One of the main reasons why people are unable to stick with Paleo is that they feel overwhelmed; the grocery shopping and cooking involved can certainly be a major adjustment if you’re not used to preparing your own meals. Fortunately, there is a simple way around this potential roadblock and to make your diet changes stick—start meal prepping!
In this article, I’ll cover the art and science of meal prepping, as well as provide you with valuable tips and tricks for making the Paleo lifestyle affordable and time-saving, even if you’re on a strict budget and tight schedule.
Why It Makes Sense to Meal Prep
Why should you start meal prepping? Simply put, meal prepping saves you time and money and, by ensuring that you have good-quality meals to eat on a daily basis, helps you stick to your diet!
If you want to start meal prepping but you’re not sure where to begin, this article is for you. Get time- and money-saving tips and learn how to plan and prep your Paleo meals successfully. #nutrition #wellness #chriskresser
You Save Time
The thought of having to cook 21 separate meals every week (breakfast, lunch, and dinner times seven) can seem daunting to Paleo newcomers. Because it’s simple to batch cook foods ahead of time, rather than making complete meals from scratch every day, meal prepping saves you valuable time in the kitchen.
You Save Money
The costs associated with regularly buying takeout or eating at restaurants really add up (and such food, unless you pay a premium, is typically lower in quality). Meal prepping, on the other hand, saves money because it involves cooking at home with ingredients that you can easily buy affordably in bulk. (Keep reading to learn more strategies for eating Paleo on a budget.)
You Prevent “Decision Fatigue”
For many of us, our action-packed days are a series of decision-making sessions that leave us exhausted and deplete our willpower—leading to “decision fatigue.” Decision fatigue can make us more likely to lounge on the couch and order takeout after work than hit the gym and cook a wholesome meal. By deciding on all your meals in advance, meal prepping reduces decision fatigue and frees up some of your willpower, helping you stay on track with your diet and your other health-related goals.
Five Steps to Successful Meal Prepping
While meal prepping pays off, it does require some planning on your part. In this section, I’ve provided you with handy guides, tips, and tricks to make each of these steps as painless and straightforward as possible.
Step 1: Clean Out Your Kitchen
The first step towards successful meal prep is to get rid of foods in your fridge, freezer, and pantry that aren’t serving your health. Toss or give away items like processed foods, industrial seed oils, and refined sugar. Get rid of items that have already been opened and donate unopened items to a food pantry. And before you panic that your shelves will be bare, remember that you’ll be replacing these foods with healthy staples!
Prepping for the Thirty-Day Reset Diet
To start, you eliminate unhealthy foods and potentially problematic foods for 30 days. Then you systematically reintroduce those possibly problematic foods to determine which ones you can tolerate. This diet is specifically designed to reduce inflammation, identify food sensitivities, and reduce allergic reactions—in addition to improving your overall health.
If you’re beginning a Thirty-Day Reset, eliminate these foods (at least temporarily):
- Dairy products like butter, cheese, yogurt, milk, and cream
- Grains, including rice, wheat, oats, quinoa, barley, and couscous
- Beans, legumes, and related products like peanut butter and soy sauce
- Processed “health foods” like whey protein and energy bars
- All sweeteners, whether they’re real or artificial
What to Do If You’re on a Paleo Template
Under a Paleo template, your main focus should be on getting rid of packaged, processed food. Eliminate foods made with industrial seeds oils and goods that include hidden sweeteners or food additives. While there are some healthy packaged foods out there (and you should check the ingredient label if you’re unsure), a good general rule is if it comes in a bag or a box, throw it out.
Here are some common items to toss:
- Sugary beverages like juice, soda, energy drinks, and sweet teas
- Seed oils, like vegetable, peanut, or canola
- Margarine and Crisco
- Packaged meals like pizza, french fries, and frozen dinners
- Imitation meat or seafood
- Boxed pastries and other packaged baked goods
- Canned soups, unless they’re free from preservatives, processed ingredients, and other additives
- Breakfast cereals and snack bars
- Dips, dressings, seasoning mixes, marinades, and gravies
- Chips and crackers
- Candy, cookies, cakes, pudding, and other desserts
- Syrups, including processed pancake syrups, sorghum syrups, etc. (Note: real maple syrup is okay)
- Processed honey (Note: raw, local, and organic honey is fine)
Step 2: Restock with Healthy Staples
Once you’ve eliminated those foods from your kitchen, it’s time to restock with healthy staples.
