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8 Healthy, Cheap Foods to Help You Eat the Mediterranean Way

The diet that can protect your heart and brain doesn't have to break the bank

Healthy eating: high angle view of a group of food with high levels of Omega-3 fat. The composition includes salmon, sardines, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and various nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds, chis seeds, pecan, almonds, pistachio, walnuts and hazelnuts.
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When it comes to boosting your health through food, the Mediterranean diet earns top marks.

Studies show the Mediterranean diet protects your heart, lowers your risk of cancer and diabetes, slows cognitive decline and can even help you live longer. In its annual diet rankings, U.S. News & World Report has ranked the Mediterranean diet No. 1 for five years straight.

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The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, whole grains and olive oil. While some of the diet’s ingredients can be expensive, there are plenty of ways to keep your grocery bill reasonable, says Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition for Oldways, a nonprofit nutrition education organization in Boston. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat Mediterranean,” LeBlanc says. “Historically, the Mediterranean diet was a cuisine based on resourcefulness. These were peasant foods.”

"You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat Mediterranean"

Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition for Oldways

Here are eight Mediterranean diet staples that won’t blow your budget, along with a few easy ways to prepare them.

1. Canned Fish

The Mediterranean diet calls for eating fish or shellfish twice a week, and for good reason: Packed with protein, vitamins and nutrients, seafood can lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Fish is also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats that are crucial for brain and heart health. While fresh fish can be costly, canned seafood is a wallet-friendly alternative. In addition to tuna, cans of sardines, anchovies, salmon and herring are worth trying, LeBlanc says. “The most striking difference between Mediterranean seafood dishes versus American seafood dishes is the Mediterranean diet’s creative use of little fish,” she says. “Here, people think of it as a budget item. It feels more elevated there.” Not sure where to start? Try throwing some anchovies in a salad, top avocado toast with a sardine or two, or mix a can of sardines with egg, seasonings and whole wheat breadcrumbs to make patties that you can grill on the stove in a little bit of olive oil, LeBlanc suggests. Or, for a healthier, Mediterranean-inspired version of tuna salad, mix canned tuna with white beans, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, thinly sliced red onion and maybe some cherry tomatoes, green beans or olives. LeBlanc recommends “light” tuna over “albacore,” because it has lower mercury levels, and she notes that tuna packed in water has fewer calories than tuna packed in oil.

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2. Spinach

Leafy greens are a hallmark of the Mediterranean diet — supplying vitamins, antioxidants, calcium and fiber — and spinach is probably the easiest green to find and cook, says Janet Brill, a nutritionist specializing in the Mediterranean diet and author of Prevent a Second Heart Attack. “You can throw it into an omelet, into soup, grind it up and throw it into baked goods, or add it to a smoothie. You won’t even taste it,” Brill says. Turn a bag of spinach into a savory side by sautéing it in an iron skillet with extra virgin olive oil and some garlic, then finish it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, Brill suggests. Feeling more adventurous? Try that same preparation with other nutrient-packed leafy greens like kale, dandelion, chicory, chard, mustard greens or turnip greens.

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3. Beans

Whether canned or dried, beans are an incredibly versatile and economic protein source that are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. They’re also known as a superfood; one study found that for every 20-gram (about one-quarter cup) increase in your daily legume intake, you reduce your risk of death by 8 percent. Try tossing a cup of cooked lentils or chickpeas into a salad, or substitute black beans for ground meat in chili, tacos or pasta sauce. You can also mash all types of beans to make delicious spreads and dips like hummus and fava. For an easy and delicious snack, rinse a can of chickpeas, toss with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt (or other spices) and roast in a 425-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until they crisp up. “Roasted chickpeas are an amazing snack — inexpensive and easy to make,” Brill says.

