy option we use when we're trying to make a dish "extra healthy." The same can't be said for Italians, who practically drink the stuff. They put olive oil on absolutely everything, as evidenced by their status as the largest consumer of olive oil globally and hefty consumption rate of about 13 liters per person, per year (compared to 1 liter for Americans). 

7. Alcohol in our Bars

Lissane Kafie

American "bars" and Italian "bars" are completely different establishments. Bars for Americans usually involve alcohol, loud music, and a handful of bad decisions. To an Italian, a bar is a tiny shop opening up to the street for them to pop in, get an espresso shot, and scoot. They're even more populous than Starbucks is in the average American city, and they're always packed with a constantly-moving crowd. Most bars don't even have tables to sit down, and if they do, they charge you extra for doing so. 

8. Being Vegan

Eris Rolves

Vegans in the States typically have a reason why they're passionate about avoiding animal products, despite the fact that our diet is centered around them. Italians, however, aren't familiar with having to actively avoid meat, dairy, and eggs. "Mostly plants" is a concept central to the Mediterranean diet, and "little to no meat" is an idea they've always had. They are all but vegan already — the trend doesn't seem to exist there. 

9. Our Overcomplicated Food

Eris Rolves

As you may have observed in America, figuring out what and how to eat feels unnecessarily confusing. There are endless brands in the food industry and a lot of false information circulating that makes it seem like someone's playing games with your nutrition. My absolute favorite part of Italy, however, was that I got none of these vibes while eating there. 

They respect food entirely too much to make it so complicated. Their meals are as simple as possible - just straight-up food, prepared with TLC. It may sound underwhelming, but the difference in taste definitely is not. The food I ate in Italy was hands-down the best food I've ever eaten.

I think it's important for me (and anyone else for that matter) to get the chance to observe these cultural differences. They helped me get to the root of how, what, and why we eat the way we do, which is a crucial concept for a dietitian-to-be like me to ponder. But for the average layperson, I think countries like Italy, that typically have a great relationship with food, can serve as an example for them to take charge of their own American eating habits.  

Eris Rolves

If nothing else, I just want you to visit Italy and try some legit gelato. That alone will change your life. I mean, look at it.