Non-starchy vegetables are a nutritious and affordable staple in the Paleo lifestyle. Stock your fridge and freezer with fresh or frozen broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, green onions, bell peppers, and leafy greens.
Whole fruits such as berries, apples, pears, bananas, mango, pineapple, and citrus fruits are excellent sources of vitamin C and phytonutrients. They make a great snack on their own or can be added to smoothies. However, avoid fruit juice because its lack of fiber allows fruit sugars to be absorbed more rapidly, resulting in spikes in blood glucose levels. In fact, diets heavy in fruit juice are linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, whereas whole fruit consumption does the very opposite, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. (1)
Starchy plants such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, plantains, winter squash, taro, cassava, beets, turnips, and rutabaga are affordable, nutrient-dense, satiating foods to include in your diet. Stock up on these vegetables when they’re available seasonally; many of the tubers and root veggies will keep for quite a while when properly stored in the refrigerator. If you have trouble finding some of the more exotic tubers at your grocery store, consider checking out Asian markets, which frequently stock taro and cassava.
High-quality protein is a staple of the Paleo diet and can be prepped ahead of time. Purchase grass-fed and organic beef, bison, chicken, turkey, and eggs from your grocery store or farmers market or directly from local farms. Check out EatWild to find farms near you offering grass-fed and organic meats. I also recommend eating wild seafood several times a week as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium, and many other micronutrients. Thrive Market and Vital Choice both offer excellent selections of wild, sustainable seafood.
As you may know by now, Paleo encourages the consumption of plenty of healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, red palm oil, avocado oil, pastured tallow and lard, and duck fat. Select a few of these fats and keep them on hand for sautéing, roasting, baking, and dressing salads.
Nuts and nut butter make for a great Paleo snack. If possible, buy soaked and sprouted nuts because these processes remove much of the anti-nutrients from nuts, making their nutrients more bioavailable. You can also soak and sprout raw nuts yourself at home. Avoid buying roasted nuts covered in vegetable oils, as the roasting process causes the fats to go rancid.
Spices can quickly add interest to any Paleo dish. Invest in a spice rack and stock it with staples such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, and turmeric.
If you’re planning to do any Paleo baking, then you’ll want to stock your pantry with a few Paleo flours and sweeteners. Try cassava, almond, coconut, and tigernut flours for baking Paleo cookies, brownies, or cake. Coconut flakes are a nice addition to homemade Paleo granola. Keep cans of full-fat coconut milk (preferably a BPA-free version such as Native Forest Simple Organic Unsweetened Coconut Milk) on hand along with Paleo-friendly sweeteners such as raw honey, maple syrup, stevia, coconut sugar, molasses, and monk fruit sweetener.
Other Paleo Template-Friendly Foods
Depending on your personal Paleo Template, you can also stock up on things like white rice, buckwheat, full-fat dairy products, legumes, and chocolate. Just look for organic products that aren’t processed or refined.
Step 3: Plan Your Meals
Now that you’ve eliminated unhealthy foods and restocked your kitchen with healthy staples, it’s time to start planning your meals! This part of the meal-prepping process is fun, will save you time in the kitchen, and will even tempt you to try new tastes and flavors.
Start by planning your meals on a weekly schedule. You can do this in one of two ways.
Take a pen and paper and figure out how many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you will need for the upcoming week. Factor in things like date nights, meals with clients, and travel. Once you know how many meals you’ll need for the week, decide what to eat for those meals. See the sections “What makes a good meal?” and “Which foods work best for meal prepping?” below for ideas. Make a grocery list based on your notes.
Use a Meal-Prepping App
There are many useful apps that will help you with meal prep—and some are even tailored specifically for Paleo. These apps provide you with recipes, chart out your meal schedule for the coming week, and automatically generate a grocery shopping list based on your meal plan. (Check out Step 4 below for an overview of my favorites.)
