When conducting a coaching session, one of the first questions I ask people is, “what are you struggling with most when it comes to developing healthy eating habits?” Here are the answers I hear most often:
- I don’t know how to cook.
- I don’t have time to prepare meals.
- I don’t know what to make.
Well, I’ve got some good and some bad news for you, my friends. The bad news is that if you want to establish healthy eating habits and dominate the paleo game, you’re going to have to learn how to cook. The good news is you don’t have to be the next Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsey, or Helena Rizzo.
The Ultimate Paleo Guide has got you covered. We’ll soon have you cooking up a treat. Ready? Let’s go!
Table of Contents
Paleo Cooking Basics
If you can’t remember the last time you used a stove or oven, going paleo is going to feel overwhelming.
- What do I eat for breakfast?
- What do I eat during the rest of the day?
- What snacks are there?
- How do I cook these veggies?
- I don’t have time to prepare all these meals. How can I find the time?
- Where can I get the ingredients for these paleo recipes?
When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to just shut down. It all just feels like too much and, instead of taking a deep breath, relaxing, and slowing down to cook a simple meal, you give up and stick a ready meal in the microwave or order takeout. Problem solved, right?
Well, you’ve solved your hunger problem but now you’ve got a new problem. You’ve got a whole load of processed food in your belly and maybe an expanding waistline too.
To avoid the above situation, you need to learn how to cook. There’s no need to become the next world renowned paleo chef but, if you follow our tips, you’ll soon be the best dang paleo chef on your block.
Step 1: The Materials
Before you actually start cooking, you need to make sure you’ve got the right stuff to cook with. Here’s what you’ll need:
Spice rack: A variety of spices are essential for adding variety and flavor to meals. Go for whole spices rather than ground ones, as they last longer. Keep them stored in a cool area and away from heat. Heat causes them to go bad quickly. Spices should be calorie-free, and contain no additives and no extra sodium. Garlic should be garlic, fennel should be fennel, and cumin should be just cumin.
All-purpose knife: You most likely already have an assortment of knives, but make sure you have a very sharp 8-inch knife to hand. It will probably cut tough meats like steak and it’ll be able to gentle dice soft foods like tomatoes effectively. Make sure to dry it off immediately after cleaning to avoid wear and rust on the blade.
Spatula and large spoon: You’ll need both of these for mixing and serving meals.
Glass containers: Use glass containers for storing leftovers in. Make sure they come with a sealing lid. Glass containers actually keep food fresher than plastic ones one.
Tupperware: If you’re like most you, probably have a job to get to. Although bringing a couple of hot plates of food to work might be awesome, it’s probably in your best interest to store your work meals in Tupperware for the day.
Insulated bag or large grocery bag: You can usually get insulted bags from Trader Joe’s for as little as five bucks. These will help keep your food both warm and cool, depending on what it is. If you’re just carrying your food for the day, a simple bag will do. You can even use an old Trader Joe’s bag to carry around your Tupperware for the day.
Kitchen shears: A good pair of shears is a plus, but I have honestly used a pair from the dollar store with pretty good success. They make it easy to chop up chicken, bacon, pieces of beef, and fish. They can also be used for veggies and fruit as well.
One to three cooking pans: I’d suggest getting one to three pans, so that you can easily cook in batches or a variety of foods at the same time to save on time. Make sure they come with lids.
Tip: Check your kitchen for these items to see if you have any of them already. If you find that you don’t have the majority of these items and your budget is tight, simplify this list a bit and pick up one non-stick cooking pan, one large pot, five pieces of tupperware (or glass containers if you microwave a lot), and an all-purpose knife.
Step 2: The Food
You’ve got the gear and you’re now ready to cook, but what the heck are you supposed to make?
I highly recommend performing a kitchen makeover before heading to the grocery store. There is a rule of thumb I like to live by and that I always tell to clients:
If there is junk food in the house, eventually it will get eaten.
Make life easier for yourself and remove any temptations. Replace the fake food with the real stuff. You can use the Ultimate Paleo Guide Food List or check out this Paleo Food List Infographic. We’ve also developed an “Is It Paleo?” app to help you figure out whether or not something is paleo when you’re at the store.
