When you start a new restrictive diet like Keto, or in our case the Autoimmune Paleo/Protocol diet (AIP), it can be hard on both the brain and the schedule.
You are suddenly making all sorts of food you are not used to, typically a wider variety and quantity of vegetables than ever before, which means meal planning takes so much more thought and so many more minutes (or hours) at the cutting board.
I have a love-hate relationship with diets like this because although they are so much work and can be really taxing, I truly appreciate the push to eat so many more vegetables and even learn how to use some brand new ones to our family.
We have done grain free-diets before, including a couple Whole30s which we thought were super restrictive already. But last spring we embarked upon our greatest challenge yet: the AIP diet.
This takes a grain-free or Whole 30 regimen, which already excludes all grains, legumes, sweeteners, and dairy, and additionally deletes eggs, seeds, nuts, and nightshades, which include white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and any spices made from seeds or peppers (think cumin, chili powder, cayenne and hot sauce, even mustard!).
If your eyes progressively got wider and your jaw progressively closer to the ground, that’s the look I usually get when I explain this to people in real life.
Some nearly fall right over in shock, but all of them, as if practiced for a choir concert, shriek, “What in the world do you have left to eat?”
“Meat and vegetables,” I shrug.
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How AIP is Different than Keto or Grain-Free
When we went grain-free or dabbled as beginners on the keto diet, eggs were our salvation, every morning for breakfast, often with onions and peppers. Spaghetti squash with tomato sauce and ground beef or homemade ground sausage was an easy regular dinner appearance. (Related: how to cook spaghetti squash in the Instant Pot)
But on AIP, no eggs, no peppers, no tomatoes. Mustard is our favorite condiment, second only to hot sauce for my husband, and chili powder and cumin definitely are our most often used spices. All. Gone.
This was a whole new level of vegetable crazy!
About that time I read some article that Whole Foods was offering a service where your produce could be cut for you, and Kitchen Stewardship® readers had many opinions on it.
Some said that’s a crazy expense, and they would never do it. Others said that in certain phases of life, it would be well worth it. Some pointed out the true fact that vegetables lose vitamins and nutrients once they are cut, so it’s not always wise to buy pre-cut veggies. I think that goes even more for the produce that you buy truly already cut, because it may have been sitting there a few days before you even take it home and get a chance to start eating it.
I don’t even have a Whole Foods near me to take advantage of this, and I was trying not to break the bank anymore then all that extra meat and no grains or legumes already would.
To save my own sanity, I employed many tips and tricks to avoid cutting every single vegetable for every single meal, which could sometimes take half an hour just for a filling breakfast!
These tips for fast meal prep will work whether you are trying keto, Whole30, GAPS, grain-free, or an autoimmune diet. They’re easy on the budget, great for beginners, and hopefully will make your special diet practical and possible and successful.
1. Don’t Cut Every Keto Vegetable
Make sure you have on hand some vegetables that don’t even need to be cut
- Bake sweet potatoes whole (just scrub and put on a cookie sheet, lined with parchment paper if you want to do fewer dishes, and bake at 400F for 30 to 45 minutes until soft)
- Roast whole beets, great for liver support (scrub and put in a covered glass dish, with just a bit of water in the bottom, same temp, and timing as sweet potatoes) they are very easy to peel once cooked, and you can just cut or mash at the table. Be sure to add some fat for best mineral absorption! Cold cubed beets are great on salads, and you can even totally cheat and buy them precooked and cubed from Costco.
- Pea pods, green beans, cherry tomatoes, whole carrots…think about all the vegetables you can just wash and munch, or quickly saute or roast. Did you know raw green beans are delightful when fresh?
2. Up Your Greens Without Increasing Time in the Kitchen
Obviously buying a bag or box of organic pre-washed spinach or power greens is super quick, and it’s great to have those on hand all the time, not just during a restrictive diet. We should all be eating more greens, so try to throw them in eggs, sautes, soups, and anything else you can!
Of course on AIP, eggs were out, so breakfast was meat and vegetables too. I would buy big bunches of kale and cook with the tops of beet greens as well, but to save time here are two ways you don’t have to cut those:
- Throw the whole thing in a green smoothie. If you have a high powered blender, the stems just disappear no matter what, and with a regular blender, make the green smoothie by blending the greens with the liquid first until completely liquefied. (Related: How to make a green smoothie)
- Quickly tear up kale for kale chips, or assign a child to do the job. Save the stems to throw in your next smoothie!
3. No-Cut Meat Ideas
Once you are already spending so long cutting veggies, it seems like an abomination to have to get out a new cutting board and knife and cut up meat too, and then deal with the raw meat mess!
I really tried to focus on no-cut meat ideas like these while on AIP or keto.
- Large cuts of meat in the slow cooker or Instant Pot with simple seasonings: beef roast, whole chickens, pork tenderloins…these are the 5-minute prep options that gave my heart joy! Just open the package, tip into your appliance, shake some herbs and salt on top and push a button! You don’t even have to worry about cutting the fat off like you might with a chicken breast because it will just add flavor as it cooks and fall off for you. (Find out how we teach kids to do a beef roast in the slow cooker or IP with this video series!)
