The Paleolithic diet is a popular diet centered around eating like our ancient ancestors for optimal health and wellness. “Paleo” means avoiding modern processed foods in favor of healthy, natural, whole foods.
Following the paleo diet can result in benefits like fat loss, muscle gain, and even the reversal of chronic diseases.
Our ancestors hunted, farmed, and gathered 100% of their nutrition from their natural environment. But to succeed at everyday paleo eating in our modern era, you need to understand how to plan, buy, prep, and cook paleo meals.
Here’s what we’re going to cover in this meal planning guide:
- Basic paleo meal planning guidelines
- Paleo meal planning for families
- The paleo grocery shopping list
- Paleo meal prep techniques
- Tailoring calories and macros for your goals
- Healthy paleo recipes (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
I’m going to give you the confidence to become self-sufficient, so you don’t need to hire a paleo meal planning service – instead, you can put that money towards more healthy food for you and your family.
Guidelines to Create a Paleo Meal Plan
Before you begin planning your paleo meals, make sure you have a good grasp of paleo diet basics, especially if you’re a beginner. Once you do, begin with these steps to create a healthy paleo meal plan:
- Know your goal
- Set a budget
- Get organized
- Set up your kitchen for prep
Is your goal better health and wellness, fat loss, muscle gain, or better athletic performance? Perhaps it’s a combination of several of the above, but which one is your top priority? The paleo diet is a flexible approach to eating that allows individuals to achieve different goals, so it’s vital that you keep your goal in mind as you plan out your meals.
Do you have a weekly grocery budget? If not, go ahead and set one now. Here are the basics:
- Calculate a range or average spend for each meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lets say the averages are $3.31 for breakfast, $4 for lunch, and $4 for dinner.
- Next multiply each by 7 days and sum each of the amounts. This would be $23.17 for breakfast, $28 for lunch, and $28 for dinner. The sum if these is $79.17.
- This means that for 1 person, your estimated weekly budget for eating paleo would be $79.17.
- For a month you can multiply your weekly spend by 4, and for 2 people, you can double that amount.
- A theoretical monthly budget for 1 person is: $316.68
- A theoretical monthly budget for 2 people is: $633.36
Paleo can work great on a tight budget, but consider investing in higher quality foods if you are able. Don’t spend more than you can afford, but consider that the money you spend can pay long-term dividends of health, wellness, and disease prevention.
Get organized by discussing your plans with your spouse, housemates, or family. Set aside up to half a day once or twice per week for shopping, meal prep, and clean-up. Consider divvying up these responsibilities.
The average American now spends over 10 hours per day looking at a digital device (including television watching). If that’s you, a “digital detox” day can magically create more time for shopping and meal preparation.
Finally, you need to set your kitchen up for meal prep. Store things you won’t be using (like ice cream makers and bread toasters) to make more room.
Here’s what you will need on hand to prepare and store your paleo meals for the week:
- A sharp knife (like an 8” chef’s knife)
- One or two cutting boards
- One or two large skillets (preferably cast iron, or enamel surface like Le Creuset)
- A large oven tray
- An oven (a smaller toaster oven can also work)
- A stove or hot plate
- Set of measuring cups and spoons
- Meat thermometer
- Containers (ideally glass, but plastic or zip-top bags work fine too)
- A refrigerator, preferably with a freezer
- Cooler, lunch box, or lunch bag (optional)
- Enamel or cast-iron Dutch oven (optional)
- Glass casserole dish (optional)
- Slow cooker or Instant Pot (optional)
As you select containers, consider how many meals each person will eat at home vs. away from home. For each meal you prepare ahead of time, you will need one or two containers (one large, and sometimes one small container to go with it).
If you are eating at home more often, you don’t need as many containers. Get a few extra-large storage containers for storing bigger meals, too.
If you can’t afford to buy a dozen or more reusable containers, get some gallon, quart, and pint-sized zip-top bags.
Planning for the Week
Make a ritual of planning at the beginning of each week. One easy way you can plan for the week is to use a sheet of paper (or digital equivalent) to track the following:
- How many grocery store trips can you make this week?
- How many meals do you need to prepare?
- Can you cook some meals at home during the week, or will you prepare most of them ahead of time?