Tip: If you want to simplify this process even, more take advantage of this grocery shopping cheat sheet. Be able to list your five favorite protein sources, veggies, healthy fats, and other items, so that you’ll know exactly what to get when you go shopping.
Step 3: Make Sure A Few Staple Items Are Always To Hand
As you start cooking more and more, you’ll notice that you’re going to use a lot of the same ingredients over and over again. Having these handy will ensure that you can whip up some tasty meals with variety in a pinch. Here’s what to make sure you always have at home:
- Coconut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Almond butter
- Coconut aminos
- Grass-fed butter or ghee (if you’re primal rather than paleo)
- Raw nuts (almonds, macadamia, or whatever your preference is, but no peanuts)
- Apple cider vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
- Bay leaf
- Chili powder
- Garlic cloves
- Onion powder
- Black pepper
- Sea salt
Step 4: Cook!
Do not expect to be a perfect paleo chef at first. You will mess up on occasion and make a few bad meals. This is totally OK. Focus more on being consistent at first and less on being perfect. I wouldn’t even bother with too many recipes either, as doing that can lead to confusion, as well as a ton of leftover food. Instead, remember KISS (keep it simple, stupid).
- Put a pan on the stove at medium heat and add some healthy oil (coconut, grass-fed butter (primal), ghee (primal), or olive).
- Add a serving of a form of protein of your choice and let it brown by covering it for a few minutes.
- Add some of your favorite spices.
- Add some of your favorite veggies.
- Cover it up and let it sit. Check in on it every two to three minutes.
It really is that easy. I know you probably want some fancy recipes and a ton of variety, but if you’re just learning how to cook and trying to build the paleo habit, you’re more likely to be successful with it if you keep it simple and focus on consistency at first.
The chances are that you already eat the same things over and over again. How important to you is your health? Prove to yourself that you can show up everyday and do the work before getting all Emeril Lagasse on it.
Step 5: Plan
If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to plan. When trying to get healthy, a lot of folks try to FIND time for their health. You’re never going to find time. Most of us are extremely busy. You’re going to have to CREATE time for your health if you want to succeed.
If you’re really committed to the paleo lifestyle, developing food prep rituals is a must. Here are a few approaches that have helped me to cook consistently over the years.
Morning Mojo: I cook all my food for the day in the morning when I wake up. I usually make a big batch of the same thing and eat it over my three meals for the day. If I have some extra time, I might get two or three pans going, and create a few different meals using the KISS method. I’ll also usually pack one or two snacks just in case. Typically these will include some raw veggies (carrots, celery, or cherry tomatoes) and a handful or so of raw, mixed nuts
Sunday Fun Day: This is now my favorite method for cooking consistently. I now take one day to prep all of my meals for the upcoming week. It takes about two to four hours, depending on whether or not I need to do some shopping. Sometimes I’ll just make enough to last me through to Wednesday and then on Wednesday night I’ll make enough to last me through until Saturday.
I got in touch with my good friend Stephanie over at Stupid Easy Paleo and asked her advice on how to save time in the kitchen. Here’s what she had to say:
- Set aside one day a week (two to three hours) to prep food for the upcoming week. I like to do this on a work off-day when I’m not pressed for time.
- Learn how to batch prep food. Roast off a few trays of veggies. Grill a couple pounds of meat. Boil a dozen eggs. If you’re going to the effort of cooking, make some extra, so you have leftovers.
- Have a well-stocked pantry. You should be able to create a tasty and simple meal using items already on hand in your pantry and by combining with fresh or cooked veggies and meat.
Tip: Take a look at your schedule and see which times or days of the work will work best for you.
Tip 3: Trying to prepare three to five different meals every day is tough. Have a few (five tops) simple recipes or go-to meals written on index cards or copied into the notes section on your phone, so you can easily access them. Create variety by switching up your protein sources, veggies, and spices.
Cooking With Protein, Veggies, And Healthy Fat
Cooking With Protein
Roasting – Roasting is a cooking method that requires only the meat and a small amount of oil. It’s a dry heat method and it’s usually done over a heat source such as a fire or electric grill bars. The amount of time it takes to roast a piece of meat depends on the meat itself. The cut and its size will define whether it should be roasted slowly on a lower temperature or quickly on a higher one.