Once you’ve laid out your meal plan for the week, display it in a place where everyone in your household can see it. This way, you can get input from them and ultimately create weekly meal plans that will make everyone well fed and happy.
After the first few weeks of planning meals regularly, I realize it can be easy to fall into a rut, using the same few recipes repeatedly. But dietary diversity is crucial for meeting our nutrient needs and for feeding our gut microbes, so I recommend introducing new foods and recipes regularly. Start by adding one new vegetable per week and work your way up from there.
What Makes a Good Meal?
What exactly should the meals on your meal plan look like? First and foremost, choose nutrient-dense, whole foods. To learn more about how to select nutrient-dense foods, read my article “What Is Nutrient Density and Why Is It Important?”
Secondly, try to create meals that contain a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Eating well-balanced meals promotes satiety, modulates your body’s blood sugar response, and even enhances nutrient uptake from food. For example, eating protein with carbohydrates moderates the spike in insulin caused by dietary glucose, and consuming fat with vegetables enhances the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as carotenoids. (2, 3)
While I typically don’t advise people to count calories or obsess over macronutrient ratios, some people need to do so for health reasons. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend using a meal planning app to make the process easier.
Step 4. Use an App
The amount of planning involved with meal planning is significant, but fortunately, there is a way to make it infinitely easier—meal planning software and apps. I’ve taken the guesswork out of selecting the best ones for Paleo meal planning by creating this list.
AnyList collects and organizes recipes and adds them to a meal plan calendar. It then generates a grocery shopping list that you can easily edit and share with friends and family.
In addition to creating weekly meal plans, Cook Smarts also offers helpful cooking guides, infographics, and online cooking sessions.
eMeals lets you choose from a variety of different meal plans (including a Paleo plan, of course). Each meal plan includes recipes with main and side dishes, a shopping list, and step-by-step instructions.
Mealime produces weekly meal plans with over 200 personalization options.
Keto Diet Tracker
The Keto Diet Tracker app is helpful for tracking net carbs and storing recipes for those following a keto diet.
Nom Nom Paleo App
The Nom Nom Paleo app has nearly 150 recipes, 2,000 step-by-step photos, and a Whole30-friendly monthlong meal plan and generates customizable shopping lists, all for a low cost.
Paleo Leap Meal Planner
This app includes only Paleo-friendly recipes—every single one is free of gluten, grains, legumes, sugar, soy, and corn. The app offers over 1,500 recipes, generates grocery lists, and lets you set your own food preferences and restrictions; for example, you can indicate if you’d like low-FODMAP, egg-free, or autoimmune protocol-friendly recipes.
The Paleo.io app answers a simple question: Is it Paleo? It helps users determine whether a given food is Paleo or not using a database of over 3,000 foods. It also includes hundreds of Paleo-approved recipes. This app is particularly helpful for those who are new to Paleo.
The Paprika app helps you organize recipes, make meal plans, and create grocery lists. Paprika’s built-in browser allows you to save recipes from anywhere on the internet so you can create your ideal meal plan.
Plan to Eat
Plan to Eat allows you to add your own recipes from anywhere on the internet into a recipe book. You can then drag and drop recipes into a calendar to plan out your meals for the week. The app also generates a grocery list for you based on your planned recipes.
RealPlans creates and organizes recipes, develops a weekly menu, and generates grocery lists so that you can get healthy, delicious food on the table. If you need to track your macros, Real Plans has you covered. A subscription will give you access to all the app’s meal plans (Classic, Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, Paleo, Keto, autoimmune protocol, and more) and over 1,500 recipes. You can add on recipes from well-known food bloggers for an additional fee.
Yummly Recipes and Recipe Box
Yummly takes a cue from Instagram, allowing you to browse through a photo gallery of recipes and save them to your own digital cookbook. Yummly also uses a proprietary program called Food Genome and a patent-pending technology called Food Intelligence to recommend recipes to users based on their allergies, tastes, and more.
