From Pay-lee-NO to Paleo

Seven Steps for Jumping Into the Paleo Lifestyle
Ever since starting my blog in May 2011, I’ve fielded a lot of questions from people who insist that they can’t give up sweets, or cereal, or cheese, or ice cream…the list is endless. Ironically, most of them are CrossFitters, a field where “I can’t” is not part of the program. If you are reading this blog, you are probably already committed to CrossFit or some other form of fitness training. If you have not carried that commitment over to the rest of your lifestyle, I’ve outlined some steps to help you truly optimize your health and reach your fitness goals.

But first things first. What is paleo? In a nutshell, paleo is a lifestyle free of sugar, grains, dairy, beans, legumes, and processed foods. It is a life full of energy, strength, and vitality obtained from eating lean, preferably grass-fed, meats; wild-caught, sustainable seafood; and (ideally) local, organic vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

Please note my use of the term “lifestyle” instead of “diet.” Paleo is NOT a diet. It is a way of life. People sometimes have a hard time grasping this concept. Here is how many of my conversations in the past year have gone:
Them: “So how long are you going to stay on this diet?”
Me: “Always…this is just how I eat now.”
Them: “So no sugar or grains or dairy for the rest of your life?”
Me: “Pretty much…no!”

Once you make the change, you won’t want to look back.  These steps can help you get started:
Step 1: Purge your pantry and refrigerator of ALL non-paleo items.
Eliminating temptation is key to success. Give all unopened cookies, rice, pasta, beans, corn, cereal, etc., to a food pantry, non-paleo friend, or relative. We literally gave away eight grocery bags of food and tossed about three bags of expired food (clearly, it was time to clean the pantry!). It’s amazing how much more organized your pantry can be with just a little effort.

Step 2: Eat at home.
It is so much easier to control what you put in your body when you make it yourself. Even restaurant dishes that appear to be healthy may be prepared with processed oils, dairy, and grains—not to mention the lack of wild, sustainable, and grass-fed options out there. How tempting is it to go with the tacos instead of the taco salad, the burger on a bun instead of lettuce, the sushi instead of sashimi? Sadly, too many of us are intimidated by restaurant menus and are uncomfortable requesting simple changes that would paleo-ize our meal. Instead, it goes down as a cheat night and we move on. Once you are accustomed to eating within the paleo guidelines, it is much easier to make the right choices at a restaurant.

I’ll never forget a corporate cooking event I attended a while back (pre-paleo) where my group was tasked with preparing a fruit tart for about 50 people. I was in shock when I saw how much butter and sugar went into that fruit tart; the very same tart that I would have chosen as a healthy dessert choice had I seen it on a restaurant menu.

Once you have embraced the paleo lifestyle—and I have no doubt that you will, once you try it—it is easier to identify healthy restaurant options and ask for modifications. But to tell you the truth, we prefer to eat at home now and feel much better when we do.

There are so many resources available for great paleo recipes: web sites, food blogs, cook books…every CrossFit site I’ve seen has at least one link to a paleo nutrition resource. You don’t have to look very far.

Step 3: Focus on one meal at a time.
Is breakfast your hardest meal to replace? Think you can’t give up that cereal or oatmeal? Time to look at Step 4. Take a close look at the meal that is your biggest hurdle and tackle that one first. A friend who was just starting paleo needed a replacement for her oatmeal, and eggs just weren’t cutting it. Now she enjoys paleo crunch with a little almond or coconut milk, or some acorn squash porridge in the morning and is filled up until lunch. She is also losing her craving for grains and integrates eggs, meat, and vegetables on a regular basis.

Step 4: Substitute.
Before going paleo, I enjoyed a chai tea latte almost every day. I thought of it as my adult hot chocolate. I would reward myself after every run by stopping at the local Starbucks. That drink, by far, was the hardest for me to give up. After a little investigating, I discovered a great recipe for a paleo-friendly chai latte using spices, black tea, coconut milk, and a little honey. It actually tasted pretty good! But when all was said and done, after a couple of months, I lost my desire for the sweet and creamy drink. I am now really happy with straight-up spicy chai tea with no sweetener or coconut milk.
I realize that sometimes you don’t lose the taste for some of your old favorites, but many are easily replaced with paleo-friendly foods. Below is a list of some common substitutes for the grains, dairy, and sugars that may be a part of your current diet.

