Paleo When Short On Time and On A Budget- Plus Sample Weekly Menu

My paleo supper tonight- chickweed and sow thistle greens, ground chicken crumbles,
sauted grated carrots, and walnuts, topped with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
Ever since I went paleo and wrote about it, how it makes me feel better and also made me finally be able to get down to closer to my ideal weight many people have turned to me and asked me how they can do the same, to please teach them what they can do, walk them through it step by step. There are so many paleo recipes out there, but many are intricate and time costuming to prepare, not to mention expensive. Friends and family have asked me to please write out for them a sample paleo menu for a week, breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks, with a focus on easy and relatively cheap paleo meals. Something that busy parents and/or with full time jobs and/or little energy can easily do.

I've wanted to do that for a while yet at the same time something was holding me back and made me keep pushing it off. Probably because of my spontaneity and hating the constricts of a strict menu to follow (because what if I'm not in the mood for something on the menu) and because I cook based on what is cheap and in season and what I have in the house... However you asked for it and you'll get it. But this is just a sample and when I suggest a certain vegetable or protein, feel free to replace it with another vegetable or protein depending on your likes, what you have available, and local pricing.

What Is Paleo:

Before I start let me explain to you the basics of what you want to be eating if you're doing paleo. Paleo in a nutshell means that you want to eat things as close to nature and unprocessed as possible, so no artificial anything whether sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, preservatives or taste enhancers like msg. Additionally paleo also means no grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye, spelt) or pseudo grains (no rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth or corn), no legumes (any type of bean or lentil or peanuts or peas or soy) or their derivatives. And the oils allowed are olive, nut oils, sesame oil, avocado oil, palm oil, coconut oil or animal fats (lard, shmaltz, tallow, etc)- no canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut or safflower.

Sugar is a little more complicated- certainly no corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, agave nectar, barley malt, nothing of the artificial sweeteners ending in -ose like sucrose or glucose or sucralose or fructose, or ending with "-tol" like sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, or xylitol, as well as things ending with -"ame" like aspartame, neotame, acesulfame, advantame, or saccharin.
Other natural sweeteners like dates syrup, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, stevia, pure fruit juices and fruit concentrates, and jaggery are officially paleo, and depending on your reason for doing paleo either are ok or not. If you're doing the Whole 30 or the Chris Kresser's Paleo Reset program, they are forbidden. If you are trying to lose weight, I don't suggest them, unless they're in very minute amounts and rarely. But if you just have inflammation or aches and pains that you're trying to eliminate, but aren't doing any specific program and aren't trying to lose weight, you can eat those.

My suggestion- if you're just trying to do paleo but not any specific plan like Whole 30, try not to rely on those sweeteners in your meals, but maybe from time to time you can add them to balance flavors a drop, like between a teaspoon and 2 tablespoons (depending on the size of the recipe) per recipe tops, in salad dressings, sauces, etc... At this point, after I finished my 30 day Paleo Reset, I pretty much only add a sweetener to my coffee (cannot stand it black)- and to the rare dressing-  maximum 1 tablespoon a day. (But I count that towards my total daily carb count, which I try to limit- so if I have more honey or coconut sugar one day, I'll have less sweet potatoes or fruit. More on that in a little bit.)

To be honest, if you're buying a prepared food item, whether canned, bottled, jarred or otherwise, the likelihood of it being free of all those is very low, and if you can find something like that it's not going to be anything close to frugal (unless you're very lucky) so for the purposes of this diet you're going to need to make everything from scratch and learn to read ingredient labels because there are things snuck in everywhere, even where you'd least expect. When you read the labels, if there is anything you are not familiar with, say no. Best are things with only one, maximum 2 or 3 ingredients per package, and nothing with Es and a bunch of numbers.

Ok, so that was a lot of what "not" to eat, but I find instead of focusing on what not to eat, its easier to think about what you can eat.

My paleo meal the other day- zucchini, radish, tomatoes, deboned salmon,
and lettuce, topped with lemon zest, pepper, olive oil, and salt.

The basis of your diet should be, and every meal should include: vegetables, proteins, and fats. Depending on your purpose for doing this diet, you may want to also add something carby to every meal.

So, what is allowed?
Vegetables (including, but not limited to): cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, peppers, carrots, beets, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, okra, green beans, hearts of palm, mushrooms (yes, I know they're fungi), mung bean sprouts, kohlrabi, jicama, fennel, radishes, turnips, alfalfa sprouts, asparagus, capers, greens- lettuce, swiss chard, arugula, kale, collard greens, spinach, baby greens, any wild greens, seaweed, etc...

