I love food. I love cooking it, eating it, and shopping for it.
These three activities are in my top 10 favorite activities of life. You could say I'm kind of a foodie... ;) I passionately believe that good-tasting food is one of the simple joys of life.
I'm also a registered dietitian nutritionist, and I believe in the power of food as medicine. I've seen what food can do to our bodies - for good or for bad - and I'm determined to use it for my family's health and wellbeing.
On top of these two huge aspects of who I am, I'm also a personal finance nerd, and I love saving money! I have at least four motivating reasons to be financially savvy:
1) Jeremy (my husband) has student loans that we'd like to pay off ASAP, 2) we're saving for a house, 3) we hope to have kids someday soon-ish, and 4) we'd like to retire when we can still walk. I'm also aware that food is one of the largest modifiable frequent expense, so spending less on weekly food purchases is one of the best ways to save money.
Today I'm going to show you how being a foodie, being a nutritionist, and being a personal finance nerd go together.
I believe that the best diet out there for almost everyone, according to the accumulated nutrition research to date, is the Mediterranean diet. Research supports the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of cancer, heart disease, asthma, infertility, and even depression! If you haven't already, check out my Ultimate Guide to the Mediterranean diet to learn more about the specifics.
The Mediterranean diet is so great that it recently topped US News and World Reports' list of the best diets in 2018 (along with the DASH diet). This is an annual ranking by some of the top nutritionists and nutrition researchers in the country.
Fortunately, just because the Mediterranean diet is one to follow, this does not mean that we have to eat Mediterranean food every day (olives, falafel, hummus, etc.). I actually love these foods, but THANK GOODNESS!
The great news is that almost any recipe can be made to fit into the framework of the Mediterranean diet (woohoo)!
Here are the five key strategies I use all.the.time. to make recipes more Mediterranean. :)
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1) Use Olive Oil Instead
In almost every single recipe I make, I use extra virgin olive oil in place of butter, canola oil, margarine, shortening, or any other cooking fat in the recipe. I strongly believe that this is one of the healthiest cooking fats, and it is one of the stars of the "Mediterranean Diet Show". :)
Olive oil is also relatively inexpensive (yay)! You can use olive oil in place of any other oil or solid cooking fat, including butter. A general rule of thumb is to use a 1:1 ratio when substituting for other oils, but to only use around three-fourths of the amount called for when substituting for solid fats. This is because solid fats contain more air than oils. In place of a stick of butter (which is ½ cup), I would use around ⅓ cup of olive oil, for example.
Here’s a helpful article that walks you through exactly how and when you can use olive oil in place of butter in any recipe.
Now let's break down the cost comparison.
A pound of butter at my neighborhood Aldi costs $3.09, which provides 2 cups (every stick is ½ cup). This is undoubtedly America’s favorite cooking fat, but it’s not a feature of the Mediterranean diet. If you buy butter that was produced using grass-fed cows, the cost will be roughly double.
A bottle of extra virgin olive oil (the kind I use) at Aldi costs $3.79 for 2 cups. This is slightly more expensive than butter, but well worth it in health value and much less than other fats (as we'll see). In case you’re concerned about quality, Aldi's olive oil is actually the “real deal” and has the seal of the International Olive Oil Council, which certifies quality olive oils.
Avocado oil at Aldi is $6.99 for 2 cups. This is roughly double the cost of olive oil! It’s one of the only other cooking fats besides olive oil that I recommend for health value, and it actually has an extremely similar nutritional profile to olive oil (both contain predominately monounsaturated fat). Avocado oil is much more trendy than olive oil, which means that it's much more expensive. It's also not a part of the traditional Mediterranean diet.
The only edge avocado oil has over olive oil is that it may have a slightly higher smoke point, so you may be able to safely cook with it at slightly higher temperatures (around 375-400 degrees for avocado oil compared to 325-375 degrees for olive oil). This isn't a big deal to me because I don't do a lot of deep-frying or grilling that would require an oil with a higher smoke point.
