If you're following a Paleo diet or doing a Whole30, chances are I don't have to sell you on this dietary approach that prioritizes eating and cooking whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods like veggies, fruits, grass-fed and pastured meats and eggs, and wild-caught seafood. Because you feel pretty awesome, right?
There's one downside, though, and you've probably experienced it too — lunch is kind of a pain. No longer can you slap together a quick sandwich in the morning or toss a granola bar and yogurt in your bag. Nope, devoting yourself to this new unprocessed reality takes a little effort.
The approach that works for me? I try to set aside about two hours on Sunday to chop, prep, and pack a strategic assortment of foods that can be mixed and matched to yield an entire week's worth of Paleo lunches. Here, I've outlined a five-step plan so you can do the same.
1. Invest in some good containers.
The right container can be the difference between packing a lunch and not, especially since Paleo lunches don't slip into a sandwich bag. Here's what I always have at the ready.
- 5 glass snap-lid containers: I use these for the main component of my lunch because they are sturdy and can be used to safely reheat food in the microwave if necessary. I personally use these glass MealPrep brand containers, which are also available in a two-compartment option, depending on how picky you are about things touching.
- 5+ smaller plastic containers or baggies: You'll need something to carry dressings, sauces like pesto, nut butter, nuts, or anything you want to keep separate from the rest of your lunch. There are countless options out there, but these Rubbermaid TakeAlongs have served me well.
- A lunch bag: Sure, you can toss your containers into a tote, but I find that an insulated lunch bag that's big enough to accommodate the two containers above plus an ice pack makes life easier. I use this Trudeau Insulated Lunch Bag.
2. Follow this basic template for each lunch: protein + vegetable + fat + "extra" item (optional)
A good initial plan before you hit the grocery store is to brainstorm some foods within this general template that you'd actually want to eat, mix and match well together, and keep well in the fridge. Below, I've listed an example of what I might prep in a week with rough quantities for each.
Protein: I typically like to prep two proteins that I can alternate throughout the week. Because hard-boiled eggs and chicken are both versatile and easy to prep, they're frequently on my list. Bonus: There's enough chicken that I can use some for dinners too.
- 5 hard-boiled eggs
- 1 (4-pound) whole roast chicken
Veggies: I have two to four veggies at the ready throughout the week to mix and match with my proteins and keep things interesting.
- 2 cups roasted seasonal veggies
- 2 cups zucchini noodles (about 1 small/medium zucchini)
- 2 to 4 cups mixed salad greens
- 4 carrots, sliced or chopped
Healthy fats: Just like protein, the right fats are important for giving your meal staying power so you're not hungry an hour later. These are some healthy, high-fat foods that I often incorporate into my lunches.
- Dairy-free pesto (make your own using this recipe minus the Parmesan)
- Avocado oil mayo
- Oil and vinegar for dressing
- Nuts or seeds
Extras: Although fruit isn't essential, sometimes you just need something sweet to curb that mid-afternoon cookie craving. To save time, I only pack fruits that don't require a separate container such as apples, oranges, and bananas. Other Paleo "extras" include things like grain-free crackers and tortillas (two brands mentioned below).
3. Pick up a few Paleo-friendly packaged foods.
Certain packaged foods can make your prepped Paleo foods go the extra mile, and help fight palate fatigue. Here are a few of my favorites and how I use them.
- Avocado oil mayo: Most conventional mayo isn't Paleo or Whole30, as it often contains highly processed soybean oil, so it's worth buying an avocado oil mayo from a brand like Chosen Foods or Primal Kitchen. Use it to make chicken or egg salad that you serve over salad greens or in a grain-free tortilla.
- Grain-free tortillas: Products like Siete Foods Almond Flour Tortillas give you the taste and feel of eating carbs while containing zero grains. Slather one or two with mayo or guacamole then load them up with sliced chicken and mixed greens for a complete Paleo lunch in one neat little package.
- Grain-free crackers: Grain-free crackers such as Simple Mills Original Sprouted Seed Crackers can also make a great vehicle for egg, tuna, and chicken salad. I pack these in separate containers and load 'em up with toppings when I'm ready to eat so they don't get soggy.
- Toasted pumpkin seeds: SuperSeedz Somewhat Spicy Pumpkin Seeds are my go-to method of adding a delicious spicy, salty crunch to nearly any component of my lunch, but especially mixed greens, chicken salad, and roasted vegetables.
- Canned tuna, salmon, or chicken: Some weekends are busier than others, and when you can't prep enough protein to get you through five days, these little wonders make life so much easier. I always have a few cans of Wild Planet tuna, salmon, and chicken on hand for just this purpose.
4. Time out your meal prep.
To ensure I'm not toiling away in the kitchen all Sunday, I strategically plan out when I will cook and prep certain items. Here's how I'd prep the foods I mentioned in step two.
First, make longer-cooking items.
- I start my whole roast chicken first. Here's how to roast the perfect chicken, which takes about an hour.
- Right after I put in the chicken, I wash and chop the vegetables that I plan to roast. For root vegetables, I place these in the oven when the chicken still has about 30 to 45 minutes left to cook; for thinner vegetables, like string beans and asparagus, I give them about 20 minutes. Here's a tutorial on how to roast any vegetable.
- After the vegetables go in, I follow this three-step method for easier-to-peel hard-boiled eggs, which takes about 20 minutes. These three foods should all be done around the same time.
Next, prep no-cook items.
- While my cooked ingredients are cooling, I spiralize my zucchinis into noodles, slice up any raw veggies I might want, and whip up a batch of pesto in the food processor. I also pack up seeds, dressings, sauces, and anything else I don't want touching the main part of my lunch into separate containers.
- Finally, once my eggs and chicken have cooled, I whip up a batch of egg and chicken salad with avocado oil mayo.
Pro tip: Unless you're making something like egg salad, you typically always want to package wet items separately. No one wants soggy greens or zoodles.
5. Pack strategically
Now that everything's prepped, it's time to assemble! Here's how I might mix and match the foods in steps two and three into five flavorful lunches.
Monday: Fully Loaded Salad
- Pack 2 cups mixed greens + 1/2 cup roasted vegetables + 2 sliced hard-boiled eggs + 2 tablespoons spicy toasted pumpkin seeds in larger container.
- Pack 2 tablespoons oil and vinegar dressing in separate small container. Dress salad when ready to eat.
- Optional: piece of fruit.
Tuesday: Pesto Zoodles with Chicken
- Pack 2 cups uncooked zoodles in larger container with 1/2 cup shredded chicken.
- Pack 2 tablespoons pesto in separate small container. Combine when ready to eat.
- Optional: piece of fruit.
Wednesday: Egg Salad on Crackers and Sliced Carrots
- Pack 1/2 cup or more of prepared egg salad and sliced carrots on either side of a two-compartment container.
- Pack grain-free crackers in separate smaller container. Scoop egg salad onto crackers when ready to eat.
Thursday: Chicken and Roasted Vegetables
- Pack 2 chicken drumsticks and 1 cup roasted vegetables in larger container.
- Pack spicy toasted pumpkin seeds in separate small container.
- Heat chicken and vegetables in microwave when ready to eat and sprinkle veggies with pumpkin seeds.
- Optional: piece of fruit.
Friday: Spicy Chicken Salad "Sandwich" and Sliced Carrots
- Pack 1/2 cup or more of prepared chicken salad and mixed greens on either side of a 2-compartment container.
- Pack 1 almond flour tortilla and 2 tablespoons spicy toasted pumpkin seeds in separate small container.
- Pack sliced carrots in separate small container.
- Assemble all ingredients (except carrots) in the tortilla when ready to eat.