How to Start a Successful Paleo Challenge



Why do a Paleo challenge?

Probably because your CrossFit box is running one or you heard about it form a book/the internet/friends and want to try it out. However you got there, starting a paleo diet is no piece of cake (pun completely intended). There’s the question of what to eat and what not to eat. Then there’s the learning to cook paleo thing, and on top of that learning to cook paleo and still ENJOY it thing.

I do want to clarify that this doesn’t mean you have to eat exactly this way all the time. Like I’ve said before, a good diet is a healthful eating plan that works for you. So if you find you feel better when you eat some dairy, then add it back in after the challenge. But in general paleo challenges tend to be fairly strict, and if that’s what you’re doing, I can help! Read on for a crash course in planning for a paleo challenge.

What do I eat?

Food. Eery paleo challenge is different, but 99.9% of the time you’re allowed meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and certain oils while avoiding grains, beans, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, and alcohol.

How do I avoid the stuff I can’t eat?

Image c/o
Image c/o

This is harder than it sounds. It’s not just about not eating yogurt and bread. It’s about reading labels so that your almond butter doesn’t contain sugar or hydrogenated oil, or spice mixes don’t have added sugar (sadly, most of them do). When you start a paleo challenge, the best things you can do to prepare are:

1. Get rid of all the non-paleo foods in the house. Anything that isn’t paleo and is ready to eat (like popcorn or ice cream) or might spoil during the challenge (dairy, etc) – eat it before the challenge or get rid of it. If you find it very difficult to waste food give whatever is left to friends and roommates.

2. Do your homework and plan the first week’s meals beforehand. Paleo on the fly is almost a guaranteed fail.  Take the next weekend before the challenge to sit down with a few recipe books and recipe websites and blogs and plan for the week. I know this sounds like a big time commitment, but as you get used to eating this way, you’ll build up a repertoire of go-tos, and the planning will take far less time.

I typically recommend making a layout of all the times you might eat that week. This gives you a good idea of how much food to cook and buy so you don’t run out or over-purchase. Then fill in the meals and snacks. It’s usually easiest to start with meals you’ll make recipes for, and then fill in the rest. Here’s an example for 1 day with 2 of my go-to recipes.


Breakfast – Granny Smith apple with almond butter, eggs over easy

Lunch – Recipe 1: Cilantro lime pulled chicken, ½ avocado, steamed broccoli

Pre-workout/afternoon snack – Banana with a few almonds

Dinner – Recipe 2: “Paleo spaghetti” (bison meat sauce over spaghetti squash), few pieces of dried mango (no added sugar)

3. Plan for Hunger.

photo-4A common mistake paleo beginners make is to remove all the non-approved foods and neglect to replace the calories with paleo equivalents. If you’re trying to loseweight, you will want to eat fewer calories than previous, but you don’t want to drop 800 calories per day the first week either, or you’ll be pretty hungry and your performance might suffer. However, in case you do make this mistake, always be prepared with an extra snack – something easily to carry like nuts and dried fruit, or an apple – so hunger and dropping blood sugar don’t push you to buy something readily available and most likely not so healthy.

How do I prepare Paleo foods that taste awesome?

Start yourself off right by following experienced paleo cooks. Search for paleo blogs, find a few of your favorites and follow them. Look for blogs written by people similar to you. For instance, if you work 70 hours a week, don’t follow someone who cooks elaborate meals that take over an hour to prepare. Chances are you’ll get discouraged after a while. Follow my blog if you are looking for simple, quick paleo recipes on a moderate budget.

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp and Veggies
Bacon Wrapped Shrimp and Veggies

It’s also important to balance creativity with variety. It’s really fun to find a vegetable or cut of meat you’ve never had and make something new and exciting. But sometimes this turns out badly. Stick to foods you know you like, and leave a meal or two available to try something new. What I mean by this is, if you’ve never had deer liver, don’t try to make it in the first week. Stick with the chicken and beef you’re used to. Maybe throw in some bison. Save the liver for a few weeks down the line when you’re more comfortable eating paleo. This way you limit wasted food and/or avoid forcing yourself to eat something you don’t like just because you already made it.

Final Tips

Photo c/o Stock Free Images

This is a chipper, not a sprint. Paleo should be approached as a lifestyle change, not a 6 week miracle diet. You’re not going to drop 50 pounds or improve your Jackie time by 5 minutes during the challenge, but you will have more energy, get more out of your workouts, and be well on your way to meeting all your goals.

Prepare for some sugar withdrawals. Sugar is addictive, and if you eat a lot of sweets and grains, you might experience some uncomfortable symptoms the first week. The response is different for everyone – some people feel awesome, and some people get dizzy and disoriented or experience intense cravings. To avoid this, you can plan ahead and wean yourself off refined carbohydrates the week prior to starting the challenge, and make sure you eat enough carbohydrates during (at least 130 grams, if not more).

And finally, HAVE FUN. Diet doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to suck. Enjoy your kitchen. Enjoy your vegetables. And of course, enjoy your bacon.

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