Season 1

Episode 1: The Modern Dutch Diet

It’s all about potatoes, fish, vegetables and lots of coffee. In this first episode, we take you through the modern-day Dutch diet. You’ll hear from nutritionist Annelies van den Hoven, American immigrant Jonathan Groubert, and our very own Dutch specialist, Merijn Soeters. 

Visit Annelies’ website for more information about her practice.

Episode references


Full transcript

Annelies: Dutch people are used to eat quite, well varied foods, varied, varied, I am not completely sure how I pronounce it. 

Jonathan: You know like a lot of Dutch meals, it’s mashed potatoes with things mixed into it, Hutspot it’s definitely usually like carrot mixed into the mashed potatoes. 

Jillian: Hi there, and welcome to the Dutch guide to healthy living. I’m Jillian. I was born in California, raised near Seattle, but I’ve been a European resident for the last eight years. I’ve always been fascinated, as an American, why other countries always seem to do it better. They have better healthcare systems, better health outcomes, vacation time and seemingly happier lives. When I moved to the Netherlands two years ago, I was struck by these tall, thin, bike-riding, semi-northerners. The Dutch fly under the radar on most worldwide indexes. While Scandinavian or Mediterranean countries dominate the top spots, the Dutch are always there, sneakily in the top ten, modestly outperforming much of the world. 

So this podcast is a look into the Dutch way of life, through the lens of immigrant stories, culture, science and history. 

Today on the show we’re going to have a first look at the modern-day Dutch diet. I’ll give you a quick rundown of what the Dutch actually eat. Then we’ll hear from Dietician Annelies van den Hoven on what the Dutch do well and what they might not do well. You also get an introduction to the traditional Dutch dishes. And at the end of the show we’ll also give you some tips about how to find a more balanced diet wherever you live.

So, let’s start with the basics. Like in most western countries, the Dutch eat three meals per day – breakfast, lunch and dinner, with some snacks in between. Breakfast foods vary between bread, cereals and yogurt. Lunch is usually sandwiches, more often than not with cheese. We’ll do an entire episode about this later in the season. And .. unlike some European countries where lunch is the hot meal of the day, in the Netherlands, that’s dinner. (1)

So, why are we talking about this in the first place? Well, we know that there is a connection between diet and health .. and we know that relatively speaking the Dutch are pretty healthy – for example compared to most western countries, they have lower rates of diet-related diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers (2). So truly examining the Dutch diet could give us some insights into a healthier lifestyle.

But you might be asking if the Dutch diet is actually healthy – and that is a more complicated question to answer.  There are some things the Dutch do well – for example – they have one of the lowest estimated daily caloric intakes in Europe. On average that’s about 3200 calories per day, in France it’s 3500 .. or if you look to the United States it’s 3700 (3). And according to the ministry of health, they eat a good variety of foods and drink plenty of non-alcoholic beverages like coffee, water and tea (1). Actually, the Dutch are the fifth largest consumers of coffee in the world (4). 

But … they could also do things better – like eat more vegetables and less processed foods (1). Couldn’t we all? Here is Annelies van den Hoven, a nutritionist and sports dietician here in the Netherlands with her take on what Dutch people do well in their diets.

Annelies: Ok, yeah well there’s different things that they do well, but I think what I see most of the time is that Dutch people are used to eat quite well like varied foods, varied, varied, I am not completely sure how I pronounce it. So, we have the Dutch kitchen, the traditional Dutch kitchen with meat or fish, vegetables and potatoes. But besides that we are used to eat a lot of international dishes as well. And we have the luxury that almost all types of vegetables and fruits are available throughout the whole year. So yeah, we can eat, we are able to eat varied. 

Jillian: This is true, the Dutch are able to eat a varied diet due to the accessibility of food in the Netherlands. The average Dutch person eats 21 different types of food per day (1). But there is definitely room for improvement in the Dutch diet. So, what does Annelies think the Dutch don’t do so well? 

Annelies: I think most Dutch people should eat less processed foods, less refined carbs and less meat. I think those three are the most important. And that means that we should eat more vegetables, more whole grain products, so like brown rice, whole grain pasta, so with the fibers still there and more often a vegetarian day.”