June 2018 Update: According to this research study comparing how 10 popular oils hold up when heated, extra virgin olive oil was found to be the safest to cook with - even at high temperatures - despite having a lower smoke point than some oils. This was attributed to the large proportion of monounsaturated fat as well as the high antioxidant content, which protects the fats from damage due to heat. Avocado oil does not contains very few antioxidants and actually performed poorly when heated in the study.
For similar health benefits and around twice the cost of olive oil, avocado oil just isn't worth it to me.
Finally, coconut oil is a popular cooking fat, but it really doesn’t jive with the Mediterranean diet. I don’t use it, simply because A) I don’t see a lot of research to support its purported health benefits and B) it’s expensive. At Aldi, coconut oil costs $3.99 for 12 ounces. This is only 1 3/4 cups of oil. To make the comparison equal to the other fats, the cost for 2 cups of coconut oil at Aldi is actually $5.32 - much more expensive than olive oil.
2) Substitute Whole Grains
This is another simple Mediterranean upgrade that I use whenever possible. Despite the grain-bashing commonly seen in the media today, numerous studies have shown that whole grains are indeed incredibly beneficial to health. One of the more recent studies, which was conducted at Harvard, showed a 7% lower risk of death for each additional daily serving of whole grains!
If you're still a little skeptical about grains for any reason (and I don't blame you - unfortunately, the media has done a great job of making grains sound evil), I highly encourage you to read this article.
The main reason for using whole grains (instead of white or refined grains) is that you will get all of the nutrients originally found in the grain. A grain typically has three parts:
- the outer bran (think fiber!),
- the germ (heart of the grain with vitamins and healthy fats)
- the endosperm (the starchy part - does not contain a lot of vitamins, minerals, or fiber)
When you eat a white or refined grain, you only get the starchy part (minus the bran and germ), so you miss out on a lot of fiber, vitamins, and minerals naturally found in the grain. I want to be sure that I’m getting fiber from the grains that I’m eating (which is crucial to the optimal functioning of our microbiome and which most Americans don’t get enough of), and thankfully it’s pretty easy to swap for whole grains in a recipe.
In place of white rice, I always use brown rice, which has 3.5 grams of fiber per serving compared to 0.5 grams in white rice. Just to warn you, it does take significantly longer to cook, though. This is easy to manage if the rice is added after it’s cooked, but if it’s part of a casserole, I’ve learned to roughly double the cook time when using brown rice in place of white.
I use whole wheat pasta instead of refined pasta, which provides a hefty 4.5 grams of fiber per 1-cup serving instead of the 2 grams per serving from regular pasta (more than double the fiber). If the pasta is tossed with sauce before serving - especially tomato-based sauces - before serving, it’s honestly very hard to tell the difference. At this point, I’m completely used to whole wheat pasta, so even if I do taste the difference, I still enjoy it. :) It took my taste buds a few months to adjust, but it was worth the switch!
By the way, I absolutely love the fact that our taste buds change and we have power over this! I used to hate whole grains and nearly all vegetables. I’m serious! Over time, though, I learned to genuinely vegetables by eating them repeatedly and adding delicious flavors to them - this part is crucial.
Humans are wired to love foods that taste salty, sweet, fatty, or meaty/umami (or some combination of these), and scientists have discovered that by piggy-backing these four key flavors with naturally less-palatable foods trains our taste buds to eventually like these foods! I think this is so cool!
When you add flavors you enjoy (hollandaise sauce for the win!) to foods you don’t (asparagus, anyone?), you might just find that these foods become some of your favorites over time. Case in point: asparagus is now my favorite vegetable. :)
If you want to learn more about making less naturally palatable foods taste better by (vegetables, ahem) adding naturally delicious flavors to them, check out my post about eating more vegetables and actually loving it!
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3) Swap Beans or Lentils for Some of the Meat
This can be done very easily in any Mexican recipe. Just use a can of beans in place of about half a pound of ground beef or chicken. By doing this, it will save you money. You’ll pay around $2 to $3 for half a pound of ground beef versus around $0.70 for a can of black beans - a savings of one to two dollars!