Step 5: Cook Your Meals
You’ve cleaned out your kitchen, restocked it with healthy foods, and created a meal plan—now it’s time to start cooking! Here are a few simple strategies that will make it easier for you to follow through on your commitment to stick with Paleo.
Set Aside Time for Grocery Shopping and Meal Prepping
For many people, Sundays work best. You may also want to consider doing your shopping and main meal prep session on a Sunday and a second, smaller meal prep session mid-week to keep your fridge stocked with fresh options. Use a list when grocery shopping and check off items as you add them to your cart.
Organize Your Recipes
Organizing the recipes you intend to use in meal prepping will save you time in the kitchen. The meal prep apps I mentioned above make organizing your recipes easy, but you may also want to keep a few cookbooks in your house and print out recipes from blogs and websites and collect them in a binder. Find 15 to 20 recipes that you really enjoy and rotate them throughout the weeks (and check out some of my favorite Paleo-friendly recipes).
Keep Things Simple
You don’t need to cook an elaborate meal to satisfy your nutritional needs and appetite! Uncomplicated meals should be a staple in your weekly meal plans. For example, a high-quality protein source; steamed or roasted veggies with salt, pepper, and some healthy fat; and a sweet potato can make for a wholly satisfying and effortless meal.
Incorporate Leftovers into Your Weekly Meal Plan
Don’t be afraid of leftovers! Eating leftovers is an easy way to cut down on meal prep and prevents food waste. Label and date leftovers so you keep track of what’s in your fridge and freezer. And speaking of the freezer, use it! When you batch cook (see next item), you’ll have extras that you can stash away for later.
Batch cooking, including doubling and tripling your favorite recipes, is a critical component of food prepping and can be applied toward many types of foods. For instance, bake several batches of egg muffins at a time to have around for breakfasts or roast a bunch of sweet potatoes to use as sides throughout the week.
Which Foods Work Best for Meal Prepping?
Some foods are more suitable for meal prepping than others; for example, roasted sweet potatoes hold up well to reheating, whereas pre-dressed salads quickly wilt in the refrigerator. In this section, I’ve outlined some of the best foods to include in your meal prepping process.
- Cook chicken, turkey, beef, bison, or game meat in a slow-cooker. Shred the meat and set aside to use in stir-fries, in Paleo tacos, on top of salads, or in soup.
- Sauté ground turkey, chicken, or beef in a pan with garlic, onion, and sea salt. Use the ground meat in Paleo “taco” salads, on top of spiralized vegetables, or in hearty stews.
- Bake chicken breasts, wild salmon fillets, burgers, or meatballs in batches. Use them throughout the week with roasted or sautéed veggies, salad, and starchy vegetables as sides.
- Hard-boil a dozen eggs. Hard-boiled eggs are ideal for a quick and easy breakfast and are also an excellent portable snack.
- Roast sweet potatoes, white potatoes, winter squash, and root vegetables in batches. These vegetables hold up well to reheating and are nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates.
- If you tolerate white rice, make large quantities in a rice cooker or Instant Pot.
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts, also hold up well to reheating throughout the week.
- Make several sauces to use throughout the week. Salsa, guacamole, gremolata, and chimichurri are just a few examples of Paleo-friendly sauces that can be made ahead of time and quickly spice up any meal.
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Four Meal Prepping Tips and Tricks
Now that you know the basics of meal prepping, you’re well on your way towards saving time in the kitchen and eating well.
1. Stick to a Budget
Shopping Paleo can be expensive if you don’t know how to grocery shop to your advantage. With the tips I’ve outlined here, you can successfully shop Paleo on a budget while still filling your cart with high-quality, nutrient-dense foods.
Buy conventional instead of organic (for some produce). Organic produce is ideal because it reduces our exposure to harmful pesticides and herbicides. However, costs can really add up when buying nothing but organic foods. If this is a problem for you, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists to determine which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are lowest in pesticides and thus safe to buy conventional rather than organic.
