Melissa Joulwan is the author of Well Fed, Well Fed 2 and her new book coming out called Well Fed Weeknights. My wife and I fell in love with her first two books because they really helped us make super easy meals that were both nutritious and tasty. I continue to cook recipes from both of these books pretty much every week. I was thrilled to be able to connect with her because of the impact her books have had on my family’s Primal journey.
Melissa was able to answer some questions for me about how she got into Paleo and how her Paleo journey has evolved over the last few years. She even shared some insight to some new things she’s working on. We’re also offering a chance to win a free copy of her new book if you sign up for my newsletter. So go ahead and fill out your email in the newsletter box for a chance at winning her new book: Well Fed Weeknights. You’ll have until October 9, 2016 to enter!
Again, I’m thrilled she agreed to do an interview for That’s So Primal, so here is our interview!
Before we get into it, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into Paleo.
From grade school to the day I graduated from college, I was a chubby nerd. My parents are both exceptionally good cooks—my dad brought his restaurant training home and my mom won almost every cooking contest that she entered. By the time I was about eight, I was wearing Sears “Pretty Plus” jeans. My overweight state was mostly because I really liked food but also because I really didn’t like to sweat.
After a broken ankle and vicious playground taunts, I stuck with reading, practicing the piano, and roller-skating to the library. I don’t know how many gym classes I missed because I was “sick” or “forgot” my gym clothes. I do know that my P.E. attendance put my otherwise stellar grade point average in jeopardy. Even though I avoided sports, I secretly admired the athletic kids; they walked taller than the rest of us.
When I was in tenth grade, my dad took me to Annapolis to see the Navy band play a concert, and for about three weeks, I was determined to get in shape so that I could apply to the Naval Academy. I abandoned that dream because I was incapable of doing pushups and situps, and I was too embarrassed and overwhelmed to ask for help.
For most of my life, I was haunted by a deep desire to be different than I was. To be thin. To feel confident. To break the cycle of thinking of food—and my behavior—as “good” or “bad.” I joined Weight Watchers and eventually became a Lifetime Member with a weight loss of more than 50 pounds. I joined a CrossFit gym and learned to love being intimidated by my workouts. I developed a deep affection for lifting barbells. But despite my successes, it was still my habit to celebrate and to grieve and to stress out and to relax with food. Although I worked out regularly, I didn’t feel as strong, inside or out, as I wanted. I had insomnia, allergies, and stomach aches. My body didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
In 2008, I learned I had a nodule on my thyroid. The risk of cancer was high, so I had the nodule surgically removed, and the doctor hoped that the remaining half of my thyroid would continue to function. It held on for a few months but then stopped working. That was a very difficult time. It was like constantly having a case of the blues; I was sluggish, foggy-headed, and desperately worried about re-gaining all the weight that I’d worked so hard to lose.
Then I found Whole9 and the Whole30 and their unique approach to paleo. It was surprisingly easy for me to give up grains, despite my deep affection for toast, but saying goodbye to my standard breakfast of blueberries with milk almost pushed me to the edge. I did not approach the paleo rules with an open heart. But I committed. I followed the eating guidelines. I made it a project to get eight hours of sleep every night. I worked with my doctor to try to find the right doses for my thyroid hormones. I was on track with my nutrition, but my training was all wrong for a girl with no thyroid. The constant physical stress of my sometimes twice-a-day workouts and beat-the-clock CrossFit—without restorative activities like yoga, meditation, and walking to balance it out—took its toll. I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue.
So I started over…again.
My routine now includes daily meditation, gentle yoga classes, walking, strength training, and occasional sprints. What’s never wavered is my commitment to and affection for my paleo diet. I’ve been through a lot of self-experimentation in the last half decade to get back to optimal health. The solid foundation provided by the paleo diet makes it possible to measure other health and quality of life markers and tinker with them. After five years, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the healthiest way for me to feed my body and mind—and it is sustainable in a way that no other “diet” has ever been.
Can you tell us about your new cookbook you’ve been working on?