Animal Proteins (including but not limited to): fish- salmon, tuna, tilapia, sardines, mackerel, herring, hake, trout, shellfish, etc...  If you are doing canned fish, make sure it isn't canned in any of the forbidden oils- only in water or olive oil. Chicken, turkey, beef, pork- all of the aforementioned either with bone in deboned or ground, organ meats or muscle meats, and any other meat, like venison, rabbit, whatever. Eggs are also permitted, but if you're trying Paleo because of health issues like eczema or stomach issues or aches and pains, I suggest trying Paleo first without eggs. Dairy, it depends who you ask, so I suggest you stay away from all dairy to begin with, and then depending how you feel, maybe at some point trying out different types of dairy. (I find aged cheeses don't bother me, but all other dairy does. Which is why I have not included ghee- clarified butter- in this list- since ghee bothers my stomach even though its officially allowed on paleo.)

Fats: any of the permitted oils, coconut, nuts (including but not limited to)- walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, almonds, brazil nuts, pecans, pistachios, seeds (including but not limited to): sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds (not peanuts since they are a legume), olives, avocado

Flavorings: onion, garlic, shallots, any dried or fresh spices that are single ingredient, whether cumin, turmeric, paprika, hot paprika, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, ginger, sumac, black pepper, cayenne pepper, fennel seeds, anise seeds, mustard seeds, nigella seeds, cocoa powder, carob powder, coffee grounds/powder, herbs, whether fresh or dried that are single ingredient, including but not limited to oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, dill, parsley, cilantro, mint, sage, liquid flavorings (but read the ingredients to make sure they don't include food colorings or sugars, etc...) including lemon juice, lime juice, dry wine (not permitted on whole 30), coconut aminos (a paleo approved soy sauce substitute), vinegars- apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, kombucha vinegar.

Carbohydrates: white potatoes, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and other winter squashes such as pumpkins, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, yams, taro root, plantain, tapioca starch, potato starch, arrowroot powder, chestnuts, fresh fruit including but not limited to: apples, grapes, strawberries, oranges, tangerines, bananas, persimmons, cherries, peaches, plums, pineapple, pears, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, apricots, nectarines, grapefruit, and dried or canned fruit so long as they are without any added sugar or food coloring, like dates, prunes, raisins, etc...

Salad with lettuce, sunflower sprouts, tomatoes, and avocado, with balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing, and tuna vegetable patties on the side.

What Meals Should Look Like:
What your meal should look like will depend on why you are eating paleo. If you have already tried paleo before, but want to lose weight, you should leave out the things I listed as carbs or have them in very minimal amounts. According to Chris Kresser, only count the things I listed in the carb category as carbohydrates- and you want maximum 50-75 grams of those carbohydrates a day if you're trying to lose weight. You'll be eating more than 50-75 grams of carbs total, because there are carbs in tomatoes, carrots, beets, onions, zucchini, etc... but for the purpose of this program, that isn't counted. This specifically is what I've been doing both to lose weight and to maintain that weight loss.

If you aren't trying to lose weight, or if you are trying to lose weight but have never first tried a regular paleo diet, don't start off cutting carbohydrates. In fact, you should include some with each meal to keep you full. I first tried doing paleo but not lower carb, and I didn't lose weight doing that, so then I switched to lower carb paleo, but I switched to paleo from a relatively healthy diet to begin with. I
f you currently are on a standard american diet, or gluten filled, grain filled, not remotely traditional foods diet, you may lose weight simply by going paleo without cutting the carbs, so no need to ditch the carbs right away. Include the carbs in every meal, and if you see after a month of doing it that you aren't losing weight, then go to lower carb.

Every meal should be based on vegetables- the majority of the meal- they can be either cooked or raw, a serving of animal protein (bigger or smaller, depending on your goals), a carb if you aren't in the category of people who should limit carbs, a fat, and flavorings.
If you aren't eating carbs, eat more vegetables, protein, and fat to fill you up. Fat and protein especially keeps you full longer, and vegetables in larger quantities help satisfy your "eyes" and fill your stomach without increasing the calories too much.

How you do this is up to you, the choices are limitless.
Yes, this includes breakfast. Animal protein and vegetables for breakfast. I generally just do leftovers for breakfast, so I don't need to cook up something new in the morning when I want to eat and not have to first start cooking, but I've written fresh, easy to make meals for the morning for you.
If meat for breakfast doesn't appeal to you, try sticking with some of the more "tame" animal proteins for breakfast, like eggs or fish, or breakfast sausage.

