The Italian version of a lucky New Year's meal is cotechino (an Italian sausage) and lentils.

©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

If you're planning a traditional Italian dinner for the holidays, you'll probably want to make it as authentic as possible. If so, this is the perfect opportunity for you to incorporate whole foods into your menu. Genuine Italian cuisine is known for its reliance on fresh ingredients. So for a meal true to the country's culinary traditions, you'll need to forego the preservative-filled jar of supermarket sauce for healthier, more wholesome ingredients.

Of course, before you get started on your Italian holiday menu, you might want to better understand what whole foods are (and aren't). Essentially, whole foods are those that are unprocessed (or minimally processed), unrefined and without added flavors or preservatives. And because some whole foods may have been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides during the growing process, they may not always be considered organic [sources: Scannapiego; Griffin].

Ideal whole foods are ones with short shelf lives. (This means they're in their natural state without preservatives.) So, in planning your big meal, lean toward fresh meats and produce. For additional ingredients, it's OK to buy packaged foods like olive oil, nuts and seeds, whole wheat grains, flours and pastas, natural sweeteners, dried lentils and beans, and dried herbs and spices -- but choose those that are derived from whole foods and are minimally processed with no preservatives.

So now that you have insight into what whole foods are, you can more easily find ways to incorporate them into your holiday dinners. Keep reading for inspiration on festive Italian meals that include healthy, natural ingredients.