The Autoimmune Protocol is somewhat of a contradiction. On the one hand, if we’ve struggled with years of conflicting medical advice, prescription medication and symptom management, changing our diets can seem like the simplest thing in the world. On the other, completely rethinking the way we approach our diet can be truly overwhelming! I get questions every week from those struggling to manage their time, balancing work, social connections (see Autoimmune Disease: A Road That Doesn’t Need to be Walked Alone), important lifestyle priorities like sleep and movement, and other commitments all while cooking food that improves their health. Luckily, in the nearly five years since I began the AIP, I’ve gathered up some pretty great resources to help you save time and get back to healing…and life!
I’ll admit it: planning AIP meals is TOUGH. Once you get comfortable with the list of foods that’s excluded on the protocol, you’ll still have to understand how much food to cook every day and how to work your family’s preferences around your new diet. This can be especially difficult if you went straight from a Standard American Diet to the AIP and suddenly find yourself cooking at home for the first time.
There are many different strategies for meal planning, and they range from the super-simple and super-cheap the highly advanced. I say there’s no wrong way to meal plan—we just need to develop a strategy that works for us, our needs and our preferences! When done correctly, meal planning can save time, money and a whole lot of stress. So, where do we start?
I included meal plans complete with weekly shopping lists in both of my AIP cookbooks: The Paleo Approach Cookbook, and The Healing Kitchen. You get recipes, meal plans and shopping lists along with some great additional information (like complete food lists, cooking guides, and summaries of the WHY’s behind the Autoimmune Protocol).
You can also mix and match from your favorite AIP cookbooks and blogs! I also recommend The Best AIP Recipes of 2015 (goes away Sept. 30!), Mickey Trescott’s Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook and Angie Alt’s Alternative Autoimmune Cookbook (as well as other awesome AIP cookbooks and blogs summarized here) and select the recipes that look best to your family! Then, make a simple schedule of what you’ll eat for each meal on each day, then make up your shopping list from the recipe ingredients and quantities.
Meal planning saves money because it keeps you from over (and under!) estimating your need for ingredients. With a meal plan, we can see where ingredients overlap and, with a little practice, may even be able to roll one meal into another. Say you make a roast chicken for dinner, for instance, and create chicken salad wraps with it the next day! It may also help us focus on budget-friendly ingredients (The Healing Kitchen in particular is designed with budgets in mind, and all ingredients are available at conventional grocery stores).
If you find meal planning stressful or too time-consuming or just get stuck in a rut of the same recipes over and over, I strongly recommend a meal planning resource instead. My favorite hands-down and the only option that caters to the AIP community is Real Plans.
Real Plans is a simple, intuitive and incredibly functional meal planning tool that allows you to create fully customized meal plans for your family. When you sign up, you instantly access over 1400 carefully curated recipes to suit any special dietary needs you can imagine. Real Plans learns your dietary needs and food preferences (even your budget!), then generates a meal plan, interactive shopping list and meal prep timeline to help you stay on track each week. Plus, Real Plans partners with some of the biggest bloggers in the Paleo community for add-on packages—both my AIP recipes and those from Autoimmune-Paleo are available for $1 more per month, each.
The ‘Plan Ahead’ strategy is one of the most critical things I recommend for anyone embarking on the AIP, because it means you’re never stuck between a rock and a Wendy’s Value Menu. With Real Plans, you’ll be comfortable knowing your next meal and snack are planned, you’re never stuck without a critical ingredient and your family will be on board because of the incredible quality of the food you’ve planned (and yes, Real Plans allows you to plan for your son who doesn’t like spinach and your husband who won’t touch lamb!). Real Plans totally embraces your family’s specific needs. That means you can add your own recipes, change a side item or snack that doesn’t work for your children and add in specific allergies that even the AIP doesn’t include. I love that Real Plans offers 24-hour live chat, too, so you can feel really comfortable about your meal plan and instructions each week!
Real Plans is cheapest (about $6 per month) when you buy an entire year of plans. The prices go up as you purchase smaller chunks of time, and top out at $14 for one month. There’s also a money-back guarantee!!