Extra Short On Time? My Favorite Paleo Hacks
Here are my easy "paleo hacks" that I really rely on when I am pressed for time, or just don't have the energy to cook/prepare, that are a little more expensive but really are life savers. If you don't have the time/energy to prepare something written into the menu, feel free to use some of these in place of the written meal.

  • Canned tuna and sardines. No cooking needed, no prep work at all. Protein ready to go when I don't even have the energy to make anything and nothing already made at home. Also great travel food.
  • Pre-washed baby greens. Toss in some pre-cooked protein from the list of proteins above, toss in a few nuts or olives and/or throw on a dressing, and you have a meal ready to go.
  • Peeled and roasted chestnuts- when you don't want a fruit, and don't have any cooked carbs like potatoes or squash, and you neeed something carby and filling- they are perfect. They're easy travel food as well.
  • Eggs. For those who can eat them (unfortunately I can't)- they take less than 5 minutes from thinking about making them to serving them when made as scrambled eggs or omelets. Or hard boiled eggs from the fridge. They also work perfectly as travel food.
  • Frozen veggies. Unfortunately not that cheap where I live, but I know in the US they are. Just throw them in a pan, season, and cook- no washing, peeling, chopping, etc... involved. Just toss and cook. I usually just cook mine (usually frozen green beans or okra- the cheapest I can find locally) in a covered frying pan with a bit of water, garlic, and salt, cook it together with my protein, add some fat, and I have the simplest meal.
  • Sauted zucchini. When thinly sliced these cook super quickly and taste yummy with anything.
  • Canned hearts of palm. I found a local brand for not too expensive. When I want something to eat that is satisfying, a treat, and isn't high in fat or carbs, this is my go-to treat.

Prepare in Advance

To save time and energy, I suggest making a bunch of stuff at the same time to have them ready for a meal, so you don't have to cook it all at one go.
I suggest at the beginning of the week- or just whenever you have time, to do some of the following:

Cook up some carbs: Stick a bunch of potatoes and/or sweet potatoes and/or squash in the oven and bake them until soft; boil a bunch of potatoes until soft.

Lettuce boats filled with tuna salad (made with homemade paleo mayonnaise), baked sweet potato slices,
 and cucumber slice tuna "sandwiches". (This is a small serving as it was for my kid.)

Cook up a bunch of proteins- at least one or more of the following:

  • Boil a bunch of hard boiled eggs.
  • Bake a bunch of chicken breast in the oven, or other chicken pieces with some simple flavoring, like salt and garlic powder. 
  • Bake a bunch of fish fillets with salt and garlic powder.
  • Boil up a bunch of gizzards.
  • Saute up a bunch of ground meat/poultry into crumbles.
  • Bake some paleo meatballs, with ground meat or poultry, dried or fresh onion, salt, and egg or ground flax seeds in place of the eggs. If you have more time/energy you can add in a little bit of the following grated on the small part of a grater: carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, or kohlrabi to keep it more moist, but no need. You can also add black pepper and garlic powder.
  • Make breakfast sausage.
Make some zoodles, aka zucchini noodles. If you have a spiralizer that is quickest and most aesthetic, but if you don't, simply grate zucchini either in a hand grater or food processor. Sprinkle some salt on it to let it draw out the water, then squeeze out the water, rinse, and strain. You can make the zoodles up to a few days in advance, but I suggest only salting and straining the zucchini within a day of eating it.

Make some chicken broth: throw a bunch of chicken parts- leftover bones from previous meals is fine, as are chicken frames or cheap parts of meat into a crock pot or pressure cooker with some salt and maybe some onions and carrots, and then strain when finished cooking. This way you'll have broth ready to use as the base for soups, stews, and sauces.

Paleo stir fry with cucumbers, mushrooms, bean sprouts, sliced gizzards, and sesame seeds.

Make some spice mixes and sauces.

When trying to make simple, fast, and cheap paleo meals, its nice to not need to think about what spices to use every single time, and and not need to take out a bunch of different things from your space rack/drawer. By varying the spices/flavorings I throw on the food, I am able to make the same meal taste different, without any extra work, and therefore I don't get bored of the same foods. I suggested above to cook your proteins with a simple seasoning like salt and garlic powder- before eating you can sprinkle on additional flavorings in the form of spice mixes to make them taste less boring.
Mix up some of the following spice mixes that you think you'll enjoy, and that you can simply throw on your foods later (the first 4 are literally my staples):
    Prepare some of the following sauces:
    At least one salad dressing:
    To be honest, my salad dressing usually is just any vinegar or lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic powder. I don't mix it in advance, but you can also mix that in advance if you want.
    Ideally one fatty, proteiny dipping sauce like:
    If you have some extra time and a good food processor, make some homemade nut butter. If you do not have either, store bought nut butter will do, assuming it is just pure nuts (it is just more expensive).

