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10 Easy Ways to Eat Mediterranean on a Budget

10 Easy Ways to Eat Mediterranean on a Budget

It’s delicious and nutritious—but it can be pricey. Learn to serve up a Mediterranean diet without breaking the bank.

Built largely upon plant-based foods, lean proteins and healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet is often touted as one of the healthiest ways to eat. Research links it to a multitude of benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and even Alzheimer’s disease.

The problem is, eating healthy can be pricey. Wholesome diets rich in produce, nuts and fish are about $1.50 more per person per day compared to diets filled with refined grains, meat and processed foods, according to a study published in BMJ Open in 2013. That might not sound like much, but for a family of four, it can add up to more than $2,000 a year. 

While the price of healthy eating is a bargain compared to the cost of managing chronic conditions for decades, there are ways to stretch your food dollar right now—and dish up delicious and healthy meals in the process.

What to eat on the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is not new or a fad—it’s how people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have been eating for generations, says Alyssa Stacey, RD, at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. At its core, Stacey says, the diet is actually quite simple. 

The foundation is built on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and healthy fats like olive oil. This is what you eat every day. Fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products can be enjoyed a few times weekly in moderate amounts, says Stacey, and sweets and red meat are just “sometimes” foods. Meat, poultry and fish aren’t necessities—the diet can be vegan or even vegetarian.

Mediterranean eating doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, Stacey further explains. Peanut butter smeared on whole-grain bread fits the bill. So does a simple penne pasta tossed with pesto and roasted tomatoes. 

How to go Mediterranean on a budget 
You can eat like a Mediterranean without breaking the bank. Here’s how: 

Shop in season. Produce is generally more affordable when you buy it in season. For example, in most of the U.S., watermelons, tomatoes and peaches are cheapest in summer, when they’re plentiful and at their peak. If you’re not sure about best buys, ask the produce manager at your grocery store. Another option: Shop your local farmer’s market or reputable food co-op for in-season and locally grown produce. For a true harvest-to-table experience, plant your own garden.

Minimize waste. Don’t let fresh veggies go bad sitting in your refrigerator. Look through cookbooks and websites for recipe ideas or try different preparations to help use them up. For instance, if you can’t eat all your spinach within a week, Stacey suggests stirring it into a Friday night soup or cooking and freezing it for later. 

Be choosy about organic foods. Organic produce is grown using natural pesticides and fertilizers versus the chemical products used in conventional farming. It’s generally more expensive than non-organic food. You don’t have to eat organic on the Mediterranean diet, though, so if it’s not in your budget, don’t stress. “I’m concerned more about food safety and less worried about organic,” Stacey says. She recommends washing all fruits and veggies well to remove pesticide residue, dirt and bacteria. 

Be “canny.” Canned fruits and vegetables are convenient pantry staples with long shelf lives. Sodium is often used for their preservation, so choose low- or reduced-sodium products and look for “no salt added” on labels. Buy fruit packed in water or in its own juice. Drain and rinse veggies, or fruit if it’s packed in syrup.

Shop the frozen aisle. Frozen fruits and veggies are typically picked and packed at peak ripeness, which helps retain their vitamins and minerals, Stacey says. Try your store brand and keep your eyes peeled for coupons or specials to stock up. Again, look for products with the least sodium and little-to-no added sugar.

Be fish-savvy. Fish and seafood are stars of the Mediterranean diet. Fattier fish like salmon, mackerel and lake trout are good sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Whiting and tilapia are usually lower-cost options and solid suppliers of protein. 

More economical options include frozen and fish in cans or pouches. Tuna, salmon and sardines are reliable choices, Stacey says. Keep your portions to around 3.5 ounces, or about the size of your palm. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice per week.

Eat eggs. Try an omelet with veggies or add a chopped hard-boiled egg to your next tossed salad. They’re packed with protein, low in calories and can replace red or processed meat in your diet. Eggs contain cholesterol, but doctors now believe it has little effect on blood cholesterol levels. For most people, an egg a day won’t raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. Ask your doctor about how many eggs you can safely eat if you smoke or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, or if you have diabetes or heart disease already. 

Go meatless. Pick a day or two each week to eat vegetarian. Beans are cheap, whether they’re dried or canned, and can add needed protein and fiber to your diet. Bean, Corn and Pepper Salad is one tasty option, great for lunch or light dinners.

Spice things up. Many Mediterranean-style dishes call for a heavy dose of herbs and spices. Dried products are usually best within six months of purchase. They lose potency as time goes by, so Stacey suggests adding a few extra shakes to your recipes once you’ve passed that “best buy” date.

Kitchen tip: If you use fresh herbs, add chopped leftovers to some olive oil and freeze in ice cube trays for use at a later date. 

Purchase in bulk. Join a warehouse club and buy large quantities of nuts, olive oil, produce and more. Share with a friend to offset the costs, especially if it’s food that could spoil. 

A word about what to drink: Wine can be part of the Mediterranean diet, but it’s not required. If you choose to imbibe, do so in moderation and with meals. That means no more than one 5-ounce glass each day for women and two for men. Drink water throughout the day, as well. 

Finally, keep in mind that the Mediterranean way of life is more than what you put in your mouth. It’s an entire lifestyle. Stay active on most days and take time to keep your social connections strong. Leisurely meals shared with family and friends not only feed your belly, they nourish your soul.
 
Medically reviewed in October 2019.

Sources:
American Heart Association. “Fresh, Frozen or Canned Fruits and Vegetables: All Can Be Healthy Choices!” “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Are eggs risky for heart health?”
Oldways. “Mediterranean Diet.”
Penn State Extension. “Mediterranean Eating on a Budget.”
Rao M, Afshin A, Singh G, et al. Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2013;3:e004277.
Tosti V, Bertozzi B, Fontana L, Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Metabolic and Molecular Mechanisms, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 73, Issue 3, March 2018, Pages 318–326. 
USDA. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2015-2020,” “Choose My Plate: 10 Tips: Eat Seafood Twice a Week.

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