Once you answer those questions, select the best days and times for grocery store, prep, and cooking. If you make more grocery store trips, you can prevent spoilage and split up the prep sessions.
Set alarms or calendar reminders to ensure you’ll remember. You’ll also want this information to make your grocery shopping more manageable, so save the sheet of paper.
Paleo Meal Planning for Families
The paleo diet can be a healthy choice for kids as well as adults. If you go paleo together, make sure you feed your kids enough calories. Cutting out sugars and processed foods is a great move for everyone’s health, but if your children are accustomed to getting most of their calories from unhealthy sources, you need to substitute in natural, healthy sources of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Every family is different, but these paleo meal planning tips are tested and proven to make it easier to bring your family on board:
- Tout the benefits. When you introduce the idea of eating Paleo, start with the positives (better health and energy, disease prevention, easier weight management, toning up). Don’t start with the fact that chicken nuggets and other processed foods are soon going to be off the menu. If you have children, find books at the library about why healthy eating is important, and give them multiple healthy snack options to choose from so that not having his junk food on hand isn’t as apparent and disappointing.
- Transition gradually for picky eaters. If you have a child who’s a picky eater, try to be understanding. I don’t recommend that you offer non-paleo foods as a reward, but you can ease matters by shifting gradually over several weeks or months rather than overnight. You can also find paleo-acceptable substitutes for foods your picky eater already enjoys, and offer those as a treat.
- Create paleo substitutes. When I was young my parents had a strict rule at the dinner table: “just try it once.” I was required to try a new dish only once, and I soon found myself enjoying many new foods. If I didn’t care for a food, I wasn’t required to eat it again.
- Shop together. Shopping together can give your other family members a say in meal planning and allow them to voice their preferences. It can be lots of fun going to the local farmer’s market together.
- Eat together. Eating together is about enjoying delicious food and family time, and if you’re the chef, you can solicit feedback and learn what they liked and didn’t.
- Share and trade duties. If you have a few family members around, enlist them with rotating duties: putting away foods, washing and chopping veggies, playing the assistant to the chef, cleaning up, and saving leftovers. The upshot is more family time together, and you can teach your children to take responsibility for their health. Older kids or spouses can help with meal planning and shopping.
- Make big batches and freeze leftovers. Use your large glass or plastic containers or one- or two-gallon zip-top bags to store leftovers. You can save them for later in the week or freeze them. If you anticipate a busy week coming up, make extra meals and freeze them ahead of time for you and your family to enjoy later.
Paleo Grocery List
To succeed at paleo remember this: “We make our most important choices at the grocery store.” If you buy the right foods, you can’t go wrong. With a well-stocked kitchen, you won’t be tempted to eat out spontaneously or consume non-paleo foods.
If possible, shop two or three times a week. That way your food stays fresh, and you don’t run out unexpectedly.
At each visit, buy at least six or seven servings each of proteins, fats, and fruits or vegetables per person. Aim for variety rather than buying the same thing on each trip.
This list doesn’t capture every single food that counts as Paleolithic, but it’s a great starting point. Try these suggestions before you branch out.
Meat and Protein Sources
Beef (steaks or ground, preferably grass-fed)
Pork, including bacon
Whole eggs (chicken, duck, goose, quail)
Butter (preferably grass-fed)
Extra virgin coconut oil (minimally-processed oils are close enough to whole foods)
Extra virgin olive oil
Nut butters besides peanut butter
Whole eggs (chicken, duck, goose, quail)
Seeds (chia, pumpkin, flax)
Mustard or collard greens
Fresh green beans
Apples with a tart flavor
Oranges with a sour, tangy flavor
Paleo Meal Prep Techniques
These techniques will make your paleo meal prep at home fast, efficient, and consistent. If you have never tried cooking before consider formal lessons, informal lessons from a friend, or even YouTube videos to get the basics down. Here are a few in case you are interested:
- Nom Nom Paleo
- Yum Paleo
- Danielle Walker’s Against All Grain
- Ondrej Sevcik – Recipes – Fitness/LowCarb/Paleo
- Paleo On The Go
You need to know how to sear, saute, and simmer on the stove. Searing is a high heat technique that blackens the outside of meat or fish to seals in juices, leaving the inside rare. Sauteing is a medium-high heat method, similar to frying without as much oil. Simmering is a low-heat approach to cook food slowly and allow flavors to mingle. Over time you’ll develop a sense for which methods to use, and when to combine them.