    Ok, and now with that insanely long preamble, here is the menu.
    Note- if I suggest a vegetable that you don't have, just replace with another. Same with protein- feel free to replace any protein written down with any other and you're good to go. Same for carbs. This is just to give you a general idea but is not set in stone. And again, if you are trying to lose weight, leave out the carby additions, and just use more vegetables and fats to fill up.

    Cracklin chicken, tomatoes drizzled in olive oil, zucchini sauted with onions and swiss chard, baked sweet potato wedges

    Breakfast- Scrambled eggs, baked potato sliced in half, sliced avocado, sliced cucumber. Top them all with some salt, and black pepper. Drizzle the potatoes, avocado, and cucumber with olive oil. Sprinkle garlic powder on the eggs, avocado, and cucumber.
    Lunch- Zucchini noodles topped with tomato sauce and meatballs. Olives mixed in or on the side.
    Supper- Baked sweet potatoes, chicken breast (sprinkled with any of the seasoning mixes), cabbage salad made with sliced cabbage, a drizzle of lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil, some salt and some pepper. (When you slice this cabbage, slice extra for tomorrow's lunch and supper.)

    Paleo "spaghetti" (zucchini noodles) and (chicken/gizzard) meatballs.

    Breakfast- Baked butternut squash, sprinkled with cinnamon and a drop of salt. Sunny side up eggs. Tomato and cucumber salad drizzled with tahini dressing.
    Lunch- Saute an onion, an apple and chopped cabbage. Season with salt and pepper and garlic powder. Add to it some ground meat or poultry crumbles. Eat a few walnuts, either sprinkled in or on the side.
    Supper- Make a vegetable stir fry with 2-4 of the following- carrots, peppers, zucchini, mushroom, eggplant, mung bean sprouts, cabbage, broccoli. Saute some onion, fresh ginger, and garlic together, then add the rest of the vegetables. Add cashews and chopped cooked chicken breast. If you have coconut aminos, sprinkle it on, and if not, just add more salt. Top with toasted sesame oil and scallions if you have.

    Breakfast- Baked potato, baked, sauted, or poached fish fillet (topped with your favorite seasoning), sliced tomatoes and onions, topped with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.
    Lunch- Zucchini noodles topped with tomato sauce and deboned fish. If you have anchovies, feel free to mix it in to the sauce to make it puttanesca style. Mix in olives and capers.
    Supper- Meatball ratatouille made from sauted onions, eggplant, zuccchini, and peppers, cooked in tomato paste, with meatballs added, and seasoned with salt, garlic, oregano, and basil, and drizzled with olive oil.

    Paleo pasta puttanesca made with deboned salmon.

    Breakfast- Baked sweet potato, breakfast sausage, boiled salted carrots, cashews.
    Lunch- Salad nicoise containing whatever salad greens you like, green beans, sliced baked potato, capers and/or olives, canned tuna, hard boiled eggs (optional), and vinaigrette of choice.
    Supper- Minestrone soup made from chicken broth, zucchini, frozen green beans, carrots, potatoes (optional), bay leaves, tomato paste, garlic, onion, oregano, basil, salt, black pepper, meatballs or beef crumbles. Drizzle olive oil on it before eating. If you need an exact recipe, you can use this one.

    Breakfast- Cut an avocado in half, and fill the hollow on each side with tuna, sprinkle with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and olive oil. Mustard optional. Mashed baked potato with olive oil and salt. Carrot sticks with tahini dressing dipping sauce.
    Lunch- Bibimbap, made with grated zucchini instead of rice or riced cauliflower, and at least two of the following vegetables, sauted onion and carrots, steamed greens, sauted mushrooms, sliced cucumbers, and chopped cooked chicken breast and/or ground meat crumbles. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, sesame oil (toasted is better if you have), seaweed if you have (nori or arame are my favorites), and hot pepper flakes or hot sauce (optional) and coconut aminos if you have. Top with a sunny side up egg (optional).
    Supper- Sauted zucchini slices and green beans with fish fillet and olives and your favorite spice mix. Butternut squash on the side, optional.

    Breakfast- Scrambled eggs, hash browns with cubed baked potatoes and onion, paprika, and garlic powder. Chopped tomatoes and cucumbers with salad dressing.
    Lunch- Greens salad with dressing and shakshouka- Tunisian eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, but you can totally be lazy about this and just cook it all together, mixed in.
    Supper- Chicken vegetable soup, seasoned with hawaij, with zucchini noodles or riced cauliflower. Paleo stuffed butternut squash. Frozen green beans baked with sesame oil, garlic powder, salt, and sesame seeds.