- For breakfast, we would try to have some leftover, already-cooked ground beef or pork with homemade sausage seasoning on it, which was super quick for the morning with some leftover vegetables from the day before.
- Any meat that comes already packaged and good for grilling or similar is worth it as well!
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4. Fish is Always my Simple Go-To
Not only is fish, especially salmon, incredibly nutrient-dense and good for you (we Americans do not get enough Omega-3s, and they are highest in salmon!), But they are also so easy.
I get wild Alaskan salmon at Aldi, and it comes in individual plastic packages. It’s so simple to just slice them open and slide the filet out onto a hot griddle, quick seasoning on top, and 5 to 7 minutes later, the main course is ready. (See spicy fish recipe here)
For lunch, or even breakfast (much to my husband’s chagrin), I was known to pop open a can of tuna or salmon, add some mayo and mustard if on keto, or for AIP mix with olive oil, red onion, small chopped celery, turmeric, lemon juice, and olives, and just eat it in a bowl. (Find well-sourced salmon and tuna at Vital Choice.)
Having some already-chopped vegetables on hand for breakfast and lunch is a lifesaver by the way, so anytime you cut part of an onion for dinner, cut the whole thing. Same goes for celery and pretty much all other vegetables. You will never be sad that you have it there! It’s a nice little gift to your tomorrow-self.
RELATED: How to Find Sustainable Seafood.
5. Make a Machine Cut it For You
We don’t want to pay the big bucks to have Whole Foods cut our veggies for us, but we can employ the power of a machine and batching things.
Plan a bit of time to get out your food processor and a lot of vegetables. Start with the least aromatic ones, like cabbage or carrots, and move up to the onions last.
Shred as much as you know you will eat in the next 5 days, and throw things like onions in one at a time, cut into quarters, with quick pulses to get just the right size piece. They might not be the prettiest, but they are done, with only one appliance to wash. #score
Store in glass containers with lids, or if space is an issue, plastic bags. Try to quickly rinse and reuse the plastic bags that don’t have a major sent stuck in them. Do it right away and you don’t even need soapy dishwater!
Yes, your produce will lose some nutrients as it sits and waits for you. But you won’t lose any brain cells or sanity, so I say it’s a worthwhile trade-off! Just try to use these cut vegetables up as quickly as possible.
6. Organic Frozen Vegetables Can Be Lifesavers
Or even conventionally-grown, if organic is not super important to you. I mention organic because I love Costco’s frozen vegetables so very much. There’s no comparison between frozen organic green beans or broccoli from Costco and from a regular box store. They just taste better! (Here’s what I love to buy at Costco)
And remember, because frozen vegetables are quickly blanched and frozen so soon after picking, they actually may have more vitamins and minerals than the produce you buy fresh at the store which may have had to travel many miles and days just to get to that point, plus the days it may spend in your refrigerator.
So never feel guilty about using frozen vegetables. We love green beans sauteed in bacon grease, steamed or roasted broccoli or cauliflower, and peas when they are allowed in the diet, although for these examples, they usually aren’t.
One tip: frozen Brussels sprouts are disgusting and mushy IMO (contributor Mary loves them)!
7. Go Big or Go Home (the Value of a Huge Pot of Soup)
Whenever I would cut what I thought was a massive amount of vegetables for dinner, my heart would sink when I saw that there were less than two cups left at the end of the night! Don’t get me wrong, no complaints that my family was eating a bucketload of vegetables, but it made breakfast and lunch more difficult with scant leftovers. Nobody wants to be meal prepping three times a day!
Somehow soup always seems to be a better solution. I always make a double batch for sure, and yes, it can be a decent bit of chopping initially, but somehow there’s always still a bucketload left over. Soup is easy to reheat, and I would even have it for breakfast sometimes because of the zero prep work involved.
Here are all my favorite soup recipes! If you are on a restrictive diet and not just trying to increase vegetables, be sure to read the ingredients closely, but the chicken turmeric soup with turnips instead of white potatoes is amazing, even on AIP, and our ultimate favorite cheeseburger soup, minus the cheese and with the same turnip substitution, is also very good. It’s not quite as magical without the tomato sauce and mustard for AIP, but somehow it’s still very satisfying.
8. Another Way to Think Big About Vegetables
Often when we cut vegetables for a meal, we think dices or slices. That means for any given vegetable, you are making a dozen or dozens of cuts, extending your time in the kitchen and decreasing the time you have to do anything else.
So think bigger.
As long as you plan ahead and give the oven time to do its roasting job, you can cut many vegetables in large chunks and get away with it, and sometimes it’s even more delicious.
A few favorite examples
- Large cabbage wedges, roasted with olive oil and simple seasonings
- Cut sweet potatoes in big wedges instead of small chunks or slices (especially if your family doesn’t love them baked whole because of the mushy-factor…ask me how I know this is a reality)
- Halve your peppers and roast them, or stuff them like this recipe (no peppers on AIP, remember)
- Put onions in with your roast in large wedges instead of cutting any smaller
- This cauliflower rice in the instant pot allows you to simply cut a huge head of cauliflower into 4 chunks, instead of many florets or having to pull out the food processor to “rice” it – HUGE time-saver!
What else could you cook just by trimming the ends or a cutting it in half?
Mary’s adaptable taco bowl recipe features avocados simply cut in half, another perfect example.
9. Employ In-Home Help
This isn’t as expensive as it sounds, because I am simply suggesting that you utilize one of your most valuable resources: your children!
A few years ago, I realized that although I was teaching moms all over the world to cook healthier food, I had to completely forgotten to teach the same important life skills to my children. I decided to do it in a big way, and my online kids cooking lessons were born.
One of my happy benefits is that when the kids have the skills, they can truly help out and decrease my time stuck in the kitchen. Plus, our time is made more valuable when we are together because we are able to connect on a deeper level and communicate about life without the distraction of screens.
My kids are all able to contribute, particularly the 10 and 13-year-olds. They can pretty much do anything I can do with a chef’s knife. Our seven-year-old graduated to a sharp paring knife this summer, so he can handle smaller, softer items like mushrooms, pickles, cucumbers, and zucchini.
Speaking of zucchini, zoodles are awesome for high-fat, low-carb diets where you need to increase your vegetables unless you want to spend all of your income on meat.
My kids actually enjoy spiralizing zucchini, and here’s a little video on how they work together to get it done! You can even freeze zoodles for use in cooked applications, so batch the work and clean the tool once! (Related: All the ways we make and use zoodles)
If your kids don’t yet have proper knife skills, here’s our lesson that you can take for a spin for free. It’s about 10 minutes long and designed for kids of all ages. You see, we teach 2-year-olds with butter knives the same techniques as 10-year-olds with chef’s knives so that when the little ones grow older, they are completely confident (and their parents too) that they will be safe with the sharp knives.
To get more instruction on what foods are appropriate for every age, and various ways kids can cut certain produce, there are eight knife videos in our full eCourse, for kids of all ages and skill levels.
A gift from our family to yours!
My 4 kids and I created the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, an online cooking course for kids, to help bring real food and independence to families all over. Over 10,000 kids have joined us and we want to share the love – please grab your FREE copy of
10 Snacks Your Kids Can Make
Packed with our favorites for the road, like
- Pumpkin Pie Bars (grain-free)
- Homemade Granola Bars
- Fruit Juice “Gellies” (like gummy snacks but real food!)
- Energy Bites (pictured below)
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10. You Can Cheat a Little: Expensive Vegetable and Fruit Convenience Foods That Are Worth It
Sometimes, I just don’t want to open the fridge and grab a carrot or cucumber, and I don’t want to touch that knife one more time!
To keep a very restrictive diet sustainable, you have to be realistic. You’ll need some snacks on hand so that you don’t jump off the bandwagon when you are tempted to snack.
Here are some of our favorite snacks that are awesome for keto or AIP:
Roasted seaweed snacks
I only like the lime flavor (and they are super addictive!). Seaweed is really good for us, and we certainly don’t eat enough of it, so I never feel badly about eating the whole package, except for the budget. (I get these from Amazon.)
Our favorite thing to eat on a date night, when ice cream and wine are off the table! They are also great for a mid-afternoon pick me up or in a smoothie, and berries are low-glycemic so usually you can get away with them on keto too.
Sweet potato chips in coconut oil
I’m not sure any brand does this outside of Jackson’s Honest, so we order some from Amazon anytime we are jumping into a big restrictive diet. The carbs are something to watch if you are on keto, so be careful of portions, but they really fill a need if you are used to munchy crunchy snacks. Tip: never eat them out of the bag! #portioncontrol
A new find for us on AIP, and my husband in particular really likes them. Plantains have resistant starch, which is a prebiotic, and has a whole host of health benefits in itself. (A happy experiment from Amazon.)
As someone who loves being able to grab a quick, tiny piece of dark chocolate to pop in my mouth at just about any time of day, AIP was tough, because chocolate is from a seed (so it’s out!). And nut butters couldn’t substitute, so I started grabbing a little piece of coconut butter (also called manna or coconut cream concentrate) and the tip of a knife and popping it in my mouth.
This is an amazing substitute for the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth-for-a-minute feel that I’m looking for with dark chocolate.
I highly recommend investing in a jar if you are going keto, AIP, or any high-fat, low-carb diet! You can write me a thank you note later! Out of quite a few brands I’ve tried, Artisana is the purest creamy texture. 🙂
Other coconut products are great too, like Dang coconut chips (look for the kind without added sugar) or these coconut chips from Wilderness Family Naturals, which are just pure coconut. They are actually a little crispy and are awesome to nibble on when you just need something next to your desk.