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Paleo diet: pre-cooking a week’s worth of meals

72 Comments
Grilled strip steak

Grilled strip steak by Mike on Flickr

Stephen wrote in to The Paleo Table website and said,

“I’m a police officer and have a hard time sticking to a paleo diet. Firstly, I’m really new to switching to it, which is a vulnerable, easy to cheat time. Secondly, due to my job, it’s hard to nail down chain times when I get to eat. I am thinking about cooking a week’s worth of food ahead of time and bringing it to work in a cooler. I’m not much of a cook, but I know preparing my own food is the best way to stick to the diet.”

You are so right about that, brother! Good thinkin. While I don’t have this same problem as far as shift work, I can definitely sympathize. My sister Heidi is an E.R. trauma nurse and her partner Mark is a police/canine trainer. Both their schedules can turn them into drive-thru-visiting, fast food-eating zombies if they don’t keep an eye on it. They’ve had a lot of success doing just what you describe (my sister has lost over 30 pounds in the past couple months too!), so I decided to have a chat with them and get some of their best tips for managing food when your schedule is all out of whack.

Mark & Heidi’s tips for cooking a week in advance

Gimme protein

Every Saturday afternoon they hit up Sams Club (or CostCo or whatever wholesaler is nearby) and buy big amounts of protein. Usually at least 20 pounds of meat. They mix it up each week with steak, hamburger, chicken, pork or beef tenderloin, shrimp, fish. On Sunday, they fire up the grill and cook enough for the whole week.

Leftover salmon with Baby Spring Mix, Pine Nuts and a little Olive oil

Leftover salmon with Baby Spring Mix, Pine Nuts and a little Olive oil - by Boris Lau on Flickr

They’ll add in seasonings (Old Bay for the shrimp, taco seasoning for ground meat, salt & pepper for steak, paprika for chicken, etc) when they’re grilling everything. The trick is to cook everything just shy of being done (medium rare, even for the chicken & seafood). Then later when the food is reheated in the microwave, it still tastes good and doesn’t get dry and rubbery.

Then they portion out the food and put it in ziplocks or plastic containers. They will leave enough in the fridge for Monday and Tuesday, and throw the rest in the freezer. Each day, they pull a portion down into the fridge so it’s ready for the next day.

What about veggies?

Follow the same procedure for veggies with a little variation. They buy bulk amounts of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, brussels sprouts, asparagus, whatever veggies look good that week. Leave the veggies raw and portion out 2-3 cups or however much looks yummy. Then they use Ziplock steamer bags later in the day – 60 seconds and you have steamed veggies. Another option is to make a big chopped salad at the start of the week and keep it in the fridge. Each day just scoop out a portion. Slice up your meat and put on top, add some olive oil, and you’ve got a darn tasty lunch.

Crowdsourcing pre-cooking tips

Since Mark and Heidi had such good info for me, I decided to put out a call on Twitter, Robb’s forums, and my Facebook page to see what wisdom others could share. Here’s what we have to learn from them:

Meals for the week – Paleo style

This amazing post from Julie at BTB Fitness is a veritable treasure trove of information. It has shopping lists, a meal plan, photos of their results, times it takes to prep things, and more. Go check it out!

Some other weekly routines

The hilarious and amazing Henry made a video for us, to demonstrate how he makes Egg Muffins. These are great for a week’s worth of breakfast and snacks. Sarah from Everyday Paleo has a detailed recipe as well. If you want reusable silicone baking cups like the ones in the video, check these out!

Gable Barber said:

‎8 lb pork roast in the crock pot on Sunday. Pull it apart and portion into little tupperware containers, usually ~8-10 oz servings. Sometimes we bake 6 or so sweet taters, peel em, toss in a bowl with some olive oil and mash em up. Portion that into tupperware containers too. Each day I usually put some frozen broccoli florets into tupperware and toss some pork (or whatever meat), broccoli, and sweet taters into my lunch box, and I’m set!

Tupperware almonds, beef jerky, etc too, for quick snacks. We save all our pedialyte containers, then brew a lot of green tea, cool it, and cut it 25% tea, 75% water and stash those in the fridge too. Anything to make the mornings less rushed, and to ensure I’ve got the right foods with me at all times.