Whether you buy organic or conventional produce, thoroughly wash your produce before eating. Almost no food is completely free of pesticides. The most effective way to remove pesticides from produce is by washing produce in a baking soda bath. (4) To wash vegetables, fill a large bowl with water and add a teaspoon of baking soda. Add the veggies and soak for 10 to 15 minutes. Scrub with a scrub brush and then rinse under clean water. For leafy greens, soak in a baking soda bath for a minute, thoroughly rinse, and then spin dry in a salad spinner. Wash smooth-skinned fruits (like apples and nectarines) in a baking soda bath like you would for veggies.
Here are some more money-saving tips:
- Buy frozen produce. Buying frozen produce saves money while still providing you with nutrient-dense food; most fruits and vegetables are flash-frozen immediately after picking, thus preserving the nutrients they contain.
- Buy in-season produce. Out-of-season produce is typically shipped from distant locations, including other continents, increasing costs. It’s also generally picked before it’s allowed to ripen (so that it can be transported without bruising or other damage), and that can impact its nutrient content if it’s improperly stored or subjected to temperature extremes.
- Start a garden. Growing your own produce takes some work, but it ultimately is a really low-cost way to obtain organic fruits and vegetables.
- Buy lower-quality cuts of meat. You don’t need to buy expensive cuts of meat to eat Paleo. For example, ground beef and brisket are cheaper than filet mignon but have the same nutritional value. In fact, some of the so-called “less desirable” cuts of meat may actually have higher nutritional value than pure muscle meat; for instance, nutritious gelatin-rich cuts of meat such as chuck roast and beef shank are often cheaper than cuts such as sirloin.
- Choose more affordable species of wild fish, such as wild sardines instead of wild salmon.
- Make eggs a staple in your diet. Eggs are a very economical protein source, including high-quality, farm-fresh eggs from a local source.
- Buy in bulk. Many bulk grocery stores now offer many healthy options, including organic produce, wild seafood, and pastured meats, at lower prices than regular grocery stores. Consider buying a quarter, half, or or whole animal for meat directly from a rancher or farmer instead of single cuts from the grocery store; while you’ll need to invest in a chest freezer, this strategy can significantly reduce the cost of meat.
2. Shop Around for Healthy Food
Contrary to popular belief, Whole Foods is not the only place you can buy healthy food! All the stores listed here have excellent selections of healthy, Paleo-friendly foods. Even your local grocery store is likely to have some options.
- Trader Joe’s
- Natural Grocers
- Sprouts Farmers Market
- Super Target
- Harris Teeter
- Food Lion
- Sam’s Club
Don’t forget about your local farmers market! Farmers markets offer fresh produce, meat, and (depending on where you live) seafood at lower prices than most grocery stores. You might also want to investigate a CSA—community supported agriculture—in your area from which you can purchase a subscription to locally raised foods including produce and meat, delivered weekly or monthly.
Healthy grocery shopping can now be done online as well as in person. The following online grocery stores offer organic, healthy options and deliver right to your door:
Shopping seasonally is a great way to tune in with your local food system and save money. Check out the Seasonal Food Guide to find out what produce is in season near you.
3. Use Real Food Delivery Services
If you are really tight on time but still committed to eating healthy meals, you may want to consider a Paleo “real food” meal delivery service. There are countless options out there, but I’ve curated the very best in this list.
Beetnik Foods meals are certified Paleo friendly, delivered nationwide, and also available in select health food and grocery stores.
ButcherBox delivers 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef, heritage breed pork, and free-range, organic chicken. That can help if you’re short on time or if you’re struggling to find a local provider of grass-fed meat.
Caveman Chefs offers both meal delivery services and catering. It is based in Colorado but ships nationwide. Choose from meals that are Whole30 approved, autoimmune protocol, low FODMAP, and ketogenic.
Factor 75 meals are premade, 100 percent organic, and free of hormones, GMOs, and antibiotics. Choose from bundles of four, six, eight, 12, or 18 meals.
Green Chef provides you with prepped ingredients to cook three two-person Paleo dinners (or two four-person dinners on the family plan) each week. All recipes are organic and gluten-free, feature protein and fresh veggies, and contain zero grains or dairy.
Kettlebell Kitchen meals are free of artificial ingredients, preservatives, gluten, dairy, soy, corn, industrial vegetable oils, and refined sugar. Some of the meals contain non-Paleo ingredients that are tolerated by many people, including white rice, lentils, and gluten-free oats.
