Following a Mediterranean diet does not require hours in the kitchen. It can be easy and convenient actually.
One of the barriers to following a healthy diet is cooking. Many people lack the skills or the time or both, to prepare healthy meals at home. As a result, a lot of people are trying to follow a healthy diet while depending on ready-to-eat foods and prepackaged meals. As much as I would like those foods to be healthy, the reality is that most of them are not. Usually they may -sound- healthy, with vegetables and lean meats, but more often than not, they include unhealthy fats, highly processed carbohydrates and numerous preservatives and other additives you would not otherwise find in home cooked food. On top of that, they are pricey. Definitely not a win-win situation for your health or your wallet.
The Mediterranean diet known for its healthiness, is often characterized (by those that do not know) as a diet that requires a lot of work. This is not true, but my question is: can a diet that does not require “work” (see cooking) be healthy and realistic? Sorry, but a diet that is dependent on prepackaged foods cannot be healthy nor sustainable. The reality is that if you want to eat healthy, you will need to do some preparation yourself. In all my years as a dietitian, I have found very few packaged and ready-to-eat foods that are good for you.
The good news is that cooking is not so difficult and yes there are some short cuts as well. If you’ve been following olive tomato, the majority of my recipes are easy and do not require advanced cooking skills. As a working mom, I just do not have the time to spend hours in the kitchen. on the other hand, I cannot get myself to eat or serve my kids highly processed foods that do not even taste that good. The secret is learning a few cooking techniques, planning and knowing how to choose healthy ingredients.
So here are my tips and for preparing healthy Greek food.
1. Make a plan
I have a weekly menu that makes things easier and works great for kids as they know what to expect. My menu is as follows:
Monday: Pasta with tomato sauce and a salad
Tuesday: Vegetable casserole (lathera) or vegetable pie (pita)
Wednesday: Beans (lentils, broad beans etc.)
Friday: Vegetable casserole (lathera)
On the weekends we may have meat or fish
2. Keep it simple
A mistake a lot of people make when they try to improve their diet is to get into a lot of complex recipes that require numerous and special or exotic ingredients, long preparation or recipes with foods that they don’t usually eat. Yes, this may be exciting in the beginning, but it’s not that great when it comes to preparing all these complicated recipes. So I keep it simple. While I like eating new things and trying new recipes, for my weekday routine I stick to recipes that require simple ingredients I have on hand and that I usually eat. This includes seasonal vegetables, tomatoes or tomato sauce, chicken, pasta, cheese, onion, garlic and herbs.
3. Master making traditional Greek vegetable casseroles (lathera)
This is not hard, the technique is the same for almost any vegetable. Sauté onions in olive oil, add tomato, pepper, sometimes a cinnamon stick, than add the vegetables and any herbs. Simmer and serve at room temperature with some feta cheese and a bit of bread.
We eat these at least 2 times a week and you get plenty of vegetables in one serving. You want to make sure you simmer them long enough so that the result is a thickish sauce where you can see the olive oil, it shouldn’t be watery.
Start with Greek style Peas and Green Beans
4. Roasting is your friend
An easy recipe for chicken is roasting it in the oven. Greeks add garlic, lemon, oregano and of course olive oil for the best result. You can also roast vegetables, I like briami, which is a Greek version of ratatouille.
Here is a recipe for classic Greek roasted chicken and my Briami (Roasted vegetables)
5. Take some short cuts
- You can use frozen vegetables. I often use frozen peas or green beans for my lathera, and I keep 2-3 bags in the freezer. But they must not contain anything else, just the frozen vegetables. No need for defrosting either, you just add it to your pot after sautéing the onion.
- Chop your onion and freeze it. One of the things I do not like doing is chopping onion, so I often chop it and then freeze it for future use.
- Canned beans are fine. Some dry beans require soaking, but I often keep canned beans in my pantry. I rinse them, add some olive oil, herbs, cheese and I have a complete meal.
- When making pites (pies) I use phyllo from the store. The real, proper phyllo does not contain any fats in it, so make sure you check the ingredients. The rest is pretty simple, you make your filling , lay the phyllo and the filling and bake. Pites are great for snacks and main courses accompanied with a salad.
Hi, I have a gluten and corn intolerance. Is there any substitute for the phyllo dough so that I can try the pites recipes?
Hi Katy, I have a recipe for a traditional olive oil crust (it is homemade phyllo, so it is thick), perhaps you can make it with gluten free flour? https://www.olivetomato.com/easy-greek-homemade-traditional-phyllo/
Love your site!
The weekly menu plan is very helpful … thanks Elena.
You are welcome!
Yes, the technique is pretty much the same, but there is a variety mainly on the herbs that are added. Fr example we use dill with peas, whereas with green beans we use parsley.
I didn’t realize that the technique for making traditional Greek casseroles was pretty much the same for almost every vegetable. adding vegetables to sauteed onions in olive oil with tomato and pepper sounds easy enough though, so I’ll have to give it a try sometime! I imagine there are probably even some specific spice mixes you can buy that were created for Mediterranean dishes specifically.
I started following your suggestions a month ago and I wish that I had thought of this myself. In order to manage my weight, I’ve backed off from a lot of elaborate cooking and recipe reading in the last couple of years. At the same time, I cook for a picky husband whose childhood mealtimes were emotional wars. Establishing a predictable schedule has been a real help. He’s happier being fed very simple, predictable food (and knowing which night is pasta night!) I’m spending less time thinking about food which leads to eating less food. I go to the store less and leftovers don’t die in the back of the refrigerator so there’s less waste. I’ve found that food just isn’t a good hobby for someone who’s tends to overeat.
This is a little off-topic, but my husband doesn’t like vegetables and I’ve found that giving him three or more tiny servings of different vegetables results in much less resistance. I just cook enough for two nights every night and give him some of the previous night’s and some of the newest selection plus a little salad, some baby carrots or similar. No more complaints about too much vegetable on his plate. Cooking green veggies in tomato sauce makes them a lot more acceptable too.
A simple plan has led to easier weight control and less marital discord!
Hi – Question about the lathera. I live in an area with a lot of diners owned by Greek Americans. They often have side dishes that seem to be what you describe as lathera, but they call them “baked” dishes, like baked zucchini, baked zucchini and potatoes, etc. I’m wondering if you have alternate instructions to do the lathera in the oven as opposed to on the stove top? Or would these diner items be a different category of recipe altogether? Thanks!
It is the same category, the stovetop way is the most common way as many people at the time did not have ovens. My recipe for briami and okra are examples of lathera in the oven. But green beans ad okra are almost always cooked on the stovetop.
Elena, For a number of months I have been working to transition myself and my family onto a true Mediterranean diet. Your website has been invaluable and I have used some of your recipes to great success but am struggling with the provision of daily meals as my repertoire of recipes is limited and we are eating the same things over and over. As cooks we all have our set of “go to” recipes and many of mine do not meet the Mediterranean standard as they are frequently meat based. I very much appreciate posts such as today’s where the “nuts and bolts” of how to incorporate the diet into daily life is explained in a practical manner. I need help with planning lunches as I pack lunch for each of us every day. Sometimes the leftovers from dinner are useful but often impractical. What suggests might you have for packable lunches that will not be heated up?
Karen, I learned a lot from Elena’s post comparing US school lunches with Greek:
I just searched the word “lunch” on this site and it was the first result.
The best packable lunches in terms of a Greek diet are the Greek pies (pites), I have several recipes posted here: https://www.olivetomato.com/?s=pites and they freeze beautifully. Otherwise sandwiches on whole wheat bread with cheese, you spread tahini or olive paste and no cold cuts.
Thank you so much for the suggestions!