4. Oats

The Mediterranean diet features a wide variety of economical whole grains, including trendy picks such as barley, bulgur, farro, millet and wheat berries. But from a purely economic and convenience standpoint, you can’t beat oats, a nutrient-rich whole grain that has been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure and lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. Avoid preflavored oatmeal that tends to be chock-full of sugar, Brill says, and instead flavor plain oatmeal yourself by adding fruits and nuts. (Mashed bananas are a great sweetener.) For a new spin, try whipping up some “overnight oats” — combine oats, milk or yogurt, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds and your desired mix-ins in a mason jar, refrigerate overnight and enjoy hot or cold in the morning.  

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Oats aren’t just for breakfast. They also can be used as a breading for fish or chicken or added to meatloaf or burgers. Steel-cut oats can even be prepared like rice — sauteed on the stove with vegetables — and served as a savory side.

If you have the time to cook them, nutritionists prefer steel-cut oats. Although all oats are healthy, steel-cut ones take longer to digest, so they prompt a slower rise in your blood sugar.

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5. Garlic

Garlic has long been prized for its anti-inflammatory and medicinal properties, and it has been a cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisines for centuries. A garlic press makes it easy to mince a clove to throw into salad dressings, soups or sauces for a flavor punch. To make a delicious and healthy sauce for pasta, prepare fresh pesto by combining garlic, nuts, basil, salt and olive oil in a food processor. If you’ve never roasted garlic, you’ll be amazed at how heat transforms this pungent root into a caramelized, buttery spread. To prepare, cut the top off a whole head of garlic, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, wrap in foil and roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Squeeze or spoon out the roasted garlic to add a new depth of flavor to fish, chicken or roasted vegetables. You can also “use it like butter and smear it on toasted bread,” Brill says. “It’s so much better for you, and I can’t imagine that people wouldn’t like the taste.”  

6. Frozen fruit and vegetables

The Mediterranean diet calls for eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables (ideally, two cups of each per day), but fresh produce can be costly. Buying what’s local and in season is a great way to save, but don’t be afraid to save money by going for frozen varieties. Because they’re picked and packed at peak freshness, they often “have more nutrients than the ones sitting around for weeks that are fresh,” Brill says. Fruit is often served for dessert in Mediterranean countries, LeBlanc says. To up the wow factor, she recommends baking fresh or frozen fruit — try peaches, apricots, pears, berries, apples or mangoes — in a parchment packet with some cinnamon and red wine.

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7. Plain Greek yogurt

While dairy products are part of the Mediterranean diet, they are eaten in lower quantities compared to the typical American diet. The Mediterranean diet’s dairy superstar is undoubtably Greek yogurt, which has about twice the protein compared to other yogurts. It also provides calcium, nutrients and probiotics that promote gut health and fight inflammation.

Buying a tub of low-fat plain Greek yogurt rather than individually packaged, flavored varieties is both more economical and healthier, since flavored yogurts are usually loaded with added sugar, LeBlanc says. Flavor plain yogurt yourself with fresh or frozen fruit, a sprinkle of granola and a drizzle of honey.

Greek yogurt is also a great stand-in for mayonnaise and sour cream, or you can whip it into a delectable sauce for fish patties or grilled chicken by adding lemon juice and fresh dill. For dipping vegetables, try yogurt-based tzatziki sauce as a substitute for ranch dressing. Tzatziki has garlic as well, so this delicious sauce will give you benefits of both foods.

8. Bulk nuts and seeds

The Mediterranean diet features a variety of nuts and seeds, including almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts. Nuts and seeds are great sources of protein, nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids, and they’ve been linked to a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

However, buying prepackaged nuts and seeds can quickly ramp up your grocery bill. Instead, LeBlanc suggests shopping the bulk bins, where you can often find significant savings and buy only what you need.

Try sprinkling sunflower seeds on a salad, smashed walnuts on roasted vegetables, or pistachios on a grain-based dish like pilaf and couscous. And don’t forget you can always grab a handful of nuts for a satisfying and healthy snack.

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