How to Survive your First Whole30

I recently did my first Whole30, which is eating strict paleo for 30 days - no dairy, no sugar, no grains or legumes, no alcohol. The focus is on whole, minimally processed foods, avoiding preservatives, additives, artificial colors and processed foods.

I found it to be a great experience to reset ingrained habits, take a hard look at everything I was eating, and to get creative in the kitchen. If you're thinking about trying a Whole30 yourself, I say GO FOR IT! You can read about all the rules of the program on their website.

I'm not an affiliate or anything, in fact, there's no membership, meetings, or club to join. Just read about the program rules and eat that way for 30 days, that's it. There are Whole30 approved brands, recipes, meal plans, and books that you can use if you wish, but you don't have to use any of those to do Whole30 all on your own.


Start where you're at, nobody's perfect

Even if you don’t think you can do it “perfectly,” even if you need to make modifications, even if you don't think you'll make it the full 30 days, just try it out anyway. You can stop if you need to and congratulate yourself for however far you made it or however it worked out for you. Honestly, eating paleo isn’t for everyone. Sometimes trying it out, even for a few days, is worth it just to find out if it's right for you.

If you notice positive benefits from eating clean for a few days, then trying it for 30 days can be a super interesting experiment. If you like it a lot you can do it again or carry the habits you learned over into your life post-Whole30. Or, if you absolutely hate it then you don't have to do a Whole30 ever again. Remember, you're only committing to eating this way for 30 days.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, it may be a good idea to include foods like whole grains and/or legumes, that way you don't feel so limited. To me it’s not about the specific foods, but rather the principles of Whole30 that are most important.

However you do it, yay for you! And here are some tips that make it all feel a lot more do-able.


Get to know your compliant brands

Whether you are a pro at making your own condiments, dairy-free milks and homemade snacks - and especially if you’re not - there are going to be some brands that you rely on for pre-made products during Whole30. Get to know what they are and where to find them.

Primal Kitchen has salad dressings and mayonnaises that are compliant. If you’re interested in getting DIY it’s fairly easy to make those yourself at home, but I like to have a few of these around for quick salads or marinades in a pinch.

There are lots of hot sauces which are compliant, which was good news to me! Cholula, one of my favorites, is compliant, though most sriracha sauces are not.

Many plain mustards are fine, as long as they don't have added sugar, French's for instance is compliant, as are most store brands, while some fancier smaller brands are not. Some whole grain and dijon mustards are compliant, but many are not, so read your labels. I found Annie's Naturals has an approved dijon. 

All vinegars, except for malt vinegar, are approved. I found myself stocking up on several different kinds for variety, especially Bragg's apple cider vinegar, for it's probiotic benefits.

Soybean oil is out, and canola oil is frowned upon, which excludes several dressings, mayos, and cooking sprays. Substitute avocado oil and olive oil as applicable, I like La Tourangelle avocado oil. Avocado oil has a higher temperature threshold, so use it to cook and fry, it's also milder in flavor so it makes a better homemade mayonnaise. Margarines and butter both aren't compliant, but the good news is that Ghee is! And if you don't know yet, ghee is one of the best things in the world. Ghee is also tolerant to high heat cooking, so use it to sauté, sear, fry, and roast.

Most fermented vegetables are compliant, as are some fermented sauces, as long as they don't have added sugar or other ingredients that aren't compliant. I like Farmhouse Culture sauerkraut and gut shots, and Bubbies sour pickles. I'm also a big fan of kimchi, though I was surprised to find added sugar in every brand I looked at. Olives and most tapenades are also compliant, just read your ingredients to be sure.

While soy sauce and tamari aren't allowed on Whole30, a milder version, coconut aminos is. For those not afraid of bold flavors, fish sauce is compliant and adds a ton of umami flavor to dishes, a little goes a long way!

For beverages, you can have any plain sparkling waters or ones with natural flavors, such as La Croix. I’m obsessed with Spindrifts, which have a bit of fruit juice added. All plain teas and black coffee are compliant, you can’t add any sweetener, even stevia or xylitol, but if you want a creamer I like Nutpods. There are more and more compliant almond and coconut milks available, but some sneak in weird ingredients, so read your labels. Kombucha is also allowed, I like Healthaid or GT’s, just make sure you choose flavors that don’t have added sugar or stevia.

In the snack department, you can go for nuts and seeds, jerky, or dried fruit. My go-to's were sprouted pumpkin seeds, dried figs, and Epic jerkey bites. Some fruit and nut bars are compliant, for example, most flavors of Lara Bars.

Get friendly with your spice rack


If you aren’t already a spice master, then it’s time to get familiar, because when you’re dealing with whole foods a few well placed spices can make a good dish great. If you have a local spice shop you can go to, poke around and ask some questions. You can start small and grow your spice collection as you learn how they fit into your kitchen routines.