Zach Marcy said:

1. Buy sectioned containers for the food.
2. Cook enough protein, veggies, sweet potatoes, etc for 5-7 days worth of lunch and dinner.
3. Use frozen organic veggies with every meal.
4. Place them in the freezer for fast access every morning before work.
5. Pack fresh veggies and healthy snacks like apples and almond butter or fresh fruit and raw almonds.
6. Eat every 3-4 hours to keep blood sugar regulated and avoid cravings.

MyPaleoLife said: I always cook a roast a week, slice it thin and freeze in small portions until needed. Always double or triple a recipe and freeze the other portions for when needed.

Yvespatte said: I cook meat/fish in advance, but without seasoning. So I don’t eat the same meal for several days. Different seasoning everyday.

staceylillich said: On the weekend I cook up several pounds of bacon and venison sausage and baggie it into individual servings for breakfasts.

Famlivingsimple said: Lately we have been making lots of chili and reheating it, but putting it on top of cauliflower to make it last longer.

NomNomPaleo said: I sous vide a bunch ‘o meats http://bit.ly/fQumyP , make pot ‘o stew http://bit.ly/eXP7wF , & frittatas http://bit.ly/fcOvHD!

Farmer's market, Jul 2009 - 12

Farmer's market by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Prep now, save time later

Personally, the time I get my convenience cooking done is right when I get home from grocery shopping. I immediately boil a dozen eggs. My husband gets two each morning as part of his breakfast. When I am bleary-eyed at 5:30am trying to make his breakfast and get him out the door, this is a lifesaver.

Paleo food

Paleo food by minonda on Flickr

I also bake 6-8 sweet potatoes in the oven so I always have those at the ready. I am not a sweet potato snob, and I like them in the microwave just as well. Poke a few holes, microwave for about 4 minutes per potato. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Done. Having a big batch of sauteed/roasted fajita veggies on hand is great. Use peppers, onions, mushrooms, carrots, whatever you like. Serve in lettuce cups with meat.

Cutting and prepping veggies is essential. For some reason, I can gaze into the fridge and if there are whole carrots there, I’m like, ugh, there’s nothing to eat, but if I go ahead and turn the carrots into carrot sticks and the celery into celery sticks, suddenly there are things to dip into guacamole and almond butter!

My good friend Mary W. said:

I would say to pre-chop hardy greens and blanch veggies. Oh, and duh, I’m not paleo, but you can credit me as a kick-ass vegan of course. xo

Amy Kubal says:

Double recipes, cut veggies, portion things out, hard boil a dozen eggs, if the oven is on roast meats, cook a squash or two, some sweet potatoes, etc. all at one time. Plan what you’re going to have each day to be sure you’re ready!!

Diane of Balanced Bites says:

I like to boil a dozen eggs or make a fritatta with any veggies & meat and reheat it in the toaster oven all week.

Meat Cookies

I work from home but often find myself out during the week visiting clients for meetings or working in coffeeshops. When I know I’m gonna have a really busy week of traveling around, my go-to meals/snacks are what I affectionately call Meat Cookies. I love the wild caught salmon burgers I get from CostCo (tons of Omega-3s and 20g protein) as well as their turkey burgers (35g protein!). I grill a bunch of them at the start of the week (they just taste best grilled) with blackening spices and then eat them cold throughout the day. I’ll top em with homemade mayo, Lemonaise, or guacamole. Viva la meat cookie.

Cook it slow

Slow Cooker Cincinnati Chili BSC560XL 4of5

Slow Cooker Cincinnati Chili

Soups and stews are so easy to incorporate into a busy paleo lifestyle. The slow cooker is your friend. I have a small one (4 quarts) and even I can make several days’ worth of lunches in it, all while I’m not even home! I call my slow cooker June Cleaver cause she totally makes dinner while I’m at work.

Here are your steps to a successful stew:

  1. Get a hunk of sturdy meat (pork loin, beef pot roast, a few skinless chicken thighs, venison, bison). This is the perfect opportunity to turn a cheaper cut of meat into something totally magical.
  2. Get some chopped veggies (carrots, celery, onions, garlic, tomatoes).
  3. Get some really good broth (chicken, veggie, beef, whatever you can get that tastes amazing on its own).
  4. Put them all in the slow cooker. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

That’s it! Now freeze the extras.