Pot-roasting – Pot-roasting is a cooking method best used on large cuts of meat. You can brown the meat in some oil first and then put it in a pot with some previously browned vegetables, without adding any oil. You can also pot-roast meat in a pressure cooker.
Braising – Braising is a cooking method that works great with cuts that aren’t very tender. The meat is cut into serving portions, browned a little bit (although this is not necessary) and then put in a pot on top of a load of vegetables. Some water is added and, with the lid covering the pot, slowly cooked at a low temperature.
Pan-frying – Pan-frying is quick and not at all dirty. It’s ideal for smaller, more tender cuts of meat. A small amount of oil or fat is heated in a pan or a wok before the meat is added, and that’s pretty much it. The meat is fried quickly over a hot temperature. If you add veggies and some liquids, it’s called stir-frying, and it’s a simple way to prepare a great meal.
Barbequing and grilling – Barbequing and grilling are dry methods of preparing meat. They involve exposing it to a heat source without adding any water, oil, or vegetables. The heat source – a grill or a barbeque – needs to be at full power when the meat is placed above it, under it, or in between two heat sources. This method is best suited to tender cuts of meat.
Tip: Here’s another gem from my homegirl Stephanie. Cook low and slow in a slow cooker. Tough cuts of meat such as pork shoulder or brisket end up fall-apart tender when you simply salt them, put them into a slow cooker, and set the cooker to cook for eight to ten hours on low. Toss some root veggies in during the last three to four hours (or leafy or more tender veggies during the last one to two hours), and you’ll have a complete meal.
Tip 2: You can cook your proteins just shy of being done and then actually leave them in the fridge or freezer to eat later. They will continue cooking and stay tender this way if you decide to reheat them.
Tip 3: Using a slow cooker is the ultimate food prep hack. Clear space on an even surface in your kitchen. Make sure that nothing is close by, as the sides of the cooker will get warm. Prep all of your food. Fill the slow cooker, so that it is about half to three quarters full of food. If you’re adding liquid to it, only use enough for it to cover about half of the food. Put on the lid and make sure it’s on nice and snug. A tight seal is important. Temperatures on slow cooker are usually the same (210 degrees) because the settings just indicate how long it will take for the temperature to reach 210. A low setting usually means it will take about eight to ten hours until your food is done with medium and about four to six hours with a high setting.
Cooking Your Veggies
Preparing vegetables can be extremely time‐consuming and, if you catch yourself at a time when you’re starving, it can be a real pain in the ass. At times like these, you can always go for frozen or canned vegetables. Vegetables also make irresistible and easy-to-make snacks.
Steaming: It is much better to steam vegetables than to boil them. With boiling, nutrients can seep out into the water, which is often poured away and not used. Steaming locks the nutrients inside the vegetable pieces. Steaming also takes hardly any time. Cutting the vegetables into bite-sized pieces can also speed up the process. This is the best way to enjoy your vegetables without using oil.
Sautéing and stir-frying: A little oil will not hurt as long, as long as it is from a healthy source. Coconut oil, grass-fed butter (if you’re primal), and olive oil are good choices here. Cook the vegetables on low‐flame (if you’re sautéing) or with a high flame (if you’re stir-frying) until your food reaches your desired tenderness. Fats that are solid at room temperature work better under high heat.
Tomato dressing (makes 1 1/2 cups)
- 1/3 cup fresh tomatoes
- 1/2 cup flaxseed oil
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 onion, chopped
Tip 2: Make big ass salads once a week. You can then easily scoop out whatever you need for meals if pressed for time. Don’t worry – it will last a week.
Tip 3 (from Stephanie): Roasting veggies is my favorite way to prep them. It drives off some of the moisture, making them caramelized and concentrating the flavor. So many of us were deprived of the chance to love veggies as kids, because we were given steamed and boiled veggies. Start roasting them and I guarantee they’ll taste better.