Your oven is an excellent way to save time and effort. The main cooking methods for the oven are broiling (a high heat setting that will brown and caramelize the dish), baking (low to high heat for general purposes), and braising (baking or broiling foods with liquid in a closed dish after browning it by searing or sauteing).
Meat doneness is critical for both safety and flavor. A digital probe thermometer is a perfect tool to ensure you achieve the correct temperature. Understand meat doneness (for seafood, pork, beef, and poultry) so you don’t overcook your food. According to the USDA, we should cook all fish and beef to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, but I will always eat salmon or free-range grass-fed steaks rare.
You can use a Dutch oven, slow cooker, or Instant Pot for one-pot meals. One-pot meals are easy to prep and cook, nourishing, easy to clean up, and perfect for making leftovers to freeze into big batches.
How to Tailor Your Paleo Meal Planning For Your Goals
A paleo diet can accommodate many different goals with just a few tweaks. Most people experience significant benefits following a paleo lifestyle, even using the most basic approach. If you want to try paleo without getting too technical, you can! You don’t have to worry too much about macros or calories to see results.
However, if you have a more specific goal for eating paleo such as: (1) better health, (2) fat loss, (3) muscle gain, or (4) athletic performance then you’ll want to pay closer attention to your calories and macros. Below are a few tips to help further optimize your paleo meal planning and achieve your goals.
Adjusting Calories and Macros
The core tenet of paleo is to eat healthy, natural, whole foods, and avoid processed foods. Cutting out processed foods automatically eliminates unhealthy ingredients like dyes, preservatives, flour, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, processed polyunsaturated fatty acids such as canola and soybean oil, and trans fats.
Modifying your macronutrient ratios and calorie intake is a more advanced form of paleo that isn’t for everyone. Our ancestors didn’t track their calories and macros, but we can use these powerful tools to ensure excellent results.
Calories are an imperfect measure of food intake in humans, but they are still useful for understanding the effect your diet has on your body:
- If your calorie intake matches your calorie expenditure (caloric maintenance) on average for long enough, you are likely to maintain your same bodyweight.
- If your calorie intake exceeds your calorie expenditure (caloric surplus) on average, you are likely to gain weight.
- If your calorie expenditure exceeds your calorie intake (caloric deficit) on average for long enough, you are likely to lose weight.
That’s how calories affect goals like fat loss, weight loss, muscle gain, and bodybuilding. By measuring calories, you can ensure progress towards your goal if it involves fat loss or muscle gain.
Here’s what you need to know about paleo macros:
- Proteins mostly come from animal sources (meat, fish, eggs) and usually comprise up to a third of calorie intake.
- Fats don’t make you fat and should constitute at least a third of your calories, up to half or in some cases (such as a zero carb paleo approach) 70-75% of calories.
- Carbohydrates usually top out 40% of overall calorie intake, often much less (all the way down to zero carbs).
To adjust your macros and calories you need to be able to track them. If you aren’t a math lover or don’t have great attention to detail, use a tracking app or website like LoseIt, My Fitness Pal, FitDay, or Heads Up Health to make the task simpler with barcode scanning, recipe searches, and visualization tools.
You can use calorie and macro tracking as a learning tool for a few weeks to build consistent habits — it’s probably unnecessary to track for longer than that unless you enjoy it.
Eating for Better Health
Better health is the most common and most straightforward paleo goal. Tracking calories and macros isn’t a requirement for better health. To get the most out of the paleo diet for health, focus on organic, non-GMO (or, to use the newest term from Big Agriculture, non-“bioengineered”) local produce and animal products as much as possible. Buy pastured and grass-fed meats and dairy whenever you can.
For optimal health, you can also incorporate foods with unique nutritional benefits. Fish and shellfish high in the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, bone broth, fermented foods like homemade or boutique kimchi or sauerkraut, and organ meats all offer unique nutritional benefits that can improve your health.
