You’re interested in the idea of Paleo. It makes sense. And it even sounds pretty tasty. But then it hits you: on Paleo, there’s no Lean Cuisine. There’s no Subway, no pizza delivery, not even slapping some turkey between two pieces of bread and calling it lunch. All those delicious-looking recipes were made by hand, from scratch.
It’s true that there are such things as pre-made Paleo meal services, but they tend to be pretty pricey and they aren’t available everywhere. You’ll save a lot of money by learning to cook for yourself – and it’s really not impossible. Humans have literally been cooking since we could skewer things on sticks and hold them over a fire: if some unwashed troglodyte can do it, so can you! Here’s a guide to going Paleo even if don’t know how to cook a thing (or if you’ve long since given it up as hopeless)
An incredibly common mistake for beginner cooks is to start with some delicious but complicated recipe and turn cooking into a big event. Three hours later, the food is great and it looks beautiful, but who has time for that every night?
95% of people who cook meals from scratch every day do not cook like that. The goal of Paleo cooking is to put nutritious and tasty food on the table, not to create cookbook-worthy five-course meals.
That doesn’t mean your food won’t taste good; it just means that it might not look like something you’d see in a professional cookbook. You don’t have to cook a “recipe” for every meal. Hard-boiled eggs and a microwaved bag of frozen broccoli with a pat of butter melted over it is a fine Paleo meal from a nutritional standpoint, but that’s only a “recipe” in a very generous sense of the word. Eating leftovers is also perfectly normal and very common: most families who cook at home eat leftovers at least two or three nights a week.
So get rid of the idea that “cooking” has to mean anything you see on the Food Channel: it’s not. “Cooking” is using fresh ingredients to prepare tasty and nutritionally complete food – that’s all you have to do.
You also don’t have to find it profoundly joyful or meaningful or anything like that – it’s totally OK if cooking is just another item on the to-do list like walking the dogs. Maybe it works like that for you, and that’s great if it works like that for you, but not everyone is going to have a huge emotional connection to the kitchen and you’re not doing it wrong if your life isn’t transformed by scrambling eggs.
That still doesn’t tell you how to do it, though, so now on to the practical side.
How to Get Started
What You Will Need
- Basic kitchen tools. Cooking with the wrong tools can suck all the joy out of the process. Here’s a list of the very minimal kitchen equipment you will need.
- Either a friend who knows how to cook (best) or a good “beginner cookbook” (OK – just be aware that most of them are not Paleo-focused so you’ll have to wade through a lot of stuff about cooking with flour and avoiding fat). This will be a reference for you as you learn new recipes. If you choose the book, The Joy of Cooking is a classic but almost anything with positive reviews will be OK to start with.
- A positive attitude. You can’t learn anything if you don’t think you can learn it. And even if you don’t love cooking, you can still approach it cheerfully: it’s not a punishment!
Easing Into Cooking
Here's the good news: the hardest part about learning to cook is starting. Once you get into the habit and past the very first stage, you'll improve almost automatically. It's just the first couple weeks that trip so many people up.
If you’re a cooking beginner, you will be pretty slow at the beginning, and jumping right into the uncharted wilderness of cooking everything, all the time can get completely overwhelming.
Too many people rush in too fast. Then they get overwhelmed, because it’s all so new and exhausting, and the first unexpected time crunch or lousy day at work throws them completely for a loop. They eat something “wrong,” feel like a failure, and quit forever. Wouldn’t it be better in the long run to start slow, give yourself plenty of flexibility at the beginning, and gradually work up to cooking every meal?
Instead of jumping in with both feet, try this: start by making just one Paleo meal per day. A Paleo meal means at least one vegetable, at least one animal protein (meat or eggs), and some source of healthy fat (cooking fat, fatty meat, salad dressing, etc.). Cook and eat one Paleo meal per day. The other two meals can be whatever you want.
You can pick any easy recipes you like for this. If you have a friend to help you, ask for suggestions. If you don’t, here are three can’t-mess-it-up Paleo recipes:
- Breakfast: hard-boiled eggs with a piece of fruit. Take 3 eggs and put them in a pot of cold water. Turn on the heat. When the water starts bubbling, turn off the heat. Walk away for 7-8 minutes. Come back, peel the eggs, grab the fruit, and eat.
- Lunch: tuna salad. Dump a can of tuna over salad greens. Add olive oil and vinegar (or mayo, or guacamole – just make sure you get some fat in there). Toss and eat.
- Dinner: steak skillet with bell peppers.
Occasionally you will get kitchen disasters; that’s OK and it happens to all of us. Give yourself “credit” for cooking that meal anyway, eat whatever else you have in the house, and try again tomorrow.
Some convenience foods that may save your sanity during this stage:
- Steam-in-bag frozen vegetables. They’re just as nutritious as fresh, and if you can microwave a Hot Pocket, you can microwave broccoli.
- Pre-cut onions, carrots, peppers, and other vegetables. Save yourself some chopping; you’re worth it.
- Pre-bagged salad mix.
- Pre-cooked hard-boiled eggs or chicken breast.
- Canned fish that you can eat straight out of the can.
When you have the energy, try looking up new recipes and experimenting with them; when you don’t, fall back on the recipes you already know or ultra-easy "recipes" like scrambled eggs and microwave veggies tossed with butter. Keep cooking 1 meal per day until you have at least one or two recipes that you know how to cook in less than half an hour. Then you can move on to two Paleo meals per day, and finally go to all three. Before you know it, you’ll have a sizeable repertoire of healthy meals that you can cook in your sleep, and you’ll be eating Paleo all the time!
Once you can cook at least most of your meals, it’s time to start thinking in terms of techniques instead of recipes. Here’s a good recipe for starting you off with that: try doing the same technique with chicken vs. fish, or with different seasoning blends. Look at recipes you like and notice the patterns: what goes into a roast (saute the onions and garlic, brown the meat, add the sauce, cover and roast)?
Starting with recipes will get you off the ground quickly, but using techniques will help you become a better cook in the long run.
Where can I Find Recipes?
- Here’s the Paleo Leap recipe index (search for “easy”).
- There are a lot of Paleo boards on Pinterest.
- There are too many great recipe blogs to name; if you start searching for "Paleo ___________ recipe," you'll quickly find the ones that post recipes you're interested in.
Help! What Does _____________ Mean?
- For unfamiliar ingredients and tools, use the cook’s thesaurus.
- For unfamiliar techniques (blanch? Sautee? Braise?), here’s a list.
How do I do the Grocery Shopping?
- Here’s a guide to getting started with meal planning.
- Here’s a guide to saving time when you grocery shop.
What if I work during the day?
In that case, you’ll pack your lunch (and possibly breakfast) the night before. A very easy way to do it is to make extras for dinner and use them as one of your two packed meals. You can also hard-boil a bunch of eggs or make frittatas at the beginning of the week and eat them all week for breakfast.
What Other Tips Should I Know?
- How to use your leftovers.
- How to save time with Paleo cooking.
- How to make salad and eggs more interesting (salad and eggs are two of the easiest Paleo meals around, so you’ll be eating a lot of them.
Summing it Up
You can’t learn to cook by reading cookbooks. You can’t learn to cook by watching the Food Channel. You can only learn to cook by cooking. And the hardest part is just getting started.
Get the tools you need, a supportive friend or a good beginner cookbook, and dive in. A few months in, you’ll be wondering how you ever found it so intimidating!