You may not be able to jet off to Italy or the Spanish coast whenever your heart desires, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat like you’re in the Mediterranean every day. In fact, nailing the region’s style of eating doesn’t require any travel at all. You just have to make sure fresh, green ingredients find their way to your plate on the daily.
The super-trendy Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole foods like produce, lean protein, unsaturated fat, plenty of fiber, and antioxidants, says Mandy Enright, R.D.N., creator of the couples’ nutrition blog Nutrition Nuptials. “Research shows this way of eating promotes heart and gut health, while protecting against diseases like diabetes and cancer,” she says.
And there’s plenty of research to back up the Mediterranean diet’s proposed benefits. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, suggests Mediterranean-style eating is the best dietary model for preventing coronary heart disease.
Meanwhile, other studies, like this one, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggest the diet can support cognitive function and health, especially as we age. It’s no wonder Mediterranean eating is ranked as one of U.S. News’ best diets year after year—including best overall diet, best diet for healthy eating, and best diet for diabetes.
So What’s On The Menu?
Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E., C.H.W.C., F.A.N.D., author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition, says that while local fare varies across the Mediterranean region, a number of staples are common across the board.
“A Mediterranean-style diet features plenty of fruits and vegetables, including artichokes, arugula, beets, fennel, leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, figs, peaches, olives, citrus fruits, and pomegranates,” she says. “Fish and pulses are commonly consumed protein sources, and nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and olive oil are also quite common.”
Related: 8 Surprising Sources of Protein
One of the Mediterranean’s biggest calling cards: the fact that veggies are on the menu for every meal. “Aim for at least half of each meal to be made up of colorful vegetables,” says Enright. (And yes, frozen vegetables are totally a-okay, when you need a quick side dish or don’t have time to hit the supermarket.)
What’s not involved? Processed foods, packaged snacks, or fast food. In the Mediterranean lifestyle, meals are eaten with care and enjoyment, not squeezed in between other parts of the day, says Weisenberger. Consider each meal a ritual to be enjoyed and savored—not just for its nourishment, but for its flavor, too.
Intrigued? We’ve laid out options for each meal of the day to get you started. Don’t forget to take the time to really enjoy every bite!
Start your day off Mediterranean-style with a few easy, healthy swaps. If you usually go for oatmeal, try a hot cereal made with another whole grain like farro, sorghum, or millet, suggests Enright. Top your bowl with fresh fruit, nuts (like almonds), and seeds (like flax or hemp.) There are those heart-healthy unsaturated fats!
Vegetable omelets chock-full of tomatoes, spinach, and peppers, with a side of fruit also fit the bill, she says. Lean protein plus plenty of color from produce makes for a successful Mediterranean meal.
Midday is the perfect time for a loaded Mediterranean-inspired salad. Load your usual greens with lean protein—like fish, poultry, beans, or legumes—and plenty of fresh veggies such as beets or cucumbers. You could also use a whole grain—like farro or quinoa—as your salad base, Enright says.
When it comes to salad dressing, the Mediterranean way would be an oil-and-vinegar combo, using oil made of unsaturated fats, like walnut oil, avocado oil, or olive oil, she says.
If lunch ain’t lunch without a sandwich, be sure to pack tomatoes, cucumbers, and arugula onto whole-grain bread for a Mediterranean-approved sammie. (Just make sure each slice of that whole-grain bread has at least three grams of fiber, Enright says.)
Related: What You Should Know If You’re Considering Cutting Refined Carbs
Seafood is one of the superstars of a Mediterranean dinner. A meal like cod with sun-dried tomatoes, fish stew, or roasted salmon with a cucumber yogurt sauce fits right in, Weisenberger suggests.
Just remember that your plate should always include some produce, says Enright. Whether that’s leafy greens, asparagus, eggplant, or cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower. Just try to fill half your plate with the good stuff!
When you get a hankering between meals, make sure your snack still fits into the fresh-first approach of the Mediterranean region. That might look like carrots or cucumbers with Greek yogurt or hummus, or a piece of fresh fruit, suggests Weisenberger.
For something a little heartier, try roasted chickpeas, which are high in fiber and protein, Enright says.
Or, you could pair a serving of nuts or seeds—or the butters made from them—with fruit or vegetables, Enright says. You might even mix some nut or seed butter into your plain yogurt.
Visual peeps, use this infographic to build your day of Mediterranean eats: