Paleo expert Melissa Joulwan doesn’t kid around when it comes to weeknight cooking. Her take on the whole thing is that it should be as quick and easy as possible. In fact, she says that quick and easy recipes are absolutely vital for helping people adhere to a healthy lifestyle (and keep their New Year’s food resolutions). Melissa’s book of Paleo-based recipes, Well Fed Weeknights, is all about saving time in the kitchen — and coming away with healthy, Paleo-based meals that help you stay healthy throughout the week. We sat down with her to hear about her favorite time-saving methods and her tips for eating as healthy as possible in 2017.
B+C: Tell us about your background. What led you to the Paleo lifestyle?
I was a very inactive kid, and I stayed that way all the way through college. My family loves to eat too… even at breakfast, we’d be talking about what we were going to have for dinner. That instilled in me a love of food and cooking, but there were some downsides to that as well. For instance, I never really learned how to feed myself for optimal health.
By the time I graduated from college, I realized that I wanted to change. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I started trying to eat healthily, which — at that time — was really a very high-carb, low-fat approach. That worked for a while and I lost a bunch of weight, and also became more active. That was when I started to realize that I actually really loved to exercise. No one in my family was very active, so for me, this was a revelation.
However, some bad things started to happen after that. My weight started to creep back up, even though I was still exercising and eating well. This happened a couple of times, and it wasn’t until 2009 that I found the Paleo diet and learned that eating a high-carb, low-fat diet puts you into a blood sugar cycle. Through Paleo, I stabilized my blood sugar, I lost some more weight and my workouts started becoming very energized. It was around this time that I started my blog. That grew and picked up readership, and I eventually published my first cookbook, Well Fed, in 2011.
There were setbacks too. In 2009, I had to have my thyroid removed. It happened right as I was really getting into the swing of things with Paleo. So at that point, eating Paleo really became about optimal health and keeping inflammation down in my body.
B+C: What are some hacks you can share for people who are hoping to eat better this year?
My number one recommendation is always to do a month-long Paleo cleanup, whether it’s the Whole30 or the 21-Day Sugar Detox. However, I realize that many people find that prospect very daunting. If a full month doesn’t seem doable for you, there are some simple things people can do that will move things in that direction without having to overhaul completely.
The first big tip I have is to start eating protein at breakfast. So many people start their day with muffins or cereal, which is basically a rush of sugar and carbs. The body needs proteins and fats to really get the hormonal system working. You can have chicken or turkey sausage, chili with eggs, or really anything that can help you get some protein.
The second big tip is to start replacing grains with veggies. That’s not to say you’ll never eat pasta or bread again, but just try to start making that substitution. Replace noodles with zucchini noodles and rice with cauliflower rice. To keep some healthy carbohydrates in your diet, add in plantains or sweet potatoes.
And finally, just make a resolution to cook at home more. The reason restaurant food tastes so good is because there are a lot of added ingredients, like sugar, salt, soy and MSG. If there’s one night a week you really want to hit your favorite restaurant, go for it. But then eat the rest of your meals at home and try to pack lunches for work days.
B+C: What are some of your favorite ways to save time in the kitchen?
One of the things that’s hardest about eating healthy is that, whether it’s Paleo or any other kind of eating style, you’re probably going to have to cook more. In my book, Well Fed Weeknights, I talk quite a bit about doing a weekly cookup in which you pre-cook a bunch of your meals for the week. That way, you can basically go into your fridge throughout the week and find your own homemade “packaged” food.
Doing a cookup is pretty easy too. In my book, I share instructions for how you can make homemade mayo, hard-boiled eggs, roast chicken, zucchini noodles and cauliflower rice in just one hour. And if you have all of those things in your refrigerator, when it’s time to actually put together a meal, you have all of your building blocks.
With this new cookbook, I wanted to figure out how I could give people these really flavorful, exciting recipes that can be made in 45 minutes or less. So a lot of these recipes are quick-cooking proteins. Stews, chilis and pulled pork are awesome, but you have to make them ahead of time, and on weeknights you often won’t have time for that.
So, quick-cooking proteins like chicken breasts, ground meats, shrimp and other foods that you can poach are key. You can also splurge on basics like rotisserie chicken at the supermarket for a quick, healthy option.
To make these dishes more interesting, you can make a quick homemade sauce with herbs and lemon juice that literally takes two minutes. Add some of these sauces to your quick-cooking proteins and you’re done. One of my favorite hacks is to make homemade mayo — it’s such a great addition to any dish and it takes only seconds to make.
B+C: What are some of your other favorite recipes at the moment?
Right now, I’m having a love affair with plantains. They’re really great for people who work out because they’re a great source of dense carbohydrates and they have a lot of potassium and fiber. One of my favorite dishes to make is picadillo with plantains, which is essentially ground meat with seasonings, raisins, olives and plantains. It takes about half an hour to make and it’s loaded with flavor.
Ethnic foods are always great. They contain so many spices and flavors, so they’re never boring, but they’re usually really healthy.
I’m also super into food truck-inspired food right now. In the new book, I have 12 recipes for street fries that you can make. If you’re eating very low-carb, you can take the meat, sauces and garnishes and put them on cauliflower rice or a bed of spinach. There’s also a recipe for chicken shawarma, which is amazing. It’s basically chicken, cucumbers and cabbage with a tahini dressing.
So basically, these things are built around basic, real food ingredients — proteins, vegetables and a few starchy carbs — but they’re absolutely delicious and ready in like 30 minutes. That’s really the key: Cook with real food, sub out grains for starchy carbs and set yourself up for success by cooking as simply as possible. Trust me: After you get in the swing of things with a Paleo lifestyle, you’ll probably never want to go back.
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