Jillian: Alright yeah, those are the basics to eating healthy, but can Annelies even pull it off in her own diet?

Annelies: I think I made quite a few adjustments throughout the years. Of course when you study nutrition and dietetics, you already get a lot of information and you can’t just change your eating habits, in a split second, so it takes time. But throughout the years, I learned to eat more vegetables, indeed all whole grain products. Yeah, of course, if you go out for dinner or something that is not possible, but when you cook yourself. Nuts, but also pulses, uhh do you know what I mean by that? Yeah, lentils, chickpeas, things like that. So, I think in general I try to take care of a healthy basis. And if the basis is healthy, it’s not a problem to eat something unhealthy once in a while. 

I am a big chocolate fan, so I can’t live without chocolate. But that is ok if the basis is ok. 

Jillian: So that’s how Dutch people eat today. But there are still some vestiges of traditional habits (we’ll get into that more into the history of these traditional dishes in the next episode). But what are some of the traditional Dutch dishes that are still frequently eaten?

Annelies: Yeah so we call it Stamppot and I think it’s very easy, it’s just smashed potatoes, with some vegetables through there.  Most of the time or kale or onions with carrots and you just smash it and you eat a sausage next to it or some bacon and some mustard. That is more or less the typical Dutch cuisine.”

But the Netherlands also has a significant immigrant population – in fact nearly 22% of the Dutch population has an immigrant background! (5) Like me! They are one of the reasons the Dutch diet has become more varied. But for some immigrants, the traditional Dutch dishes can be pretty boring. Here’s Jonathan Groubert, an American immigrant who has lived in the Netherlands for almost 30 years and has some interesting opinions about Dutch food. 

Jonathan: I don’t really eat Dutch food, as you could probably guess, I am not a huge fan of Dutch food. Not that it’s terrible, it’s not terrible. I’ve been to countries where the food is terrible, like I don’t want to eat any of it. And that’s not the case in the Netherlands, it’s just boring, it’s very bland. 

And so you know if somebody sits me down to a meal of Hutspot, or something like that. 

Jillian: You might not have caught it there, what Jonathan said was Hutspot. Do you remember the Stamppot Annelies was talking about? Well Stamppot is an overarching term for a number of similar dishes. Hutspot is one specific type of Stamppot. Here’s Jonathan again. 

Jonathan: So that’s like a lot of Dutch meals, it’s potatoes with things mixed into it. Hutspot it is definitely usually like carrot mixed into the mashed potatoes and then there will be some kind of gravy, but it won’t be like real gravy, it will be reconstituted gravy from a powder. And maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get a Rokworst which is a very large inferior, smoked sausage. Now a lot of Dutch people would be pissed at me because they, they really love their Rokworst, they think it’s fantastic, it’s not. 

Jillian: Alright, so this is all not looking very good for the traditional Dutch diet. But Jonathan has experienced first-hand the change that has been reported by the Dutch health ministry. 

Jonathan: And then something happened. And I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but something happened. Whereby, I guess a new generation of Dutch people, who had been used to travel, and the internet. That must be it, it must be the internet, became pickier and became used to good food and .. the traditional, boring, lack of variety, low-quality stuff that had been the stock and trade of the Dutch supermarkets and frankly most of the restaurants in my opinion, that just wasn’t acceptable anymore. I’ve noticed that thing are just unrecognizably better. I mean if you transported me from ’91 walking around in an Albert Hein, feeling angrier and angrier as I would walk through, to now, where I genuinely don’t have that feeling anymore. I genuinely walk around and think oh hey, this is new, that’s good, oh hey this tastes great, look at all the variety! Or, is that a red velvet cake? You know what I mean? 

It has changed, it’s metamorphized so much now as to be unrecognizable as to how it was. And the funny thing is, I still hear lots of expats complain about the lack of variety and quality of food and I say, oh sweetheart, you have no idea, you have no idea! It’s so much better than it was and it’s getting better all the time. 

And in fact, sometimes when I go to supermarkets even in Italy and places like that. While what they generally have is pretty good, and you know especially all the Italian stuff, that’s pretty much all they have, Italian stuff. Like if you’re interested in Asian food, Italy is not a great place to be, right?