Eating for Fat Loss
If you want to lose weight, you can adjust your paleo meal plan as follows:
- Eat fewer calories than you expend.
- Keep carbs relatively low ( no more than 20-30% of your calorie intake, or even lower).
- Focus on eating filling foods without a lot of calories, so you get full without overeating calories.
Instead of using formulas to calculate your calorie requirements, you can track your natural intake for a week or two and step on the scale. If you are not losing weight or losing weight more slowly than you would prefer, reduce your calorie intake gradually until weight loss occurs.
Don’t weigh in every day, and don’t cut calories too quickly. Allow a week or two between weigh-ins, to give your body time to lose fat before you adjust again. Persons who are not considered obese can realistically lose 1 to 1.5 pounds of fat per week, but many factors may affect your results. For more information about fat loss with paleo specifically, check out Paleo Diet for Weight Loss to learn what to expect, 8 steps to success, if it’s right for you and if there are any common pitfalls.
Eating for Muscle Gain
If you follow a strength training program and lift weights, paleo works well for muscle gain and bodybuilding. To gain muscle on paleo, here’s what you need to remember:
- Eat more calories than you expend.
- Eat enough protein and carbs, especially on training days.
- 33% protein, 33% fat, 33% carbs is a good starting point.
You can track your calorie intake for several weeks and weigh in periodically. If you aren’t gaining muscle, increase your calories gradually until you are gaining about 1-2 pounds every two to three weeks. Paleo may not pack muscle on rapidly, but you can use a paleo diet plan to stay lean as you add muscle mass.
If you are lifting hard, you need to eat the right macronutrients to support training and recovery. Try eating a minimum of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight on lifting days, and if you aren’t recovering fast enough, try increasing your carbohydrate intake on lifting days before your workouts.
Using an even macro split (one-third of each macronutrient on average) is a good starting point for muscle gain: enough carbs to lift hard, but not enough carbs to reduce insulin sensitivity or cause fat gain. If you gain fat instead of muscle mass, reduce your carb intake further.
Paleo Eating for Athletic Performance
For athletes, it’s essential not to undereat. If your performance is suffering, you can address it by increasing your calories slowly over time. Ensure you provide your body with the correct amount and types of food to fuel activity and recovery. Sufficient protein intake helps your body recover and repair.
For endurance athletes, eating a relatively low-carb and high-fat paleo diet improves the benefits of sport training by enhancing fat burning. Endurance athletes can start with 30% protein, 40-50% fat, and 20-30% carbohydrates and adjust carbs up or down as needed depending on their results.
Other athletes should begin with an even split (33% of each macro) and adjust carb intake up or down as needed over time.
Paleo is one the the most popular diets out there – for good reason. With benefits such as fat loss, muscle gain, and even the reversal of chronic diseases, there might be something to this ancient nutrition protocol. Now that you are armed with a meal plan for buying, prepping, and cooking the paleo way, such a diet can quite easily become second nature and lead to a healthier lifestyle for you and your family.
Healthy Paleo Recipes
Selecting recipes ahead of time makes grocery shopping easier and more productive. Over time, you’ll learn to adjust recipes and create your own delicious and healthy variations. Keep a binder in your kitchen and fill it with your own favorite recipes and creations.
Paleo can be simple or fancy, depending on your mood and cooking skills. Here are some of my favorite paleo recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to get you started:
Paleo Sausage Breakfast Casserole
Total Time: 45-50 minutes
1 tablespoon olive oil or avocado oil
1 pound nitrate-free paleo sausage or other ground meat
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dry minced onion flakes
3 cups yellow summer squash, cubed
12 ounces broccoli, chopped
1/2 cup almond milk, coconut milk, or heavy cream
Optional, to taste:
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon pepper
- Cook sausage or meat, garlic, and onion flakes in oil over medium-high heat until sausage is browned.
- Add squash and broccoli, cook until vegetables are tender.
- Spread the sausage and vegetable mix into casserole dish, high-sided oven pan, or large skillet.
- In medium bowl, whisk eggs, milk, salt, and pepper together.
- Pour egg mixture over sausage mix.
- Bake at 375°F for 30-35 minutes, or until eggs are set and top is lightly browned.
