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.
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.
Oats aren’t just for breakfast. They can also 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.
Garlic has long been prized for its anti-inflammatory and medicinal properties, and it has been a cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine 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,” says Brill. 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.