Whereas in any reasonable Dutch supermarket now, you have an ever-growing Asian section of the aisle, where the quality of the things they sell are getting better and better. It’s not exactly an Asian supermarket, but by the way, if you want to go to an Asian supermarket here in Amsterdam, there’s at least five, some of which are very big. I mean that’s not the case in other southern European countries which are in a way, a kind of a mono-culture. So because the Dutch are kind of starting from zero, they don’t have a chauvinistic tradition to build upon and say, ‘no, this is the way food should be and if you go off from this…’ where if you go off from this tradition, you’re doing it wrong. Whereas the French are definitely like that and the Italians are definitely like that, I don’t know enough about Spain, but I am going to assume that they are like that too. 

Jillian: We’ll dive more into the history of the Dutch diet next week, and you’ll hear more about Jonathan’s search for Jewish food in the Netherlands. But for now, it’s time to check in with our local expert and Dutchometer, my partner, Merijn Soeters. 

Now, a bit of background, Merijn is the reason I moved to the Netherlands.. he was born in the south near Maastricht, but has lived his entire adult life in the north in Amsterdam.. until we moved to a smaller town called Leiden last year. Every week we’ll get his input on whether or not we’re on the right track. Here we are sitting on the couch, discussing typical Dutch diet.

Jillian: So we’ve been talking about the various different types of Dutch food. But Merijn seems to have a different opinion about a very important Dutch food that has been left off the list, what’s that food?

Merijn: The thing that I would present to people if they come over to the Netherlands, specifically on market day, would be raw herring. Herring is this.. fish not a lot bigger than a sardine, a big sardine, and it comes from the ocean and we eat it raw. So we take the head off, and we gut it and we take, well most of the skin off. And then we dip it in raw onion. It’s tail is still on, so you hold it by the tail and you flip your head back and then you kind of just dip the herring into your mouth. And bite off bit by bit and piece by piece. It tastes of salty, fishy, fish. 

Jillian: And what’s the comparison that you would make?

Merijn: Well no, I actually think .. a lot of people who come over find it, oh but it’s scary and it’s raw and it’s fish and I don’t want to try, but it’s sushi. It’s Dutch sushi. It’s as fresh as sushi, and it’s as fishy as sushi and it’s beautiful. It’s maybe slightly less charming, and you will.. taste it the rest of the day because the onion-y, fishy flavor might just come up a little bit every now and then. But it’s a beautiful thing. And there’s actually some tourists who came over and who loved it.

Jillian: And some who refused to try it. 

Merijn: Yes, which I have less respect for than some who just tried a tiny little part of a bit, like you did. 

Jillian: And just to paint the full picture, can you also say again how you actually eat it? So you grab it by the tail?

Merijn: Well so the fish is completely gutted and beheaded and deskinned, 

Jillian: But the tail is still on

Merijn: The tail is still on, so actually the whole outside tail of it with its fiber and everything. And on the inside there’s like three centimeters or a good inch of fish bone still in there, which kind of keeps it together and then you have freshly cut onion and usually also slices of .. gurkin

Jillian : Pickle

Merijn: Pickle yes. 

Jillian: And so on top of the raw fish, you put raw onion. 

Merijn: It’s the perfect combination 

Jillian: And then you hold the fish up above your head. Why does it have to go above your head?

Merijn: Well because it just slides down your throat easily. 

Jillian: In one bite?

Merijn: No, I would say three or four bites or something. Until you reach the last little bit of fishbone and then you just.. what’s left between your thumb and index finger would be just the tail and that good inch of fish bone. But you have to beware of where you are. Because for example if you would eat a herring from one of the fish stands on the beach, there might be seagulls who try to steal it from you. Because as you.. they’ve been there for dozens and dozens of years. 

Jillian: The seagulls or the fish stands?

Merijn: Well both of them. 

Jillian: The seagulls probably longer.

Merijn: The seagulls probably longer, and fish stands came in after. And the seagulls learned that people are, also tourists, are there, but while they are getting ready for their first bites, obviously someone else has to take a photo because you’re there with your head back in your neck and trying to take your first bite. And then the seagulls, they see their chance and they might fly in and try to snatch your raw herring from you. 