Paleo Egg Cups
Photo and recipe credit: Amy Stafford
Total Time: 18 mins
Extra virgin coconut oil, butter, or ghee for the pan
12 strips uncured organic bacon, cooked
8 asparagus spears, cut into large pieces
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease 12 cups of a regular muffin pan
- Lay a strip of bacon in each muffin cup, pushing down. It will overhang the outside
- Crack an egg in every cup
- Distribute the asparagus evenly throughout each cup
- Season with salt and pepper and bake in the middle of the oven — 12-15 minutes for soft eggs, 15-17 for hard eggs
- Serve the eggs warm
- Refrigerate extras and rewarm to serve as leftovers
Lunch and Dinner
Lamb Butternut Squash paleo Stew
Recipe credit: Carolyn Malcoun
Total time: 15 minutes
8 ounces ground lamb
8 ounces 90% lean ground sirloin
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 1/2 cups chopped peeled butternut squash
1 cup chopped onion 2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup beef bone broth (like Kettle and Fire or homemade stock)
3 cups chopped kale
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Preheat oven to 450°.
- Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
- Add lamb, beef, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook 5 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble.
- Remove lamb mixture from pan.
- Add squash, onion, and garlic to pan; cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add tomato paste and next 4 ingredients (through cinnamon); cook 1 minute, stirring frequently.
- Stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and stock; bring to a boil.
- Stir in kale; cook 1 minute or until kale begins to wilt.
- Stir in lamb mixture.
- Cover and bake at 450° for 15 minutes.
- Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.
Dilly Salmon and Carrots
Total Time: 20-25 minutes
(4) 6-ounce wild-caught salmon fillets (about an inch thick)
4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
8 orange slices
1 pound young carrots, trimmed
- Preheat grill to medium-high heat.
- Coat 4 (12-inch-square) pieces of foil each with olive oil; place 1 fillet in center of each piece. Top each fillet with 1-2 teaspoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons dill.
- Top evenly with salt, pepper, and orange slices.
- Bring edges of foil up over fillets, folding to form a seal.
- Place packets seal side up on grill or in oven on broil; cover and cook 6-10 minutes or until desired degree of doneness.
- Remove foil packets from grill or oven.
- Combine remaining olive oil and carrots in a bowl; toss.
- Place carrots on grill or in oven on cast-iron skillet; cook 5 minutes or until crisp and tender, turning once after 3 minutes.
- Divide carrots evenly among 4 plates.
- Open packets; top carrots with fillets.
- Squeeze orange slices evenly over fillets and serve.
Roasted Shrimp and Broccoli
Recipe credit: Hannah Klinger
Servings: 4 (1 cup broccoli, 9 shrimp)
Total Time: 15-20 minutes
5 cups broccoli florets
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind, divided
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 1/2 pounds peeled and deveined large shrimp
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- Preheat oven to 425°.
- Cook broccoli in boiling water 1 minute. Drain and plunge into ice water; drain.
- Combine 1 1/2 teaspoons rind, juice, about 3/4 teaspoon salt, and about 3/4 teaspoon black pepper in a medium bowl.
- Add shrimp; toss to combine.
- Arrange broccoli and shrimp in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan coated with coconut oil.
- Bake at 425° for 6-8 minutes or until shrimp are done.
- Combine oil, remaining grated lemon rind, remaining salt, remaining black pepper, and crushed red pepper in a large bowl.
- Add broccoli; toss to combine.
Salad with Blackened Steak
Total Time: 20-30 minutes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 (12 oz. or larger) flank steak
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 cups arugula, firmly packed
1/2 cup sliced red onion (about 1 small onion)
1 ripe avocado, chopped
- Heat a saucepan over medium-high.
- Combine salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic powder in a small bowl.
- Rub spice mixture evenly over steak.
- Add steak to pan; saute 5 minutes on each side for medium-rare or until desired degree of doneness.
- Place steak on a cutting board. Let stand 5 minutes. Cut across the grain into thin slices.
- Combine oil, vinegar, and mustard in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk.
- Add steak, arugula, and onion; toss to coat.
- Divide salad among 4 plates. Top evenly with avocado and serve.