This strategy goes hand-in-hand with meal planning. Making smart use of our freezer space is one of the best things we can do to ensure we stay on track with the Autoimmune Protocol and make the most of our time. From a psychological perspective, just knowing that we have food on hand when we’re sick, busy or simply too worn out to cook is incredibly beneficial—especially for those of us struggling with chronic illness!
Batch cooking is a fairly simple strategy that can yield big returns. One approach, which my co-author Alaena Haber and I detail at length in The Healing Kitchen, calls for cooking a week’s worth of food in one big “batch.” You might make several dinners, breakfasts and lunches for the week, and refrigerate only the food you’re going to eat in the next three to four days. The rest would be frozen and reheated halfway through the week. This strategy is excellent if you like the idea of spending several hours in the kitchen on the weekend and then not cooking again the whole rest of the week. The Healing Kitchen has detailed instructions on two versions of big weekly batch cooks and when you purchase the book you’ll even have access to instructional videos on batch cooking!
Another amazing resource for batch cooking is using the AIP Batch Cook program from my friend Mickey Trescott at Autoimmune-Paleo. In this program, Mickey walks you through planning and cooking all of your meals for one full week on the Autoimmune Protocol! It is designed to feed one person on the strictest phase of the AIP and is divided up into two batch cooking sessions, one that is 2 1/2 hours long and one that is 1 hour long (for a total cooking time of 3 1/2 hours for the whole week!). Each session includes a step-by-step video tutorial and a beautifully-designed downloadable PDF with the meal plan, grocery lists, recipes, and tips for preparing to batch cook, shopping for ingredients, managing your time in the kitchen, making substitutions for additional dietary needs you may have, storing and reheating your food after it’s made, and an overview of the tools you will need!
A slightly different strategy for batch-cooking is the one detailed in Melissa Joulwan’s Well Fed and Well Fed 2 (Well Fed 2 has AIP modifications). Mel calls this the “weekly cook-up,” and though her book is the best place to check out the details, it basically involves partially cooking a lot of ingredients ahead of time, then using simple spice and seasoning blends to create a variety of meals in a minimal amount of time throughout the week. I love this strategy because it’s somewhere between a big batch cooking session and a make-dinner-every-night strategy.
The final, and easiest, of these strategies is to stock your freezer with pre-made meals that are AIP compliant. For that, there’s really only one (awesome!) option: Paleo On The Go. I absolutely LOVE their food, and have personally eaten nearly every meal in their AIP-compliant line. They use many of my recipes in AIP plans, and the ingredients are top-notch. Oh, and did I mention they’re now selling AIP-compliant Paleo Tarts? YUM!
Since Paleo On The Go meals arrive frozen, they’re perfectly suited to stocking your freezer. I think this is an excellent option if you miss the comfort of having TV dinners in your freezer, if you’re new to AIP cooking, if you’re tired of cooking a different meal for yourself and another for your family, or if you just want a night off from cooking. There are several ways to approach a delivery service like this. You might choose to have all your meals delivered for a week (or more!), or you might simply spread them out so that one meal each day (or week!) is covered by Paleo On The Go. Either way, you’re saving a ton of time and stress!
Sure, making food at home is optimal and probably cheaper, but I can’t tell you how much stress does to undermine our health (okay, I can…see How Stress Undermines Our Health). So, my thinking is this: if cooking AIP food is creating stress in your life, then that’s a barrier to your healing. If so, it may be time to take a break and allow yourself to invest in a little relief with Paleo On The Go.
Finally, let’s not forget the importance of snacks! Starting out with a stocked pantry is the best way to make sure you’re prepared. My AIP Survival Pack from Barefoot Provisions is a great place to start, and may help you find some pantry favorites you didn’t know existed! I carefully curated this box to include protein, carb and fat sources for meals on the go—and you can rest easy knowing they’re all completely compliant with the strictest AIP protocol!
The AIP can be tough, but with a little practice, it’ll begin to feel like second nature. Once you nail these three time-saving strategies, you’ll be well on your way to a more relaxing, restorative healing journey!