January 5, 2018   - Vol. X No. 1
Lessons from Thrifty Mediterranean Cooks
Last week, U.S. News & World Report announced its annual review of forty diets , and declared the Mediterranean Diet tied for first place overall and winning outright as the easiest diet to follow. The Mediterranean Diet gets top marks from scientists, too, with fresh research every month documenting its many health benefits. To all that, we’ll add even more good news: the Mediterranean Diet can trim your budget while it trims your waistline.

Most of the foods and traditions people associate with the Mediterranean Diet like beans, lentils, and grains have historically been the foods of country folks with limited means, and they can still be purchased cheaply and cooked in affordable ways. Mediterranean cooks add pricier ingredients like meat or seafood in small amounts, buying carefully to avoid waste and using up any day-old ingredients remaining in their kitchens by incorporating them into meals in delicious ways.

Here are some tips to help you benefit from a Mediterranean Diet without breaking the bank.

1. Make Meat a Flavor Accent
Mediterranean communities have historically eaten relatively little meat (cows and pigs are expensive, after all), instead using stocks, herbs, cooking wine, and olive oil to give small additions of meat the richest possible flavor. Cutting back on meat is not as hard as you might think. Instead of making an 8-ounce steak the center of your meal, for example, create a beef stew rich in vegetables, mushrooms, and whole grains, using only an ounce or two of meat per person. By pairing smaller cuts of higher quality meat with other less expensive ingredients, you can enjoy healthier meat dishes and save money. Even better, try some of the plant-based Mediterranean recipes on our website.

2. Skip Expensive “Convenience” Foods
Mix nuts with a little dried fruit and keep handy in an air-tight container, instead of buying expensive snack bars. Make a bowl of oatmeal for about 15 cents instead of spending $3.75 for a sugar-laden muffin on the way to work. Roast a whole chicken (recipe below) and make it last three meals, instead of buying breaded chicken fingers. Most pricy “convenience” foods take more time to reheat than the time required to throw together a healthy pasta meal a staple of the Mediterranean diet.

3. Compare Fresh and Frozen Produce
Eat seasonally to enjoy fruits and vegetables at the peak of their flavor and their lowest price point. If you’re someone who creates a menu and then heads to the grocery store, flip those habits. When berries and avocados are on sale, for instance, add dishes that include these ingredients to your weekly menu. When buying fresh is not an option, or you want to add variety to your recipes, go for frozen. Frozen can be equally nutritious, much less expensive in the off-season, and never turns squishy in your produce drawer. Frozen ingredients wait patiently in your freezer, always ready for a last-minute meal idea or for stretching a dish for extra guests.

4. Shop in Bulk
Greeks and Italians tend to buy their grains, like barley and pasta, in bulk. They don’t head to the local store for a single pack of bucatini whenever they feel like pasta carbonara—instead, they keep large sacks of foodstuffs in their pantries, ready to be turned into delicious, healthy feasts. You can do the same, and drastically lower your grocery costs in the process. If you have an ethnic food store in your neighborhood, check it out; you’ll be amazed at the variety and pleased with the prices. And don't just stop at whole grains or legumes! Bulk spices offer big savings, too; often a fraction of the cost of buying jarred spices in the baking aisle. Added bonus: you can buy small amounts in bulk, to avoid jars of tired spices in your cupboard.

It’s easy to cook a Mediterranean dinner for less than $2 per person when you know a few cooking basics. The Power of $2, our sampler of a dozen colorful, delicious main dishes and sides including penne with tomatoes, pita pizza, and Coq au Vin , shows how to do this for $2 or less per person. Fortunately, eating healthy does not have to be expensive. And for even more information on eating on a budget, check out our Savvy Shopper, Smart Cook toolkit .

Take a look at our Mediterranean recipes below for inspiration, and share them with friends and family!

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

Get a jump start on your new year’s resolutions with this delicious recipe that won’t break the bank. This nutritious blend of walnuts, roasted tomato, white bean, and sorghum can be served as a side or made ahead and packed for lunch during the week. 

Recipe and photo courtesy of California Walnuts .

Roasting a whole chicken might seem daunting at first, but it’s really quite a simple and rewarding dish that is very versatile and economical. Additionally, the leftovers can be made into more meals, as you’ll see.

An Oldways recipe and photo.

This is a perfect meal for a weekday dinner when you need to rely on what’s in the pantry. It tastes delicious cold, so bring leftovers to work. 

An Oldways recipe and photo.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.