Non-Paleo            Paleo
Oatmeal                Paleo crunchacorn squash porridge
Peanut butter        Raw almond butter, sun butter, macadamia butter
Milk                      Coconut milk, almond milk
Flour                     Almond flour, coconut flour, walnut meal
Rice/Risotto          Cauliflower rice, turnip risotto
Beans                    Diced squash (sounds odd, but it works for me!)
Potatoes                Sweet potatoes, mashed cauliflower, mashed 
                              root vegetables
Sugar*                   Cinnamon, raw honey, garam masala,
                             dates, maple syrup, coconut crystals
Dessert*                1 or 2 squares of very dark chocolate, berries with 
                              coconut milk and cinnamon and/or honey, paleo 
                              baked goods, paleo ice cream 

*Sugar (even the substitutes) and treats are, strictly speaking, not paleo. But we're all human, and sometimes you just need a little something...just try to exercise some restraint.

Step 5: Plan ahead.
So you’ve purged your kitchen of all of non-paleo foods…now what? If I don’t know what I’m eating and don’t have paleo options in the house, it’s much harder to eat healthy. Try to plan your meals a week in advance and make sure you have plenty of food on hand for breakfast and lunch (see step 6 for more details).

I keep a good stock of homemade paleo bars, meat sticks, hard-boiled eggs, avocados, and cut vegetables on hand to snack on throughout the week. Make sure your newly cleaned-out pantry is well stocked with paleo staples such as coconut milk, nuts, canned salmon and tuna, olive oil and coconut oil, coconut and almond flour, and almond butter. (I store nuts in the refrigerator and flours in the freezer.)

A little caution about paleo treats: It can take a LOT of willpower not to eat those caveman brownies or munch on paleo crunch all day long. Treats are still treats and should be eaten in moderation. Try to freeze some, bring them to your CrossFit box to share, or portion them into small containers so you can better control your intake.

I’ve also seen a lot of people just starting paleo relying heavily on fruit. If your goal is weight loss, be careful with the high-fructose fruits and stick to berries or other lower-fructose fruits.

While it is important to have pantry staples on hand, fresh foods are essential. And when you do buy packaged goods, be sure the ingredient list is short and recognizable. Mainly shop the perimeter of the grocery store to stock up on fresh produce, meat, seafood, and eggs for the week.

If you are not getting your meat from a farmer, which I highly recommend, look for the grass-fed options in the meat department. If you think grass-fed meat is too expensive or it is unavailable in your area, then go for the leanest cut of corn-fed meat you can find. But before you do, consider all of the money you are saving by making your own food and eating at home. Our food costs went down significantly when we took that into account. Look into joining a meat-buying group or farm club to get your meat directly from a farmer ( and are two terrific resources). We find we spend the same or just slightly more for high-quality, grass-fed meats than we would for corn-fed meat at the supermarket. But eating at home easily negates any price difference!

Breakfast and Lunch
While many people plan their dinners, most of us don’t have a good plan for breakfast and lunch. That’s where Step 6 comes into play. My breakfasts don’t vary too much because I’m very satisfied with what I eat: two eggs, a vegetable, and an animal protein. The vegetable portion is usually left over from dinner or vegetables I’ve prepared on the weekend for that purpose.  When they’re in season, I’ll roast 2-3 acorn squash to use for porridge throughout the week. The animal protein is typically chicken or seasoned ground beef that I’ve prepared on the weekend. Lunches include more vegetables along with leftover meat from dinner or meat from an all-natural rotisserie chicken I always keep on hand.

