Mediterranean Diet on a Budget

The Mediterranean style of eating is widely hailed as one of the healthiest diets — consistently at the top of U.S. News best diets. People who follow a Mediterranean diet are more likely to be at a healthy weight and are at a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Studies also show the Mediterranean diet may help slow cognitive decline and even help you live longer.

Yet with soaring food prices, many families are focused on ways to trim weekly grocery bills. While the Mediterranean diet may conjure up images of freshly caught seafood, pricey extra-virgin olive oil and fancy red wine, it doesn’t need to be exorbitantly expensive. You can eat like you live in the south of France or on a Greek Island without breaking the bank.

“The Mediterranean Diet is based on ‘peasant foods’ like legumes, whole grains and seasonally available vegetables, which are consistently less expensive than meat and highly processed snack foods,” says registered dietitian Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition at Oldways, a nonprofit organization that champions cultural food traditions, including the Mediterranean diet. “Families trying to eat healthy on a budget can take many lessons from the resourcefulness of traditional Mediterranean cooking.”

Cooking more of your meals at home instead of dining out, as well as reducing your reliance on red meat as a center-of-the-plate item will immediately help curtail costs. Here are other ways you can save money while following the Mediterranean diet.

[READ: Best Mediterranean Meal Delivery Services.]

Build Meals Around Whole Grains

Pasta may be the flagship of many Mediterranean meals but get to know other grains — especially whole grains like farro, bulgur, wheat berries, freekeh, spelt and millet. You can find these grains in the bulk section of supermarkets, and they are often less expensive than boxed grains. Also look for whole-grain pasta, which is typically priced the same as conventional pasta.

Whole grains and other plant-based foods are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, making up the largest bottom section of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. “With a box of pasta, a can of beans, and some leftover leafy greens or canned tomatoes, a balanced Mediterranean meal is only about 15 minutes away,” says LeBlanc.

Embrace Budget-Friendly Beans

Beans, lentils and chickpeas were a reliable source of shelf-stable protein in the traditional Mediterranean diet, which was especially important given that meat was eaten infrequently — both because of religious fasting and the expense and availability, says LeBlanc.

Beans are a hard-working ingredient to use in place of meat, which is typically the most expensive item in your grocery cart.

To start using more beans, consider these ideas:

— Add lentils to a Bolognese sauce.

— Fill a wrap with hummus and cut vegetables.

— Make a three-bean chili instead of your usual recipe with meat.

— Mix chickpeas or cannellini beans into pasta or grain bowls.

— Use black beans to replace ground beef in burgers and tacos.

Canned beans are convenient and affordable but you’ll save even more money if you start with dried beans. Just plan ahead so you’ll build in time for soaking.

[READ: Can a Plant-Based Diet Help With Hot Flashes?]

Try Canned Fish

The Mediterranean diet features fish and seafood at least twice a week, but you don’t need to always visit the fresh fish counter to get your supply. Canned tuna and salmon are an affordable and convenient option to enjoy the flavors and stellar nutrition of the Mediterranean, says registered dietitian Liz Weiss of Liz’s Healthy Table.

To incorporate more seafood into your budget-friendly meals, Weiss recommends trying these:

— Make a Greek salad with crisp lettuce, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, fresh mint, feta cheese and flaked canned tuna.

— Try a classic tuna Niçoise salad with lettuce, tomatoes, blanched green beans, hard boiled eggs, boiled red potatoes, olives and a tarragon vinaigrette.

— Use canned salmon to make family-pleasing salmon cakes served on a bed of arugula and topped with homemade or store-bought tzatziki sauce.

Beyond canned tuna and salmon, join in the tinned fish craze that’s a big trend on TikTok. Try canned sardines, anchovies, oysters, clams and spiced mackerel and enjoy with crusty bread or crackers.

Chop Your Own Leafy Greens

Leafy greens are a hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, according to Oldways. In Crete, where Mediterranean diet studies originated, and all over Greece, it is common to see families gather wild greens on hills and ?elds. We may not all be able to pick our own wild greens, but you’ll save money at the supermarket if you go for whole bunches rather than packaged salad kits and pre-cut greens in plastic bags.

Go beyond spinach and kale — look for chard, chicory, mustard greens, escarole and other deeply hued greens. Try the classic Italian dish of sautéed greens with white cannellini beans and garlic. Or add kale to minestrone soup or ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup. Ribollita means ‘reboiled’, indicating that the leftover soup has been thickened with day-old bread, a frugal yet clever way to stretch a meal over several days.