If you don’t want to remove any of the meat in your Mexican recipe, just add the can of beans as an extra ingredient. It will stretch the recipe a little farther. Either of these bean-boosting strategies work great for chili as well.
You’ll also get added health value. Many Mediterranean diet studies call for at least 3 servings of legumes per week. Adding beans to recipes or swapping them for some of the meat helps you meet this quota easily. You’ll also be getting a significant fiber boost from adding beans: around 25 grams per can - depending on the type of bean you use. In comparison, the half pound of ground beef swapped out has 0 grams of fiber! :(
There are plenty of other nutritional benefits of adding beans besides fiber, including added magnesium, folate, potassium, iron, and thiamin (a B vitamin).
In Italian meals, some of the ground beef can be swapped out for lentils! This can be done in regular meat sauce as well as meatballs. I have yet to try this, but I’ve seen several recipes* that look absolutely fantastic! (Check out my Instagram later this week to see a lentil recipe that I’m planning to make!)
4) Bulk up the vegetables
This goes along with the last point quite well, because beans are actually vegetables! Besides beans, though, there are so many easy ways to add vegetables to recipes! Any time a vegetable is in a recipe, you can always just add more than the amount called for (even double). If a vegetable is not already in a recipe, think of what you could add that would go well with it.
If you’re making an American casserole (baked macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle casserole, shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, etc.), consider adding a cup of frozen peas. Peas are a part of the legume family just like beans, so they have almost the same nutritional benefits. Fresh sliced mushrooms also work great in most casseroles!
When I make tuna noodle casserole, I add ½ to 1 cup of frozen green beans to the dish. It works great! Some people like to add shredded carrots, finely chopped mushrooms, or other vegetables to spaghetti sauce.
The possibilities are endless! ;)
5) Remove fat from meat
I would be perfectly happy to follow a flexitarian diet (only having meat occasionally), but Jeremy (my husband) would not be a happy camper if I cooked this way, so we eat chicken, fish, or red meat on a daily basis. I always do the best I can to remove the fat from our meat before, during, and after cooking. The Mediterranean diet is not anti-fat at all, and neither am I. The focus is simply on fats from plants that have been shown in countless studies to provide health benefits (olive oil and nuts in particular).
Animal fats don’t have the same proven track record. Unfortunately, many of the toxins we pick up from our environment (both naturally occurring and artificial) are stored in our fat tissue. This is true for animals as well. This could potentially be part of the reason that animal fat has such a bad reputation for health.
Interestingly, the fat from grass-fed and organic animal products may not be as bad for our bodies as fat from conventionally raised animals. This may be due to the fact that these animals have a far lower exposure to toxins and thus store less of them in their fat tissue. Unfortunately, buying grass-fed and organic animal products will almost double the price tag on your meat. :(
I don’t choose to spend my food dollars this way, though I probably would if I was a flexitarian and only ate meat or chicken a couple of times per week. Since we buy conventionally-raised meat and chicken, this makes it very important to me that I remove as much of the fat as possible.
I buy skinless chicken and trim any extra fat off of it before freezing. When I cook ground beef, I always drain the fat after cooking, then rinse the cooked meat in a strainer with hot water for about 15 seconds to remove as much of the fat as possible. It’s easy enough, and I feel better about the meat that I’m serving for dinner.
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Small Changes Over Time
One of the things to remember about eating well is that if you eat something once, it’s probably not going to make a difference in your health. Your overall pattern of eating is what matters.
This means that consistency is key.
I apply all of the above strategies to about 95% of the recipes that I make. Over time, I believe that this absolutely makes a difference. The best part is that since I do these things regularly, I really don’t have to put much thought into them anymore. They come second nature.
I hope these strategies have been helpful! If you have any favorite tips or tricks to make recipes more Mediterranean, please share them with me in the comments! I’m always excited to learn something new, especially when it comes to food. ;)