I think they have more success fishing that way than actually fishing live fish from the sea. 

Jillian: But you know, it might be a blessing in disguise. 

Merijn: No! It’s good fish, it’s pure food. It’s very unprocessed. Which might sound strange to some of your listeners. But it’s food the way food is meant to be. 

Jillian: A mouth full of seawater. 

Merijn: Well of fishy fish fish. 

Jillian: So, to recap: the very traditional Dutch dishes consist of potatoes, vegetables and meat, mashed together in different combinations. And don’t forget about the raw fish that they eat by holding it from the tail.

But in recent years, the Dutch have been open to incorporating many more types of cuisine and it’s helping them to eat a more varied diet, but like many western countries around the world, there have been some unhealthy shifts to more processed and sugary foods.

Annelies will give us a few tips about how to stay healthy, wherever you are in the world.

The first tip from Annelies is to compensate if you’ve been eating a bit too much, like if you were on vacation, or you went out to dinner. She calls it balancing.

Annelies: Yeah well a balance week I think is already hard, but of course if you go on holiday, it is true that the days before you go on a holiday, it’s smart to eat more healthily and afterwards again. Balance day is more what I do. So indeed, or what I recommend, let’s say it that way. So for example, yesterday I went out for dinner. Today I start with a healthy breakfast, I try to put a lot of structure in my eating pattern. I try to eat enough vegetables, fruit, dairy, wholegrain products, so all the basic nutrition is in there and I tend not to eat extras, like exceptional things like cake or cookies or something like that. That is in my opinion a balance day. So you only try to eat products that have nutritional value. So as little, how do you say that? Empty calories as possible. 

Jillian: But we’re also living in a very strange time, with many people around the world in lockdowns or quarantines due to the coronavirus pandemic. Annelies says that some structure can help us. 

Annelies: Yeah, well I think that the biggest issue during this time is that people lose their structure. That means structure in maybe eating habits because normally when they maybe go to the office they have a certain time that they have their lunch, they have a certain time that they have like a coffee break and now they are back home and the structure is gone. So it’s already, it starts with that. Um, but also structure in doing sports. So the sports centers were closed for a long time, people can’t do things together or too close to each other, so also the amount of movement, the amount of exercise is less. And then sleep, the same there. So people can sleep longer because they can decide how late they want to start working. So the main thing is make sure to put structure in your day. Structure in sleeping pattern, in eating, but also in moving, exercise, so plan when you are going to do exercise or when you are going to do sports. I think that is the main issue. I always tell people, just like you plan your work, also try to plan these three things in your day. 

Jillian: And finally on the show today – here’s why Annelies says it can be good to visit a nutritionist. In the Netherlands, this can be covered by your insurance – we’ll come back to that later in an episode about the Dutch healthcare system, but if it’s available to you where you live, it might be something to consider.

Annelies: I think the biggest problem for a lot of people is that there is so much information on the internet. So if you google something about healthy nutrition, you will find a trillion website and every website will just explain you something different. So a lot of people come to me and they don’t see how, they don’t know any more what’s healthy, what they should do, what’s the best way to lose weight, or to eat more healthily or to improve their sports performance. So then I always tell people, just find yourself a professional and ask your questions and ask them to explain it to you, so that you understand why you should do certain things. So I think that is the most important reason to visit someone. Yeah oh and one thing, motivation of course. In Dutch we say they need a ‘stock achter de deur’, a stick behind the door. I’m not completely sure if that’s a good saying in English, but it means they need you for motivation. They need you as a check-up. 

Jillian: So whether it’s a visit to the nutritionist to help you stay motivated or just finding a little bit more balance in your diet – these are some things you can take away from how they do it in the Netherlands.

Tune in two weeks from now for the next episode. It will take you way back to the origin of Dutch food with cultural historian Jon Verriet and Jonathan will take you on his quest for Jewish food in the Netherlands.

A big thanks to Annelies and Jonathan for being on the show today. You can find more information about Annelies’s nutrition practice in the show notes.

Of course, thanks to Merijn for his Dutch perspective. And to my brother, Teddy O’Mara for composing the amazing theme song.

And a big thanks to you the listeners for tuning in. See you again next time!