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

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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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