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Monday, December 26, 2011

What to Eat? My "Nine Necessaries" List

After the terrific interest in my recent post about my low-carb lifestyle success, the top question people keep asking me is, "What should I eat? I have no idea what to do!"

I faced the same problem. Before I made this change, my idea of cooking in the morning was making a quad raspberry mocha. The night before I started low-carb, I went to bed thinking, "I have no clue what I'm going to eat for breakfast!" Bagel? Out. Cereal? Out. A freaking banana and some raisins? Out. (Remember that most fruits, especially bananas, have a high glycemic load and are thus heavy on carbs.) I had to do something I'd never done for a weekday breakfast: cook. I beat three eggs, salt, and pepper, then scrambled them with chopped up baby spinach, tomatoes, ham, and some salsa. This might have been the first time I'd ever voluntarily eaten vegetables for breakfast in my life. And it was good! As it turns out, I lost four pounds that day.

Of course, all that extra food preparation takes time. We're not big cooking types in my house. Any meal that takes longer to prepare and clean than it does to eat strikes me as a very skewed value proposition, and I know many of you share this feeling. You're busy. You've got better things to do than chop and rinse and fold and whatever else those kitcheny types seem to relish so much. My philosophy on cooking: get in, get out, lose weight -- period.

With that in mind, I'd like to recommend our nine favorite low-carb menu items. If you have no idea where to start, try these.

1. Breakfast: Mini Frittatas

This is my favorite low-carb breakfast recipe, lifted from the Food Network HERE. Essentially, you make up a big batch of scrambled eggs, only you're going to cook the eggs in a muffin pan rather than a skillet. I use a 12-muffin pan, and with nine eggs rather than the recipe's eight, it works out exactly right.

Note that I use spinach, tomato, and a few dashes of Tobasco sauce rather than the recipe's recommended parsley. If I'm having trouble getting past a weight plateau, I'll also drop the recommended milk out of the mix.

I'll make the pan up on Sunday night and put them all in the fridge. Eating three per breakfast, that's four breakfasts made in 30 minutes with only one load of dishes to clean. Now, that's what I'm talkin' about.

2. Breakfast/Snack: Primal Blueprint Nutty Blueberry Protein Balls

I mentioned in my prior post about what huge fans we are of Mark Sisson and his books. Here's proof. This recipe comes from his Primal Blueprint Quick & Easy Meals cookbook, which, in our opinion, is even better than his The Primal Blueprint Cookbook. If you only invest in one cookbook, make it the Quick & Easy title.

You'll find the nutty balls recipe -- always good for a few guilty snickers during casual conversation -- scattered in various incarnations around the Web. Here are two good examples from PALEO MADELINE and NOM NOM PALEO. Obviously, you can change the type of nuts and fruits to suit your taste. Keep in mind that the blueberries are for flavor, but most of the sweetness is coming from the dates, which are much higher in glycemic load, so don't go overboard with them. No matter which specific ingredients you pick, though, two or three of these balls will keep you running. They pack well if you're on the road. Better yet, they're pretty dry and thus great at making you thirsty. If you're like me and procrastinate drinking your water, two of these nutty balls will have you chugging down an eight-ounce glass in no time at all.

3. Lunch: Salad With Low-Carb Dressing

Not much to report here. Pretty much every non-cheat day meal around here is a salad. We use baby spinach in place of lettuce almost without exception, but that's a change we made years ago for better health and nutrition. Naturally, you can put whatever you want on a salad. Hard boiled eggs and any kind of meat, especially leftovers, are fair game. For some crunch, I use a sprinkle of sunflower seeds. Again, go really easy on the shredded cheese, and remember that Parmesan is preferable to any of the softer cheeses. If you do pick up the Primal Blueprint Quick & Easy Meals Book, my wife is particularly fond of the Greek Salad recipe.

Historically, I've always preferred my salads without dressing, but there's nothing like a few dozen salads in a  row to inspire a need for diversity. We've grown fond of a few low-carb honey mustard and vinaigrette dressings from the store. Start reading the labels and find one or two that will work for you. It's not hard to find yummy dressings that don't rely on carbs for adding flavor.