Freezing soups or stews into individual portions

First allow your soup to cool slightly, then pour the soup into paper cups and freeze. Once it has frozen, pop a single portion soup out of its cup and into a freezer bag. You might wanna label the bags, soups can look really similar once they’re frozen. To reheat, just put the frozen soup into a bowl and microwave, or heat in a pot on the stovetop! Speaking of defrosting…

On defrosting frozen stuff

Cosmopolitan Primal Girl had this tip:

Usually I will leave the frozen item on the counter in the morning and by the time I get home from work it is thawed out. Then I either throw it in a pan to re-heat it or turn my oven to 350-400 and bake it for about 10 minutes to re-heat it. A toaster oven is also an easy & convenient option for re-heating stuff without having to use the stove.

If I’m using stuff that is solid frozen, I will speed up thawing by placing the frozen item in a bowl of boiling/really hot water or leave it in the sink with hot water running over top of it.

Paleodish said this:

To reheat refrigerated items, I either re-heat them on the stove or sometimes toss it in the slow cooker. Tip – Depending on what it is…adding a little water or olive/coconut oil to it when re-heating seems to do the trick just fine. For frozen items, I usually take them out of the freezer and put them in a bowl/on plate to thaw in the fridge.

Any more tips?

Well this post is pretty exhaustive but I bet we missed some stuff. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed their know-how!

Any other tips on pre-cooking food for convenient paleo meals? Tell us in the comments!

Want more cooking and meal planning ideas?

Paleo on a Budget GuideWe’ve gotten hundreds of requests for it, and so we wrote the book on budget grocery shopping and meal planning for the Paleo diet. The Paleo on a Budget Guide is the solution you’ve been looking for. I’ve got a 70-page interactive downloadable guide that shows you how to make healthy Paleo meals for yourself and your family while saving time and money. You can stick to your budget, find extra money, save time, and make Paleo work for you. Read about it and buy the book here.

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  1. nom nom paleo
    January 16, 2011 at 8:02 am

    What great tips! I gotta stock up on some of them meat cookies at Costco!

  2. Ronnie
    January 16, 2011 at 9:01 am

    It’s pretty much necessary for me to cook meals on Sunday for the week. My go-to lunch: cook up 3lbs. ground turkey with all necessary seasoning; portion out spinach, tomatoes and anything else I’m adding to my salad and freeze the cooked turkey. I’ll grab my salad and turkey on my way out the door. I usually let the turkey defrost at work so that it’s not completely solid when I’m reheating it. It has worked great for me and keeps me from cheating!

  3. Anonymous
    January 16, 2011 at 9:49 am

    This is fantastic. Thank you!!!

  4. Jules
    January 16, 2011 at 10:00 am

    My favorite thing is to stir fry a pound of ground meat with a bunch of chopped veggies and then freeze it in foodsaver bags. I try to always have a bunch saved that way in the freezer. If I get crazy one week and get behind on my cooking it’s not a problem. Pop one in the microwave for about 5 minutes and lunch is ready. To maintain variety, I rotate the meat(beef, pork, lamb, goat). The veggies end up being whatever I got in my CSA box for the week. It’s usually a lot of leafy greens and some root veggies. My typical seasoning is salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and chili powder.

    I chop all the veggies up in a big bucket and just start cranking out batches of it. In an hour I can have a week’s food stored.

  5. My Paleo Life
    January 16, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Great tips Amber….Love all the crowdsourcing ideas and am going to check out the “meat cookies” as well.

  6. Prarie_RD
    January 16, 2011 at 10:50 am

    “Usually I will leave the frozen item on the counter in the morning and by the time I get home from work it is thawed out.”

    Leaving food at room temperature over a long period of time invites the risk of bacterial growth and increases the potential of foodborne illness. Meat for example, may still be frozen on the inside, meanwhile the outside which is thawed, has hours for the bacteria to multiply and cause harm.

    Your best bet is to thaw your food in the refridgerator. You can do this by either placing it in the fridge the night before, or if you would still like to do it same day, when you get home, run the product under warm water for a few minutes to finish the thawing process.

  7. exilio
    January 16, 2011 at 10:58 am

    This is a great post. I’m a police officer as well and the demands of the job can make staying Paleo quite difficult. However, even if I find myself eating out, I’ve managed to stick to my Paleo guns. I just now find myself eating at different places than where I used to. Thanks again for the article.

