2018 might well be dubbed the year of the Mediterranean diet. Not only did it tie for the best overall diet in the U.S. News Best Diets rankings in January, but this year also marks the Mediterranean diet pyramid's 25th anniversary.
[See: U.S. News' 40 Best Diets Overall.]
Beyond being linked to a host of powerful health benefits including a reduction in heart disease risk, potential weight loss, improved brain health and longevity, much of the eating pattern's staying power can be attributed to its flexibility -- there aren't entire food groups excluded, and followers don't calorie count or track macros. Heck, the pattern is even cool with wine. In other words, you can easily follow it for a lifetime.
But for the planners among of us, that lack of structure can be intimidating. After being stuck in the dieting cycle or being told that entire food groups are "off limits," the freedom and pleasure found in the Mediterranean diet can almost feel overwhelming. If this sounds like you, fear not: It is quite possible to adapt the eating pattern's tenets to your meal-planning style, no matter your age or cooking experience. Here's how to get started:
1. Plan now, save later.
While the Mediterranean diet doesn't have the rigid structure of many "diets" out there today, you can still meal plan using the Mediterranean diet pyramid as a guide. For example, since seafood is an important aspect of coastal Mediterranean meals, try to plan for seafood meals at least twice per week. Fillets of fish can be baked in the oven just as easily as chicken, and are especially delightful with Mediterranean-inspired dressings of olive oil and lemon juice.
If you're prepping lunches for the week ahead, a Mediterranean grain or bean salad is a portable option that travels well. Some tried-and-true combinations include freekeh with cauliflower, dried fruit and chickpeas, or a lentil and roasted red pepper salad served with a whole-grain pita.
2. Stock up on staples.
A "staple" can be any ingredient used to make meals you enjoy, and the Mediterranean diet offers many possibilities. Pasta and olive oil are obvious ones, but think about spices, herbs and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, freekeh and farro.
Protein can be a staple, too! Canned fish like tuna and sardines can be stored for months and used as desired to add both protein and flavor to dishes like salads and pasta. Eggs, lentils and yogurt can also serve as the centerpiece of a meal or as accents in garnishes and sauces.
You'll be amazed by the variety of meals you can produce by experimenting with the basics. By having these ingredients on hand, you won't have dash to the market at the last minute -- it's like having your own private store at your fingertips!
3. Buy in bulk.
As much as we'd love to browse the farmers market every morning and select the ingredients for the day's meals, modern lifestyles don't always make that feasible. Even savvy Mediterranean cooks don't just pick up a single box of pasta for the night -- instead, they keep their pantries packed with different shapes and textures of pasta that can be turned into delicious, healthy feasts at any moment. You can do the same, and save time and drastically lower your grocery costs in the process. Don't stop at pasta -- "pricier" items like olive oil, nuts and spices can all be purchased in bulk at a discount.
Frozen and canned ingredients are also great bulk options. Not only are they an affordable way to access produce that's not in season, but their longer shelf lives will help you cut down on food waste that comes from not using up fresh foods in time.
4. Set up your kitchen for success.
Take time to organize your pantry, cupboards, fridge and freezer so you'll be able to find and store your food easily and quickly. Keep similar products (think oil and vinegar; spices and herbs) together so you'll know when items run out and avoid buying duplicates. Before you put away your food, clean out anything in the fridge that's on its last legs -- you can create a whole range of meals with leftovers and those staples you cleverly stocked up on. Many classic Mediterranean dishes like the Italian ribollita soup are really just clever ways to dress up leftover ingredients (in this case, stale bread).
Smart storage will also help cut down on food waste. Keep bulk items like flour, rice and beans stored in tightly closed containers in a cool, dark place to keep them dry and pest-free. Freeze extra food that contains oil, such as nuts and whole-wheat bread, to prevent it from going rancid. Cooking oils should be stored in a dark place to maintain freshness.
5. Use one dish for multiple meals.
One-dish meals are your friend. Not only will fewer pots and pans mean less time cleaning and more time enjoying your food, but you'll also save time with meal prep by making one large dish ahead of time and then enjoying it throughout the week. A big, seasonal salad will let you enjoy the flavors of the season and can be ready in a flash. Switch it up over multiple days with different oils and vinegars, or toss in meat, eggs, nuts or other toppings. Rice dishes like paella or risotto, and egg dishes like frittatas or shakshouka, can not only be reheated throughout the week, but they can also serve as creative canvases for leftovers.
You're now ready to experience the joys of the Mediterranean diet. But we'll leave you with one final, bonus tip: Enjoy yourself. The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle, not a restrictive list of foods to eat or avoid. Being active is just as important as the food you eat. Walking, dancing and biking are all easy, fun ways to keep moving. Share meals with friends and family. Sip some wine, or some coffee, or some water. The more you relax and embrace the core of the lifestyle, the more you will enjoy it.
Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN is the staff dietitian at Oldways, and serves as Director of the Oldways Whole Grains Council. Through her training in dietetics, gastronomy, and food policy, Kelly communicates the science-backed health benefits of traditional diets to consumers, health professionals, and industry stakeholders. To learn more, visit oldwayspt.org or follow us @OldwaysPT.