Social Events
When you are going to a party where the food choices are questionable, try to eat something in advance, and bring a couple of paleo appetizers along to share. The more friends you convert, the better you’ll eat at their parties! While it’s sometimes hard to pass on the pizza, it is much easier if you have eaten a couple of eggs, an avocado, a paleo bar…or even a whole paleo meal before you arrive. But it is rare that there aren’t any paleo options. You can always hover around the veggie tray and meat platter.

Step 6: Make too much, but don’t eat too much.
I tend to make a lot of food. If a recipe says it serves six and I’m serving three, I usually don’t scale back. Leftovers are great for a quick bite.  If your dinner calls for one cup of chopped carrots, just chop up the whole bag of them while you’re at it. It’s amazing how these little things add up to a big time savings when you are in a rush.

Also, keeping with step 5, a little planning on an off day will alleviate a lot of “what to eat?” stress during the week. Pick one day a week to plan and shop. Then come home and clean and chop vegetables, cook meat, and make sauces. Prepare your lunches and, ideally, your dinners. Package them in reusable containers and label each one. Place your meals for Monday and Tuesday in the fridge, and the rest of the week in the freezer. This requires planning and a chunk of time, but then you are done for the week! Imagine coming home and knowing what’s for dinner AND that it will be ready to eat in minutes.

Step 7: Enjoy it!
The motivation for starting Paleo Table came when two of my husband’s friends were over for lunch enjoying leftover cabbage rolls. They were both trying to go paleo and were basically eating like cavemen: a slab of meat and a bunch of plain vegetables thrown on a plate. While that will definitely help you meet your nutrition goals, it really isn’t very enjoyable.

I always post my weekly dinner menu by the kitchen table. Our friends took one look and asked if I could send their wives the recipes and meal plans for what I was making. And thus, Paleo Table was born.

Have fun in the kitchen! Cook with your spouse, cook with your kids, or just cook for therapy, like I do. If you are satisfied with a slab of meat and veggies, more power to you! But if you aren’t, check out the many paleo food blogs and cookbooks that seem to be everywhere you look these days. The paleo movement is growing because people are seeing results. Give it a try and see for yourself!

Tips to Make Paleo Eating Easier

    1. Join a CSA (consumer supported agriculture). We belong to a local CSA, Wild Goose Farm, that provides fresh, organic veggies weekly from June through October. You pay for the entire growing season upfront in return for the freshest local organic produce the midwest has to offer. The variety will challenge you to try new veggies and new recipes.
    2. Eat organic whenever possible. In the off season when organic local produce isn't available (in the midwest), an increasing amount of stores are carrying enough organics to get by. My go-to store is Sunset Foods, but Target and Jewel-Osco carry a decent variety. Whole Foods is a great option, too, but not a convenient one for my location.
    3. Join a meat-buying group or find a source for grass-fed meats. We order all of our meat from Wallace Farms who offers a great variety of grass-fed beef, sustainable seafood, free-range chicken, etc. Check for a provider in your area.
    4. Purge your pantry and fridge of all non-paleo items. Pass unopened items on to a local food pantry or shelter.
    5. Pick one day a week to roast a bunch of veggies. In less than two hours, you can clean, cut, and roast enough veggies for weekly lunches. it makes life a whole lot easier, reduces waste from raw veggies gone bad, and makes paleo lunches a no-brainer.
    Eating Out

    It seems like most people living the paleo lifestyle tend to eat at home more often. We do the same, although we average a dinner out at least once a week. My last couple of restaurant meals have been great. Last night, one of the specials at Lovell's in Lake Forest was blackened salmon on a bed of asparagus, topped with a chunky avocado and tomato mixture. Yum--and totally paleo! Last week at Tavern in Libertyville, I enjoyed their baby rack of lamb with a side of mushrooms. At both meals, I had mixed berries for dessert. (I cheated with a little whipped cream on top, but didn't feel too bad about it since I passed up the molten chocolate cake!)

    I can usually find at least one paleo-friendly menu item wherever we go. I do try to stay away from steak when we eat out since it is almost always corn-fed, plus, we are spoiled at home with such awesome meats from Wallace Farms. Sticking to the simple paleo guidelines enables me to eat a meal and not have to go home and immediately crash out because I'm so full.