If you’re a total newbie, here are a few tips to get your started:

  • Garlic powder and paprika is an awesome mix on almost any roasted veggies - butternut squash, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, kale, mushrooms...the list goes on. Sometimes I add dill into the mix too.
  • Cumin is essential in ground beef when I’m making tacos, in most of my bbq spice rubs, paired with Mediterranean flavors, and in a veggie dish when I want to fill out the flavors and make them taste bolder.
  • Cardamom is similar to cinnamon, but with a slightly spicier and much more complex flavor, if you’re eating some apple or pear wedges, or making a fruit salad, sprinkle some on!
  • Herbs de Provence is a spice blend that includes rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory, marjoram, and often lavender. It’s makes everything taste a bit more Italian, add it to marinara sauce, grilled or seared chicken, roasted veggies, or crispy potatoes.
  • Everything bagel seasoning mix is one of the newest additions to the spice aisle and it makes anything takes like an everything bagel, I put it on avocado, fried eggs, cucumber or tomato slices. You can find it at Trader Joe's.
  • Bragg's has a few spice blends that are allowed on Whole30.
  • If you use pre-made seasoning mixes like taco seasoning or curry powder then read the ingredients carefully, sometimes they contain preservatives, excess sodium, and even soy protein, rice protein, or corn starch, all of which are not compliant. Spice blends are also very easy to make in big batches on your own, there are tons of recipes online.


Find your balance


People complain of different difficulties during Whole30. There's no one fix because it really depends on what you find to be most difficult aspect.

Are you feeling bored? Like you're eating the same thing every damned day? Look up some new recipes, get a cookbook, try something different. Just because you're eating Whole30 doesn't mean it has to be plain or monotonous. I have nearly 30 different Whole30 recipes over on my other blog, Sweet Beet & Green Bean if you're in need of some inspiration.

What if you're feeling like everything is too elaborate? Spending too much time in the kitchen and meal planning? Keep. It. Simple. A handful of ingredients on a plate with some pre-made sauce or dip can be a meal. Keep your shelves stocked with wholesome snacks like nuts and dried fruit. Focus on batch cooking or one-pot meals. Buy ingredients pre-prepped. Find compliant restaurants to eat at in your area.

Missing your sweets? Luckily you can still have sweet potatoes and even regular old white potatoes on Whole30. Add them into your meals and they'll help keep you feeling super carb-deprived. Also, find a variety of dried fruits, fresh seasonal produce, and approved beverages like fruit juice, tea, or kombucha to keep close at hand. I found my favorite "treats" during Whole30 were homemade kombucha, fresh strawberries and pineapple, dried figs, and sometimes dates with almond butter.

Feeling hungry all the time? It's possible you're not getting enough protein, take a look at your intake and consider adding in more. Especially if you find yourself only eating fruits and vegetables, that can leave many people feeling famished. Add in more meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, and even cooked dark leafy greens into your daily routine. It's also possible you may need more fats to feel full, a drizzle of olive oil, a healthy sprinkle of hemp seeds, or an extra helping of avocado could help you to feel fuller for longer.

For those who find themselves feeling overly full and bloated by paleo food, it could be that you're sensitive to high-protein and/or high-fat foods. Some people's digestion is slower and not as good at breaking down these heavy nutrients. Focus more on fruits and veggies, and eat small meals and snacks throughout the day rather than three large meals.


Prep prep prep


Completing a Whole30 definitely means cooking more at home, but that doesn't mean you should be needlessly glued to your kitchen. The key is prepping food ahead of time.

Pre-chop veggies and have them ready, especially if you're already in prep mode you might as well get veggies ready for a meal or two tomorrow. For example, if I'm making a stir-fry tonight and while I'm chopping I'll go ahead and prep the veggies for the chili I'm making tomorrow, and a few carrot and celery sticks to have the in fridge for snacks.

I find having prepared vegetables makes the likelihood I'll actually cook them much, much higher. Even if you're not a wizard with the knife and want to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible, there are lots of options at the grocery store for prepared veggies, such as washed lettuce mixes, baby carrots, cubed butternut squash, chopped onion/celery/carrot mix, spiralized zucchini, sliced mushrooms, or "riced" cauliflower.

When you do make a dish that holds up well for leftovers, make a whole bunch of it, especially casseroles, soups, stews, and curries. Whenever I make grilled chicken, pulled pork, taco meat, or meatballs, I tend to make a bunch extra to have on hand as leftovers for the next few days.

Especially if you don't have a lot of time in the morning for breakfast, making food ahead of time can totally save you, for example hard boiled eggs or individual chia puddings. You could even pre-prep smoothie ingredients to have ready to pop in the blender.


Find a buddy

Everything is easier with someone to talk to about it, whether that's commiserating or congratulating each other. It could be your partner, friend, coworker, or anyone else willing to take the Whole30 journey with you. The more the merrier, but even just one other person to go with it through makes it all so much easier.

I'm doing a Whole30 starting mid-September, if you'd like to follow along for more recipes and tips, then let's keep in touch!