How to Eat the Mediterranean Way on a Budget

The Mediterranean diet won’t break the bank, even though in most parts of the country, fresh seafood is a costlier alternative to hamburger; leaner cuts of meat are typically more expensive than fattier ones; and fresh stuff — fresh cheeses, fresh produce, fresh herbs, and so on — is both more expensive and more perishable than the canned, frozen, and prepackaged counterparts.

If the only change you were to make is to swap foods from one diet to the other, you’d suffer sticker shock.

But if you embrace all the principles of the Mediterranean diet — eating smaller portion sizes, using unprocessed foods and whole grains, and taking time to savor your meals and your life — you may very well discover that you can eat just as economically on the Mediterranean diet as you can on your current diet and reap the benefits that come with being healthier.

Many of the foods that take starring roles in the Mediterranean diet are themselves economical. Beans, legumes, and grains, for example, are economical; add delicious plant-based protein, tons of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals (which help prevent chronic diseases); and are satisfying, which means you’ll be less likely to snack on junk a couple of hours after eating a meal.

Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) and fava beans are two of the most common beans in Mediterranean cooking, but you also see other varieties, such as black beans and kidney beans.

Many of the vegetables and fruits of this plant-based diet — apples, broccoli, cabbage, grapes, green beans, lemons, onions, and tomatoes, for example — are commonly available and affordable. Those that are more expensive, like olives, are available jarred or canned, which is generally less expensive, and pack so much flavor that a little bit goes a long way.

Buying frozen

They may not be as pretty, but frozen and canned vegetables have just as many nutrients as their fresh-from-the-local-farmers’-market brethren, and they’re often much less expensive. So stock up!

You’re not neglecting your family if you serve canned carrots or frozen cauliflower rather than fresh. And although gourmands may insist that nothing beats a freshly prepared artichoke, who really has the time to work that little center piece out of the thing?

Buying in season or on sale

If you’re someone who creates a menu and then shops, flip those tasks: find what’s on sale and then create your menu. If oranges or avocados are on sale, for example, add dishes that include these items on your menu that week. In-season items are generally less expensive out of season simply because of availability.

Local farmers’ markets are a wonderful resource to get fresh, seasonal food for any community. Strolling outside through the aisles of the farmers’ market helps get your creative juices flowing with what recipes you can make with these fresh foods (some which may have been picked that morning).

Buying extra to save for later

This strategy helps save you money in a couple of ways: first, you’re getting a good price now, and second, having the items on hand means you can wait for another sale before you have to buy again, ensuring you get a good price in the future, too.

Reserve this strategy for only those items that you’ll use and are easy to store; you won’t save anything by buying extra at a great price only to end up tossing it out.

Buying from bulk bins

Bulk bins are great because the items are usually less expensive than the prepackaged counterparts, and you can buy just what you need. (No, you don’t have to buy bag loads just because you’re buying from bulk bins!) Consider buying these things from bulk bins:

  • Spices: Very expensive when bought in jars in the baking aisle, spices bought from the bulk bins are often a fraction of the cost. The bonus? Buying only what you need is a way to ensure you use them before they go bad.

  • Grains and legumes: Rice, barley, oatmeal, black beans, lentils. . . several whole grains and legumes are available in the bulk aisle. For the less-common varieties, expand your list of grocery stores to include ethnic food stores. You’ll be amazed at the variety and pleased with the prices.

Freezing for the future

A great way to save money and manage your grocery expenses is to buy extra when items are on sale and store them for future use. Freezing items is a great way to preserve their goodness and lengthen their life. Follow these suggestions when freezing several staples of the Mediterranean diet:

  • Meat and seafood: Divide the meat or seafood into the serving sizes you’ll use and wrap it tightly with freezer paper. The tighter the wrap, the better. Then label and date.

  • Nuts: Simply place the nuts, shelled or unshelled, salted or unsalted, in a freezer bag, label and date, and toss in the freezer. Easy peasy.

  • Herbs: To freeze herbs, simply wash the herbs and allow them to dry. Then place them in a freezer bag and press out all the air.

  • Berries: Wash and drain the fresh berries (you can skip this step for blueberries), arrange them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and place them in the freezer until the individual berries are frozen. Then transfer them to in a sealable freezer bag, press out the air, and pop back into the freezer.

  • Cheeses: Wrap the cheese tightly in freezer paper, label and date, and freeze. Note: Hard cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, and so on) take best to freezing, but you can freeze soft cheese as well. Be aware, however, that the texture will change from smooth to crumbly, so frozen cheeses are best used as ingredients in other dishes.

Here are a couple of pointers to ensure the safety of your frozen items and maintain their quality:

  • Make sure your freezer’s temperature is 0 degrees or below. This temperature helps retain the foods’ nutrient content, color, and flavor. It also inactivates any microbes (bacteria, molds, and so on). In fact, food stored at this temperate is safe indefinitely, although the quality may degrade over extended periods of time.

  • When packaging food to be frozen, eliminate as much air exposure as you can. Air is your enemy. It allows ice crystals to form and promotes freezer burn. Although these things don’t make the frozen food unsafe, they do harm its flavor and texture.

Storage Times to Ensure Quality
Food Recommended Storage Time
Berries and Nuts
Berries 10 months
Nuts 6–12 months
Meat and Poultry
Meat, steaks and chops 4–12 months
Meat, ground 3–4 months
Poultry, whole or cut up 9–12 months
Fish and Seafood
Fish, lean (cod, tilapia, flounder) 6 months
Fish, fatty (salmon, mackerel) 2–3 months
Shellfish (clams, scallops) 3–6 months
Shrimp 10 months
Cheeses
Hard cheeses 6 months
Soft cheeses 6 months
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