Cooking With Healthy Fats
One of the things people tend to find a bit challenging when it comes to cooking paleo is adjusting to all the healthy fats that replace a lot of the sugars and grains that they’re used to. Most of us have been told that fat is not good for you, that fat makes you fat, and that saturated fat clogs up your arteries. Most of this information is not true.
Let’s begin with some facts about fats. It’s important to know the facts because the more you know, the better the choices you’ll be able to make. When it comes to cooking fat, you should almost always use saturated fat (or fat that’s solid at room temperature).
Let’s start with seed oils. These are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. To understand why that makes them a less desirable option for cooking (when compared to saturated fats), you need to know one important fact: unsaturated fats are less stable than saturated fats.
This means they are more prone to having their chemical structures damaged by things like heat, light, and even air. Olive oil in colored glass bottles is a great example of this. Olive oil is not rich in saturated fats and it has the worst reputation when it comes to quality. Another example of a commonly used unsaturated fat is vegetable oil. Some vegetable oils, for example soybean and corn oil, turn rancid if they’re left in air for extended periods of time like.
This is an important fact to remember when you’re shopping for fat or oil. There is a wide selection of refined seed oils that are praised for their high smoke points, which mean they can be heated to greater temperatures. Although a high smoke point is a good thing, it shouldn’t be used to determine the quality of an oil or fat. Saturated fats are still better than unsaturated fats, regardless of their smoke points.
Which Fats To Use
There are plenty of good fats to choose from. We’ll start with the best ones: ghee, grass-fed butter, and coconut oil. Note: grass-fed butter is primal rather than paleo.
Ghee is butter that has gone through the process of clarification. The clarification process, in short, removes pretty much everything from the butter except the fat, most of which is saturated.
Coconut oil is composed of 90% saturated fat. That’s not a small percentage. You’ll rarely see a higher concentration of saturated fat anywhere. And the fats that are included in those saturated fats have some other great properties, like being anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Coconut oil is also great fuel for your body.
Another option is lard or, more precisely, leaf lard – lard taken from around the kidneys and loins of pigs. This type of lard is desirable because it has the least porky taste of all the lards.
Duck fat is another great fat. It’s a good source of saturated fats and has a high smoking point.
Which Fats Are Not So Good For Cooking?
Fats that are not good for the body include refined oils and most vegetable oils. There are also some man-made trans fats out there that you have most likely seen. Some popular brands are Crisco, Smart Balance, and I can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. These products contain trans-fats, which are very damaging to the body and which have been linked to various health problems (1)(2).
How Do You Use The Good Fats?
Now, you already know that higher smoking points mean higher cooking temperatures, so coconut oil works great.
Browning is a cooking method that uses a high temperature to make meat turn brown quickly. A high smoking point is required for this, so use ghee instead of butter. Browning is also the first step of pan-searing, with the second step being cooking the meat in a pan in a pre-heated oven for a short amount of time.
Pan-frying can be done with grass-fed butter, but you have to be careful not to overheat it because of its lower smoking point. Pan-frying some veggies for a few minutes is a great way to make them crisp and tasty. You can also use duck fat for frying, especially when you’re frying something that takes a bit more time to cook, like sweet potato fries.
What About Food That Contains Fat?
Omega-3 fats are the most famous of all the fats. Eating foods that contains these kinds of fats is good for you, and fish have more of them than pretty much any other food choice. The fattier the fish, the better (think wild-caught salmon).
Egg yolks are also full of good fats, and they’re one of the best things you can eat for breakfast. They can also be added to sauces and dressings and used to prepare a wide range of meals.
Tip: If you’re not cooking with a healthy fat and are instead using it as a dressing, make sure to have a great non-stick pan.
What If I’m Cooking For More Than One Person?
Cooking for one is easy, but when you have a whole host of people with different taste buds, preferences, and eating habits, it can get pretty tough. For some phenomenal tips (especially if you’re a penny pincher like me), I recommend picking up Robb’s guide, but below are a few strategies that you can implement today.
If you are the main cook in the family, always remember that. You’re doing the grocery shopping, the food prep, and the cooking, and using your time to make sure everyone gets a healthy meal. If this is the case, you get to decide what’s on the menu.