Stock Up on Frozen Vegetables

Do not overlook the frozen food aisle for your vegetables, which are abundant in a Mediterranean diet. Frozen vegetables are often more affordable than fresh, particularly peas, green beans and broccoli, says registered dietitian Elena Paravantes, founder of and author of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Beginners. Frozen vegetables are not only convenient and can help you avoid food waste — it’s big money drain to toss out rotten vegetables in your fridge drawer — they’re just as nutritious as fresh since they’re frozen shortly after harvest.

Paravantes likes to make a Greek-style latherawith potatoes and frozen green beans, along with canned tomatoes, another staple in her Mediterranean cooking. She also recommends easy one-pot dishes made by sautéing frozen vegetables with onion and herbs in olive oil, then adding canned crushed tomatoes and simmering until soft. For heartier meals she suggests adding rice or other grains.

Buy Whole Poultry

While meat plays a supporting role in a Mediterranean diet, poultry is recommended more often than red meat (although still in moderate portions along with dairy and eggs). To save money, buy a whole chicken rather than packages of cut pieces, suggests registered dietitian Serena Ball, co-author of The Sustainable Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.

Buying a whole chicken rather than pieces will typically cost about 50 percent less per pound. She recommends cooking a whole chicken or turkey and freeze what you don’t eat to use later, or simmer some of the underused cuts in a spicy stew chock full of vegetables and beans.

Add Nuts to Your Meals

Snacking on nuts instead of chips will not only save you money, but you’ll also be adding healthy fats, protein, fiber and other nutrients not found in highly processed packaged snacks. And don’t just think about nuts at snack time. Nuts are an essential part of Mediterranean culinary traditions, intricately woven into the fabric of recipes to add depth of ?avor and heartiness.

Mediterranean nuts — almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, cashews, and hazelnuts — are commonly used in salads, grain-based dishes (from pilaf to pasta and couscous), dips and sauces, including Middle Eastern Muhammara, Spanish Romesco and Italian pesto.

Check store prices to see if buying nuts in bulk will save you money (it’s not always cheaper). Just be sure to store nuts correctly, says Paravantes. She recommends buying whole, unsalted nuts and storing them in dark, airtight containers in the refrigerator to protect from rancidity and maintain flavor.

Make Your Own Dressings

Instead of store-bought bottled dressings to top your salads, make your own with ingredients you probably already have on hand, such as olive oil, balsamic vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice. A homemade version is easy, economical, and likely more nutritious, especially compared to thick, creamy dressings.

“One of my go-to dressings is inspired by my French grandmother,” says registered dietitian Emily Cooper, author of Mediterranean Diet on a Budget. “Whisk together equal parts olive oil and white vinegar. Stir in some minced fresh garlic, salt, Dijon mustard, and honey, and you’re good to go. I’ll make a big batch for the week and store it in a mason jar in the fridge.”

Explore different dried or fresh herbs to add to your homemade vinaigrette, including oregano, tarragon, parsley and basil. If you don’t have fresh garlic on hand, use garlic powder.

Start a Countertop Herb Garden

Fresh herbs are an important part of Mediterranean cooking, giving dishes regional identity and adding a layer of flavor and freshness, says LeBlanc. Instead of shopping for snipped herbs at the supermarket each week, she recommends growing your own. “A basil or mint plant in a small pot near a window can last for months at a time, allowing you to harvest a few leaves as a finishing touch to your dishes whenever you desire.”

Repurpose Leftovers

“The Mediterranean approach to cooking is highly resourceful, repurposing odds and ends into delicious new meals,” says LeBlanc.

“By practicing a Mediterranean approach to cooking, you may also find that it helps to cut down on food waste and require less spending at the grocery store.” She recommends the Oldways Fresh Fridays Mediterranean Diet Newsletter for recipes and menu ideas, including ways to use leftovers.

Nourish Your Mind, Body and Soul

Beyond the food staples of Mediterranean diet, consider other aspects of the lifestyle that are equally beneficial — and there’s no cost involved. That’s the social aspect of eating. Part of the good health enjoyed by people who live in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea is attributed to the priority they put on slowing down and enjoying meals with families and friends. You can’t put on price on that payback.

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