4. Snack: Nuts and Beef Jerky

Snacking is essential on a low-carb diet. The object of the game is to keep your insulin and blood sugars at steady, moderated levels throughout the day and get off the pattern of massive dips and spikes that are so typical of high-carb/low-fat diets. Nuts are great for this. Two or three times a day, I'll take a drag off of my jar of unsalted, bulk food peanuts and go about my way. (Beware of the salted varieties. Read the label and you'll likely find that the substances used to make the salt stick to the nuts contain carbs.) My wife, Knico, prefers pistachios, but she can destroy a bag of those things like nobody's business. We've found that more than about a half-cup of shelled nuts per day will sabotage weight loss, so read the labels and gauge accordingly. If necessary, use snack-sized Ziploc bags and create pre-sized rations for use throughout the day. When the bags are empty, you're done for the day.

Nearer and dearer to my heart is the beef jerky recipe found in the manual for Smokehouse's Little Chief smoker (manufactured here in Oregon). You'll go broke trying to fund a jerky habit from the store. (And store jerky is stupid high in carbs!) It simply must be homemade, and homemade tastes so much better! We got our smoker from Amazon for about $100, but you'll find them available elsewhere. I buy five pounds of sirloin per batch and find that if you only use about half of the recommended salt, the recipe is about perfect.

Interestingly, the wood you use is very important. The hickory chips that come included with the Little Chief are OK but not great. Alder does nothing for me. Hickory is so-so, but mesquite is outstanding. My granddad used to swear by apple wood chips, and I find that a blend of mesquite and apple yields results that are to die for. (You can buy wood chips at places such as Lowe's or Home Depot as well as online.) Slicing the meat about 1/4-inch thick, I'll smoke a batch for three hours, reverse the trays in the smoker, add another load of chips, then smoke for two more hours. It's better to undercook than overcook. The manual also has a great recipe for smoked salmon and many other variations.

I literally don't know how I would get through a week without this jerky. It fulfills my carnivorous cravings and keeps me sane when carbs start to sound like a really yummy idea. One batch lasts me about two weeks, and it's money very well spent.

Ah, one other bit of wisdom from my granddad: You can buy insulating covers for these smoker, which will help assist in the smoking process by retaining the heat. This will cut down on the total smoking time. However, rather than spend the $25 or $30 on the factory's recommended cover, simply take a knife to your smoker's retail box so it looks something like mine. I recall that Granddad's smoker's cover was blanketed in duct tape, and, after 10 or 12 uses, I can see that mine is heading for the same modification. With duct tape, the cover should last for years provided you keep it dry.

5. Lunch/Dinner: Bunless Burger or Club Sandwich

Whether you love or hate the company's TV ads, you gotta give credit to Carl's Jr. for being the only fast food chain (I've found so far) that will wrap your sandwich order in generous amounts of leaf lettuce rather than serve your bunless entre to you in a humiliating plastic bowl. Some days when we want a treat, Knico and I will hit the Carl's drive-thru and get a couple of sandwiches along with an unsweetened iced tea and a packet of Splenda. Having the ability to order your favorite fast food sans bun is one of the great pleasures of the low-carb approach. Meats, a slice of cheese, mayo, tomato, lettuce...it's all good.

For the record, McDonald's is among the worst of the fast food chains in this regard. There's nothing like seeing the chain's small, pathetic patties in a bowl to make you appreciate just how much such restaurants rely on buns in order to sell the product.

6. Lunch/Dinner: Chicken Chorizo Patty Melt

Some close friends who've joined us on the low-carb plan swear by this Food Network recipe. To make it low-carb, of course, simply get rid of the bun and either substitute with leaf lettuce or eat with a fork and knife on a plate. Depending on where you're at with your goals, you may also want to back off on some of the cheese.

7. Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner: Paleo Pizza

Knico is also a big fan of Sarah Fragoso's Everyday Paleo cookbook. One of the recipes in there is for "paleo pizza." I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but it makes sense once you examine the ingredients and assess them in the context of what paleolithic-era humans would have been eating. Fragaso has a breakfast pizza recipe in her book in which the "crust" is mostly eggs, and it's an interesting alternative to the usual scramble, but she also has a more conventional pizza HERE.

Of course, being a pizza, you're free to mix and match whatever topping ingredients you please. We've found that our kids are more tolerant of "weird" vegetables when presented in a pizza format, so this is a double-win recipe.

I will warn you that the almond meal crust will most likely be drier than what you're expecting. Again, I'm fine with this since it inspires more water consumption. It is more crumbly, though, and you may need to eat with a fork and knife rather than being able to lift up a whole piece and wave it around, as with conventional pizza.

8. Snack: Low-Carb Chocolate

At least once per month, the impulse to consume chocolate in my home becomes a medical necessity. If you're like us, you've found most sugar-free chocolate over the years to taste like something between tree bark and pigeon poop. My mother-in-law had us try this bar from Simply Lite, and we were floored by how good it tastes. Seriously, it tastes like chocolate. We now pick them up at Trader Joe's, although you can find them online.

Simply Lite uses sugar alcohols rather than straight up sugar. The net effective carb amount per serving is like 1 g. It's nothing. That said, be aware that many low-carb pros caution against such candies because they're so easy to abuse. As with Splenda and other artificial sweeteners, your body is still going to perceive that something sweet has hit your system, even if, chemically, the carbs aren't there. This perception of sweetness will trigger an insulin response. Now, I'm guessing that the insulin response isn't as pronounced as from real sugar, but it must be significant, otherwise we wouldn't see so many fat long-term diet soda drinkers. If we only eat a couple of squares from the Simply Lite bar -- just enough to let it melt in the mouth and kill the chocolate craving -- we can have one bar last a whole week...sometimes less, depending on the, um, lunar phase.

9. Dessert: Skillet Brownies

You gotta have a few good, low-carb dessert recipes on hand to help you through life, and THIS ONE is our favorite so far. We ignore the flourishing touches with salt, Zinfandel, and cranberries, both of which would only add carbs and perhaps detract from the primary objective of having a chocolate dessert, but feel free to experiment.

These brownies are moist, easy, and, as the author points out, cheaper than most low-carb alternatives. Divided into 16 servings, each piece works out to just under 10 g of carbs, and that's with sweetening it up with a 1/2 cup of coconut nectar in place of the honey. With no cheats on your day, you should have no problem handling the relatively few carbs in this, especially if you want to bust out a couple minutes of air squats before partaking.

Warning: If you try these brownies before weaning away from sugar, they may not taste sweet enough to you. Those of us who've grown accustomed to a low-sugar diet find these brownies plenty sweet. In fact, they're even more enjoyable because your senses are relishing the true taste of the chocolate and aren't just craving that big sugar rush. If you still find that you need a bit more sweetness, consider adding just a few carbs more by drizzling on a low-carb ganache such as THIS.


  1. Wait, one more! My cousin and his wife knew that we've gone low-carb and so thoughtfully made us up a batch of "Paleo Chocolate Cruch" for a Christmas present. It's REALLY good! So good that I've taken to calling it "Caveman Crack." Just beware that it uses honey, which is essentially natural sugar, so you'll need to moderate your intake accordingly. I haven't computed the carb counts yet, though. Anyone want to take a stab at it?

    Paleo Chocolate Crunch

    1/2 c sunflower seeds
    1/2 c pumpkin seeds
    1 c almond meal
    1 c unsweetened shredded coconut - (bulk bin @ New Seasons)
    2 c slivered almonds
    1/2 c coconut oil, melted - (Trader Joe's)
    1/2 c honey
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

    Mix dry and wet ingredients separately, then mix together. Spread on foil lined baking sheet and bake at 325 for 20-25 min. Remove from the oven and mix (in a bowl if necessary) to ensure that it doesn't burn. Bake for 5 more minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Break apart and store in an airtight container.

  2. Excellent write-up. Bookmarked.