  8. Adam Ball
    January 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Awesome post Amber, gotta love the “how” stuff just as much as the “why”!

  9. Barry
    January 16, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks, these are some fantastic ideas! But, just to second Prarie_RD, it is a VERY BAD idea to thaw frozen foods at room temperature. Paleo foods=good, campylobacter=bad.

    As Prarie_RD says, the best way is to thaw foods in the fridge. However, that requires significant planning ahead, since solid hunks of meat can often take days to thaw. If you’re in a rush, your two options (in order of preference) are 1) run the frozen item under COLD (NOT hot or warm) water; or 2) use your microwave’s “defrost” function.

  10. Jeff P
    January 16, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Great comprehensive post! I like to make up my crock pot chicken or chili, toss it in RubberMaid and grab n’ go for the rest of the week – as already said, but I’m just affirming.

    Another quick breakfast idea I employ is Pumpkin Pie Soup. Combine pureed or canned pumpkin and some coconut milk and toss it in the microwave for 45 – 60 seconds. Once warm, add nutmeg, cinnamon and whey protein. Consistency should not be soupy but thick. If you already open the pumpkin and coconut and have it in containers, you can literally make this breakfast or snack in less than 2 minutes.

  11. paleocracy
    January 16, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    I love those Costco salmon patties and used to bust them out fairly regularly until I checked out the ingredients a bit ago and noticed the “Parfried in Canola/Soybean Oil” and all of the salt. Luckily the Costco around here sells Bear & Wolf canned wild salmon so now I can just make my own! Also great for putting on salads.

  12. Suhendra Lie
    January 17, 2011 at 4:38 am

    6. Eat every 3-4 hours to keep blood sugar regulated and avoid cravings.

    Is that right? Isn’t there a study that shows frequent eating actually gets you a higher blood glucose level?

    • traceur
      January 17, 2011 at 7:56 am

      Yes there is a study. Martin Berkhan at Leangains wrote about it here:
      (post from 3rd January 2011)
      http://www.leangains.com/
      “Better blood glucose with lower meal frequency. “

    • Adam Ball
      January 17, 2011 at 8:03 am

      You’re right that it isn’t necessary to eat at any timed interval. For some folks eating before they’re hungry can stave off cravings for poor food choices, though.

  13. Theresa
    January 17, 2011 at 7:37 am

    Love it! This is just what I needed as a college student with little time to cook everyday. A crock pot sounds like a good investment…

    • NomadicLass
      January 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      They are a lifesaver (I have a roast in mine as I type this…), and they are inexpensive as well! :D

  14. Katie
    January 17, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Great ideas, thanks! I do a lot of crockpot chili and stews. I also usually make some kind of paleo friendly casserole like shepard/cottage pie with cauliflower on top and keep that in the fridge for fast lunches. I also keep a few pounds of taco meat pre-cooked for lettuce tacos or fast chili. For the kids, I always have sliced veggies to dip in guacamole and nuts.

  15. StephenW
    January 18, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Wow! Great tips from everyone. Thank you, Amber. You’ve really taken my question and you ran with it. This post actually answered questions I didn’t know I had yet and that would have come up later. Thanks to everyone who contributed. This imposing task now seems a lot easier.

  16. emy@thehandiworks
    January 18, 2011 at 12:45 am

    All these are great ideas! Since there’s only 2 of us, it really doesn’t make sense to cook and prep every dinner meal.

  17. Troglodyte in Training
    January 18, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Nice post, Amber! I’m currently working full-time and back in school, so almost all of these are appreciated. I’m already doing quite a few of them, like the pre-chopped vat o’ salad in the fridge and boiling eggs ahead of time.

    I’d also like to throw out there that the average oven seems to be able to hold at least two whole chickens at a time (at least mine does), so that’s also a decent option for the Sunday protein cook-a-thon.

  18. Jen Y.
    January 18, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    This is fantastic info–so comprehensive! Meal planning has always been a struggle for me. Thanks for all the work I’m sure it took to put this post together.

  19. v
    January 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    i’m considering starting the Paleo diet but worried about my lack of time to cook special meals…this makes it sound do-able!