    Mashed potatoes mixed with egg, made into a nest, and cooked with a sunny side up egg in it, cucumbers with tahini dressing.

    Breakfast- Hard boiled eggs, boiled potatoes with salt and pepper and olive oil, roasted beets with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and salt.
    Lunch- Paleo chili such as this crockpot chili recipe. Feel free to change it up by using beef goulash style chunks, or ground beef, tomato paste instead of crushed tomatoes, and whatever combinations of vegetables you like, whether celery, carrots, zucchini, butternut squash, potatoes, peppers, etc... and homemade chili powder. To be ready for lunch, you can put on the crockpot from the night before. Alternatively, you can cook it fresh in the morning, or in a pressure cooker.
    Supper- Salad nicoise containing whatever salad greens you like, green beans, sliced baked potato, capers and/or olives, canned tuna, hard boiled eggs (optional), and vinaigrette of choice.

    For snacks... if you have any leftovers from the previous meal, its best to eat "real food" instead of snacks, so just eat that. If you don't have any leftovers, vegetable spears or slices make a great snack; they'll be more filling if you dip them in something fatty like tahini dressing.
    If you want to snack on fruit, make it more filling by dipping it into nut butters (sprinkled with cinnamon is delicious) or tahini fruit dip.
    Alternatively, hard boiled eggs make a terrific quick and nutritious snack.

    For those on the Whole 30 and Paleo Reset programs, desserts and such are forbidden. If you are not on those programs, and you feel the need to make a dessert, you can make one or more of the following:

    However, keep in mind that these treats should not be appearing on your menu on a regular basis, as they can be very addicting, and if you make healthy junk food regularly, you aren't likely to be able to lose weight, as these are either high in carbs or high in fat, or both. I suggest that if you do make these, make no more than one batch per week.

    Soooooooooo... I know that was long, and I hope it doesn't sound too scary if you want to do paleo. It really is not that bad.
    Just look in your fridge and see what vegetables you have there. Pick one or two. Are they best cooked or raw? If cooked, are they best steamed, boiled, baked, or sauted? What animal proteins do you have? Pick your favorite spice mix to put on it. Add a fat and a carb, optional. Voila- you have your paleo meal. You can do it! And it doesn't have to take so much prep work or cost so much money.

    To be honest, a big reason why I wrote this post, in addition to everyone asking me to, is because when I first switched to paleo I felt it was so time consuming that my entire life revolved around planning, making, or eating the paleo food, so much so that doing anything else out of the kitchen seemed too hard. Fortunately, I seem to have figured out the tricks to making easy, quick, and frugal paleo meals, so it's not hurting my budget and I still get to have a life, and I wanted to share those ideas with you so that you, too, can eat paleo without it taking over your life or using up all your money.

    If you are doing paleo or have done paleo in the past, what were your best paleo time hacks, to save time and money in the kitchen while still eating paleo?  What are your favorite easy to prepare frugal paleo meals?
    Any more questions about how to do paleo frugally and without taking up all your time and energy? Does this seem doable to you, or still pretty daunting?

    Penniless Parenting

    Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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    1. I thought potatoes weren't generally on a paleo diet?

      1. It depends who you ask. If you're doing auto-immune paleo, potatoes are forbidden, as are other nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. If you aren't doing auto-immune paleo, it depends on your reason. If you are trying to lose weight, a lot of potatoes will probably stop that. Personally, I figured out that potatoes make me nauseous, so I don't eat them. The Whole 30 program allows white potatoes, as does the general paleo diet.

      2. Wow, didn't know that about whole 30...thought it was restrictive. Tx.

    2. What an amazing post, so full of information! Thank you so much! No wonder you put it off, clearly a lot of work! Thanks again.

      1. Thank you Patti! Glad you appreciated it! To be honest, I didn't realize how much work it would be until I finished writing it, haha.

    3. I have been curious about paleo. I have started crossfit training and they encourage you to eat paleo. Thanks for explaining it for me. With a few major changes i.e. cutting out breads, sweets, etc... I could do this. Thanks....

    4. I appreciated this post. I don't specifically do Paleo, but it seems like most of my eating is already Paleo. The main differences are that I do allow myself some splenda every so often, and I do cook with canola oil sometimes. I also don't eat any starchy vegetables. I enjoyed reading exactly what paleo is and I got a couple of food ideas from this post. But I don't see any reason for me to switch to full paleo because I already feel good and am losing weight even with the Splenda and canola oil in my diet (though not tons). And I eat a decent amount of mayo too. Don't know if that's allowed...

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