Food & Cooking

The Mediterranean Diet on a Budget

Reaping the benefits of one of the world's healthiest regimens doesn't need to break the bank.

Nov. 15, 2016
By Sam Urq

Recent News

The Mediter­ranean diet has long been pro­moted as one of the health­i­est on earth. A diet rich in olive oil, fresh veg­eta­bles, whole grains and fish has been linked to every­thing from lower obe­sity lev­els, a lower inci­dence of can­cer and fewer deaths from car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, to lower rates of Alzheimer’s dis­ease and dia­betes.

With so many sci­en­tif­i­cally proven ben­e­fits, it’s a won­der that every­one has­n’t switched to whole wheat pasta sal­ads with aspara­gus, flaked salmon and an olive oil dress­ing.

Actu­ally, maybe it’s not such a sur­prise after all. For many peo­ple, eat­ing a healthy Mediter­ranean diet rich in nutri­ents is just an aspi­ra­tion. Afford­ing the ingre­di­ents to cook Mediter­ranean meals is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

But here’s the thing. Most of the foods peo­ple asso­ciate with the Mediter­ranean diet have his­tor­i­cally been foods of the poor, and they can still be cooked in afford­able ways for every­one to enjoy. Here are some tips to help you ben­e­fit from a Mediter­ranean diet with­out blitz­ing your pay­check.

Look at Your Weekly Gro­cery Spend­ing and Cut Back if Nec­es­sary

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Before talk­ing about how to source healthy food cheaply, it’s impor­tant to cut out any junk food from your reg­u­lar shop­ping. Not only are Twinkies and Chee­tos unhealthy, they divert cash away from buy­ing fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles.

Keep your weekly receipts from your gro­cery shop­ping and go through them at the end of the week. Mark off any junk items that were bought as com­fort food, and try as hard as pos­si­ble to elim­i­nate them from your reg­u­lar diet. It won’t nec­es­sar­ily be easy, but it will be worth it.

Plan Wisely to Spread the Cost of Eat­ing Health­ily

Ital­ians don’t tend to cook meals for one, or even for two. When they cook their stews and pasta dishes, they use big pots and cater for a crowd. That way, they can still throw in arm­fuls of fresh Pomodoro and cups of extra vir­gin olive oil, and save money by shar­ing out the costs.

You might not have an extended Ital­ian fam­ily who can come around to dine every night, but you can cook abun­dantly, spread­ing your meals across the week. A pot of Tus­can stew or polenta can be used for three or four days in a row.

The impor­tant thing is to plan your gro­cery shop­ping so that you buy the ingre­di­ents you need across the week. Many peo­ple shop on the spur of the moment. Don’t do that. Hit the gro­cery store armed with a list of the veg­gies, pasta, olive oil and fruit you need for the week ahead, and stick to your cook­ing sched­ule.

Shop in Bulk for Every­day Essen­tials

Another thing that Greeks and Ital­ians tend to do is to buy their polenta, rice, flour and pasta in bulk. They don’t head to the local store for a tiny pack of spaghetti when­ever they feel like a car­bonara. Instead, they keep huge sacks of food­stuffs in their pantries, ready to be turned into deli­cious, healthy feasts.

You can do the same. By shop­ping in bulk from whole­salers, you can dras­ti­cally lower the cost of buy­ing kitchen essen­tials. It might be less con­ve­nient to store large sacks, but the cost sav­ings are huge.

Develop a Taste for Inten­sity Over Quan­tity

One of the things that mark the Mediter­ranean diet com­pared with stan­dard west­ern diets is the quan­tity of meat that it con­tains. Mediter­ranean com­mu­ni­ties have his­tor­i­cally eaten rel­a­tively lit­tle meat (cows and pigs are expen­sive, after all), and when they cooked meat, they have used stocks, herbs and olive oil to give it the rich­est pos­si­ble fla­vor.

Cut­ting back on meat might be hard for many peo­ple, but it has sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits for your heart and may even help ward off some forms of can­cer. It’s also not as hard as you might think. By choos­ing smaller cuts of higher qual­ity meat and using stock cubes, EVOO and cook­ing wine to accent your dishes, you can enjoy health­ier meat dishes and save money.

Thicken Soups and Stews With Whole­grains

Ital­ians use pearl bar­ley a lot. It’s in most of their soups and stews, pro­vid­ing bulk and tex­ture, along with a healthy dose of eas­ily digested car­bo­hy­drates. There are plenty of other whole grains around as well, such as her­itage wheat vari­eties and rye berries, and all of them can make stews go fur­ther.

You can also use whole grains to cre­ate fla­vor­some stuff­ings for toma­toes and bell pep­pers. With a lit­tle moz­zarella or gor­gonzola, you can gen­er­ate an intense gourmet taste with­out spend­ing vast amounts of money.

Enhance Bland Dishes With Extra Vir­gin Olive Oil

For many peo­ple, organic veg­eta­bles are out of the ques­tion. Those per­fect pep­pers, heir­loom toma­toes and arti­chokes in Whole Foods are there to tease you, not feed you. But it does­n’t mat­ter, because if you use high-qual­ity olive oil, the most ordi­nary salad greens, pota­toes and pasta dishes can taste divine.

Never com­pro­mise on olive oil. In the Mediter­ranean diet, it’s the one ingre­di­ent that cooks can­not do with­out. If you spend big on one item for your kitchen, make it a bot­tle of extra vir­gin olive oil. That way, you can whip up beau­ti­ful Mediter­ranean dishes that taste like the real thing, even if you do some­times rely on canned or frozen veg­eta­bles.

Do it Your­self By Grow­ing Fresh Ingre­di­ents

Almost any­one has the abil­ity to grow a few ingre­di­ents in the Mediter­ranean diet. Even if you live in a tiny apart­ment, you can grow basil, corian­der, rose­mary or sage on your win­dow ledge.

If you have a lit­tle bit of yard space, you can really branch out, with every­thing from radic­chio and arti­chokes to egg­plant, toma­toes, pota­toes and endive. Any­one who has­n’t grown their own veg­eta­bles before will be amazed by how fresh they taste. It’s as close as you might have the chance to get to the ter­raced hill­sides of Sicily or the Aegean Islands.

If you want to eat a healthy diet, you could do a lot worse than adopt Mediter­ranean food, and you can also do so with­out spend­ing a for­tune. It just takes a lit­tle plan­ning, some savvy shop­ping, kitchen know-how and gar­den labor. If a healthy heart and longer life are the results, why delay?

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