The Mediterranean diet consistently gets top marks by nutritionists. The Mediterranean diet consistently gets top marks by nutritionists.
Life Wellbeing Enjoy: The tasty, healthy and cheap Mediterranean diet Updated:

Enjoy: The tasty, healthy and cheap Mediterranean diet

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Thinking of Mediterranean food tends to conjure up images of pizza, pasta and lamb on a spit.

But the traditional diet, extolled for its bountiful health benefits, is actually far more colourful. With roots in provincial Mediterranean villages, this “peasant food” is tasty, diverse and simple. It can also be deceptively cheap.

In fact, a healthy Mediterranean-style diet is more affordable than the typical Australian diet.

Embracing this nourishing, palatable diet can help ward off heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and fatty liver. It might even delay Alzheimer’s and alleviate depression. And it is more effective and sustainable for shedding weight than a low-fat diet.

In May 2018, University of South Australia researcher Karen Murphy and I published our study showing people of all ages and cooking abilities can easily adopt and enjoy Mediterranean-style food.

In another Adelaide study, our team of researchers found participants had greater confidence to come up with healthy meals using simple ingredients such as beans, lentils and steamed vegetables.

Mediterranean diet
Fill your pantry with staples such as chickpeas and beans. Photo: Getty

What foods make up the Mediterranean diet?

Core foods include vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Extra virgin olive oil – dating back to 5000BC and considered “a gift of the gods” – is used generously.

The diet includes moderate amounts of fish and fermented dairy (such as yoghurt and cheese). It is low in processed foods, meat and confectionery. Mediterraneans also enjoy a glass or two of red wine with meals.

Basic tips

  • Stock up with extra virgin olive oil. Packed with health-giving polyphenols, it can be used for everything, even frying. Be sure to buy the freshest oil possible by noting the “harvested on” instead of “best before” date, and always store it in a cool dark place
  • Fill your pantry with Mediterranean essentials, including:
  • Tinned legumes (lentils, chickpeas and beans). They don’t expire and are fabulous for creating quick, healthy, tasty meals
  • Dried red lentils – yummy and fast cooking
  • Dried brown lentils – cheap and versatile
  • Dried soup mix
  • Tinned or pureed tomatoes
  • Canned tuna
  • Herbs and spices
  • Mixed nuts for snacks

Weekly groceries:

  • Onion, garlic, carrot, zucchini and celery will form a basis for just about any meal
  • Seasonal fruit and vegetables
  • Summer salad to eat with meals: lettuce, tomato, cucumber; other ingredients as desired. Chop and add extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and salt
  • Winter delights: green beans, cauliflower, broccoli and/or zucchini. Steam, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt; add a halved garlic clove. Serve on the side.
  • Buy bulk fruit in season, chop and stew in water then freeze in batches; eat with porridge/cereal or plain yoghurt for dessert.
  • Cook meals in bulk and enjoy as leftovers or freeze for emergencies.
  • Unless you have high blood pressure and eat lots of salt already, you can add some salt for flavour.
Mediterranean diet
Vegies such as onion, garlic and zucchini are always a good start to a meal. Photo: Getty

Try these meals

Chilli beans

Ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, onion, garlic, 1 tablespoon paprika, dried/fresh chilli, carrot, zucchini, red capsicum, canned kidney beans, canned borlotti beans, salt, pepper.

Chop or dice vegetables. Lightly fry onion in the oil; add garlic, paprika, chilli and carrot and saute for 2-3 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients, bring to boil then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Serve with rice, avocado and salad or tacos, cheese, tomato and lettuce.

Eggplant parmigiana

Ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, onion, garlic, tinned diced tomatoes, carrot, celery, eggplant, parmesan cheese, grated mozzarella, salt, pepper.

Saute chopped onion and garlic in olive oil. Add tomatoes, grated carrot, the celery stick whole, and a cup of water; season. Bring to boil and simmer for 30-60 minutes.

Preheat oven (200 degrees). Slice eggplant into one-centimetre thick pieces, brush with olive oil and bake 20-30 minutes until brown and soft. Create two layers of eggplant, sauce, parmesan and mozzarella in a baking dish, bake until cheese is melted. Serve with salad.

Greek lentil soup

Ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, onion, garlic, 1½ cups dried brown lentils, carrot, zucchini, tinned diced tomatoes, baby spinach, vinegar, pinch oregano, 2 bay leaves, salt, pepper.

Boil lentils in water for 10 minutes, then drain. Saute diced onion, garlic and carrot in the olive oil. Add lentils and 1½ litres water. Bring to boil, add all ingredients except spinach and vinegar. Cook for 30-40 minutes, add remaining ingredients. Cook for five more minutes and serve.

Using these basic principles, experiment with simple recipe ideas: chickpea-eggplant casserole, minestrone, pita pizza with salad, cannellini beans with garlic and spinach or red lentil soup with carrot and zucchini.