Ask your family what some of their favorite proteins, veggies, and spices are. Make a list and keep it handy for when you are grocery shopping. You can even ask them if they have favorite meals (lasagna, pizza, chili, tacos, etc…) and search the almighty Google for ways to paleo-fy them (no one will know, I promise). Otherwise, check out our recipes section for loads of meal ideas that will go down a treat.
You can create a menu based off of the foods and meals that the members of your family already enjoy. This is great for special occasions as well. Ask your guests which meals they enjoy and paleo-fy those bad boys too.
Saving Money, Dominating Some More, And Other Tips
Boy oh boy, we sure did cover a ton today, didn’t we? I recommend bookmarking this post for future reference. But I wanted to leave you with a few extra tips, now that you have the basics down. And I do want to repeat this: GET THE BASICS DOWN before trying to get all kinds of fancy in the kitchen. Build the habit first and then get your Iron Chef game on.
Make it fun: Throw on some music, watch a movie, or make cooking time family time.
Don’t tell me healthy is too expensive: Are you heading out for drinks at the bar? Buying coffee daily? Do you have memberships or subscriptions you’re not using or that you don’t really need? Get rid of cable. There are plenty of ways to save money, so that you can spend it on eating better foods instead.
All or nothing is not allowed: Do the best you can with what you’ve got and the circumstances you’re in. You don’t have to buy grass-fed or buy everything organic. You can start eating better today without all that jazz. Try 80/20-ing it.
Never tell yourself that you can’t have something: I’m all for being 100% paleo but the minute I tell myself I can’t have something, that thing is all I can frickin’ think about. Instead I like to tell myself “I choose not” to eat this food because I’m allowed to have anything I want.
Shop in season to save some green: Not only will you save yourself some major cash, but by shopping in season, you will most certainly end up with tastier and more nutritious foods. Field to plate is a great resource to help US-based shoppers shop local, and Postharvest is awesome for those of you down under.
You can also visit LocalHarvest to find a local farmers’ market. This will help you buy fresher products, keep money local, support farmers, and help the environment (because eating local requires less fossil fuel to ship them). For those that are tech savvy, Locavore is the app for you.
Before grocery shopping always check what you’ve got: Take a look at what you already have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry before you go shopping.
Recipe schmesipe: Just kidding! I love a good recipe, but recipes do not need to be followed to the letter. If you’re missing an ingredient, just keep it out or try something else. Heck, even if a recipe calls for beef but you forgot to buy some, just use another protein source instead.
You can create dozens of different meals by playing with ground meats and chopped veggies and sautéing them in healthy fats such as coconut oil and ghee. Sprinkle on some spices, and you’re good to go.
Snacks are key: It’s going to happen. You’re going to forget to cook, be pressed for time, or hate something you make. Easy snacks are so important to keep you on your paleo game. Here are some great snack ideas:
- Raw almond butter and raw veggies
- An avocado with pepper
- A bell pepper and raw nuts
- Fresh berries in coconut milk
- Hardboiled eggs
- Sweet potatoes (Poke holes in a sweet potato and microwave it for four minutes. Add grass-fed butter and cinnamon, and BOOM!)
Help, I have tons of leftovers: It’s all good, ladies and gents. If you find yourself with a ton of leftover food that you need to get rid of, you can easily create chilis, stews, and omelets with whatever is on hand. Just about anything will work in these recipes.
How long food stays good for: If you’re worried about cooking in bulk, here’s an awesome resource for you. Generally, most leftovers will be good for four to five days if they’re tightly sealed in a glass container. I’ve cooked for an entire week and had no issues with the Sunday through Friday approach.
Microwaves: Always microwave your food in a glass container. Avoid BPA Tupperware. Look for the number seven inside the recycling logos on Tupperware. If there’s a seven on the container, it probably contains BPA.
Avoid spoiled veggies: Ehtylene gas can cause veggies to spoil quickly. You can avoid this by keeping foods like avocados, bananas, nectarines, peaches, plums, and tomatoes out of the fridge, and storing them separately.
Wheeeeeew!!! Now I can breathe. Did I leave anything out? Are you confident you can start cooking paleo today? Prove it! What is the first thing you’re going to make?
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