Paleo On The Go
Paleo On The Go operates out of a completely gluten-free kitchen and specializes in Paleo and autoimmune protocol-friendly frozen premade meals that can be delivered nationwide. You can purchase meals individually or in bundles.
Paleo Power Meals
Paleo Power Meals offers premade meals with generous portions that pack a large amount of protein.
Pete’s Paleo offers seasonally inspired, farm-fresh prepared Paleo meals. Order bundles of five, 10, 14, or 20 meals in vacuum-sealed packages from anywhere in the United States.
Sunbasket allows you to select three two- or four-person meal kits per week without gluten, grains, soy, corn, added sugar, or dairy. The ingredients and recipes are delivered fresh so you can cook great meals without any planning or shopping.
The Good Kitchen
The Good Kitchen sources organic produce almost exclusively from local farms in North Carolina (where its operation is based) and delivers its refrigerated and frozen meals nationwide.
Trifecta Nutrition provides ready-to-eat dinners and lunches that are non-GMO, 100 percent organic, and free of sugar, grains, gluten, dairy, and soy. You can also upgrade to add breakfasts and additional entrées or choose build-your-own meals.
TrueFare uses the highest-quality ingredients in their meals, including organic produce, grass-fed beef, heritage pork, and organic or free-range poultry. They offer Paleo-, keto-, autoimmune protocol-, and Whole30-friendly meal plans.
4. Stock Your Kitchen with the Essentials
To successfully meal prep, you’ll need to stock your kitchen with some essential tools. This includes basic tools that everyone should have in their kitchen, Paleo-specific items, cookware and bakeware, and maybe some “nice to have” extras for when you decide to get creative with cooking.
- Measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Kitchen towels
- Vegetable peeler
- Spice rack
- Cutting boards
- Chef’s knife
- Slotted spoons
- Utensil holder
- Mixing bowls
- Glass storage container
- Wooden spoons
Paleo Kitchen Essentials
- Meat cleaver
- Paring knife
- Probe meat thermometer
- Hand-held lemon squeezer or citrus reamer
- Mason jars
- Salad spinner
- Cheesecloth or cotton/linen fine mesh towel
- Potato masher
- Food processor
- Immersion blender
Cookware and Bakeware
- Sauté pan
- Baking dishes
- Soup pot
- Dutch oven
“Nice to Have” Items
- Kitchen shears
- Pepper mill
- Muffin tin and muffin liners
- Spoon rest
- Meat grinder
- Hand mixer
- Mortar and pestle
- Slow cooker
- Sous vide
- Fermentation pot
- Spice grinder machine
- Garlic press
- Tool for making your own meat jerky (such as LEM Products 468 Jerky Cannon)
- Food processor
- Instant Pot
- Countertop toaster oven or convection oven
For drinking and cooking water, I recommend investing in a high-quality water filter. Berkey water filtration systems sit conveniently on your countertop and remove viruses, pathogenic bacteria, cysts, and parasites to undetectable levels. They also reduce heavy metals without eliminating beneficial minerals. Additional white filters can be added to remove fluoride. If you want to filter your home’s entire water supply, you may want to consider a reverse osmosis filter instead.
Once you’ve prepped your meals, you’ll need containers for storing everything. Since plastic containers contain chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors, I prefer people use glass storage dishes with BPA-free lids.
For wrapping up foods, use unbleached parchment paper or beeswax-coated reusable food wrap (such as Bee’s Wrap) instead of conventional plastic wrap, which may leach endocrine disrupting chemicals into your food. (5) Finally, try reusable silicone storage bags (such as Stasher bags) instead of plastic freezer/storage bags, which may also contain endocrine-disrupting plasticizers.
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I noticed you left out Walmart but included Target. Walmart is getting pretty good about quality ingredients. They offer hormone free dairy and pasture raised eggs. They have a growing gluten free freezer section with paleo TV style dinners (not great). They also have pretty good options in their canned and jarred selections, even offering upscale tuna. Their meat section needs work (seafood is doable), as does their organic veggies.