    • Robb Wolf
      January 19, 2011 at 7:49 am

      Special meals?
      Scrambled eggs and fruit
      Grilled salmon and salad
      Grilled pork loin, veggies and a glass of wine.

      If you have been living out of boxes, then yes, this will be a change but it’s NOT difficult.

  20. Stevie
    January 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Another tip for reheating meat is to use your rice cooker/veggie steamer! We discovered this trick when we wanted to avoid reheating pork chops in the microwave (nothing worse than dried out pork chops). My rice cooker came with a veggie steaming basket (I’ve actually only used the cooker to cook rice one time, but I use the veggie steamer ALL the time). I put my leftovers in there with a little bit of water, steam for 5-8 minutes, and ta da.

    • Terri
      January 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

      thanks! what a great idea!

  21. Jill Richardson
    January 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Great tips and tricks! My personal favorite is to do a
    large casserole dish with a meat and some veggies and roast it,
    like the recipe I just did on my blog.
    http://www.thepaleoparent.blogspot.com. By placing the meat over the
    veggies, the drippings flavor the veggies and the possibilities are
    endless. Chicken works best for this when you have the skin on as
    it helps hold the moisture in and keeps the meat super
    tender.

  22. Andrew Johnson
    February 8, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    This is a food poisoning no no — “Usually I will leave the frozen item on the counter in the morning and by the time I get home from work it is thawed out. Then I either throw it in a pan to re-heat it or turn my oven to 350-400 and bake it for about 10 minutes to re-heat it. A toaster oven is also an easy & convenient option for re-heating stuff without having to use the stove.”

    Thaw your food out in the fridge.

  23. George
    October 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    I dont know if anyone has mentioned this but be careful when defrosting your frozen foods! There are very specific temperature guidelines that need to be followed in order to avoid food borne illness. In the article someone mentions that they leave their food on the counter to defrost while at work. This can be dangerous because the food will cross into whats known as the “danger zone”…all joking aside that is actually what it is called. Defrosting items should be done by the fridge at one hour per pound for the usual rule of thumb. When you use your sink to defrost items it is actually called force thawing/defrosting and can also be bad. The goal is for your food to spend as little time in the danger zone (between 40 degrees and 140 degrees) before cooking food to a safe temperature. All of these rules are used when preparing your foods in restaurant or delis so may be a good idea to practice them at home. Read up on food safety here http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/Keep_Food_Safe_Food_Safety_Basics/index.asp .Sorry had to put my 2 cents in. Have fun and keep losing those pounds!

  24. senpolia
    November 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    You actually make it seem really easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually one thing that I feel I might by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and extremely vast for me. I’m having a look ahead in your subsequent submit, I will try to get the grasp of it!

  25. Jas
    January 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    “The trick is to cook everything just shy of being done (medium rare, even for the chicken & seafood). Then later when the food is reheated in the microwave, it still tastes good and doesn’t get dry and rubbery.”

    Another food poisoning nightmare! Partially coooking chicken is very dangerous as it provides a breeding ground for bacteria to grow. The chicken needs to be fully cooked.

    Otherwise very good ideas.

  26. parkour trening
    May 17, 2013 at 4:39 am

    Thanks! Interesting posting, and i’m total agree. Hope to see more :)

  27. Jo
    October 15, 2013 at 5:05 am

    Thanks – great tips

    I like to do a big batch of cauliflower on the weekend and freeze it in portions also and then meat I just cook every 2nd night and eat leftovers the next night (and day)

    lol that everyone is saying about not leaving your food out to defrost – I do that too – works well and have never got sick

    Funny that someone posted a USA govt factsheet link – governments also say you must eat a certain number of servings of grains a day etc too – just because the govt says it doesn’t make it true :P

  28. Hiking Diva
    April 28, 2014 at 7:23 am

    I dehydrate fruits and veggies and nuts to keep in my car when I’m in a jam. I’ll often make my own “Lara Bars” but they don’t have the same shelf-life in my car.

    I also prep veggies so that I have no excuse to toss with my eggs in the am or throw a spinach salad together. I always have homemade guac and hard-boiled eggs in the fridge.

  29. Dewayne
    October 22, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I have been “forced” to eat out several times but I have managed to eat as Paleo as I can. If hamburgers are on the menu, I get usually ask for extra lettuce and tomatoes and don’t eat the bun.

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