It’s called Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes Or Less. The recipes are inspired by takeout classics, food trucks, and cuisines from around the world—all totally free of grains, dairy, legumes, and soy. There are more than 200 recipes in the book, and they’re put together so you can make 128 complete meals: protein, veggies, and fats. It’s super simple to make amazing meals with this cookbook.
Every meal is thoroughly tested and easy to make, with affordable ingredients you can find at your neighborhood grocery store. And all of the recipes include my super-popular “You Know How You Could Do That?” variations, as well as Cookup Tips to help shorten meal prep time. There’s a “Mini Cookup” with step-by-step instructions for cooking six paleo kitchen staples—like cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles, homemade mayo, and more— in under an hour. We’re offering a free 70-page PDF sampler that includes 18 recipes so people can check it out before they buy: bit.ly/WFWsampler
How has your approach to Paleo evolved from the beginning of your journey to now, if at all?
I think the biggest change since the beginning is that I eat more starchy carbs now. When I first started, I was very, very low carb. But I had my thyroid removed, and I’m a woman, so I have more energy, sleep better, and just generally feel better when I eat about 30–40% of my calories from carbs like sweet potatoes, plantains, and white potatoes.
I’ve also made a commitment to eating bone broth and a serving of fermented foods every day. It’s really easy to eat a bowl of Silky Gingered Zucchini Soup made with bone broth, and I make homemade sauerkraut, fermented beets and carrots, stuff like that. Also super easy! But if people don’t have time to make their own, it’s easy to buy awesome sauerkraut or kimchi from the farmer’s market or grocery store. (But try making your own! This recipe from Stupid Easy Paleo makes is very approachable.
What is your approach to fitness?
I lift heavy stuff twice a week, I walk at least 10,000 steps every day, and then once or twice a week I do some interval training if my energy level is good. At 49 and without a thyroid, I really have to pay attention to my body signals. But I would also argue that super healthy and/or young people will also do great if they listen to their bodies instead of pushing pushing pushing all the time. I also meditate most days and try to do yoga twice a week, although I’m not as consistent with that goal as I would like.
What would you say a healthy diet and lifestyle looks like for you?
I have excellent habits 95% of the time. I sleep eight to nine hours per night to recover from and prepare for lifting heavy barbells, occasional sprints, and plenty of yoga and walking. I keep the house stocked with paleo ingredients and cook nutrient-dense food so my husband Dave and I can eat real food every day. Then on rare occasions, I indulge. I become a temporary slug and give in to the temptation of corn-based chip products, buttered popcorn, an icy-cold glass of Prosecco, or a shot of Ouzo. I should mention that I have a known whipped cream problem.
After a three decades of “being on a diet,” my philosophy now is to “just eat.” I don’t have strict food rules anymore, but now that I know how non-paleo foods affect my mood, energy, and digestion, I eat them on only rare occasions. A few times a year, I make a conscious choice – “maybe I’ll get a tummy ache, but I’m OK with that” – and indulge in non-paleo foods. I savor every bite! Then I go back to the way I usually eat, which is pretty strict by most peoples’ standards, but feels good and delicious to me.
I have cooked so many recipes from both of your cookbooks, I think I’ve cooked the Shepherds Pie the most, my wife and I absolutely love that recipe! What’s your favorite recipe from your books?
I love them all! But I can tell you that my husband’s favorite from Well Fed is the Chocolate Chili. From Well Fed 2, it’s the West African Chicken Stew.
What’s your favorite recipe from your blog?
These Pumpkin-Spiced Pepitas are really fun and tasty!
What does a typical week of meals look like for you?
Breakfast is almost always leftover protein (chicken, ground beef) sautéed with leftover veggies, sweet potatoes, and duck fat. I usually don’t eat eggs for breakfast, only because I don’t like them at breakfast; I like them for dinner. Lunch is usually some kind of salad plate: a pile of tuna salad or egg salad or a pile of cold cooked chicken with a bunch of raw veggies, fermented veg, pickles, olives, some fruit. At dinner is where I usually get more creative and make recipes from my cookbooks, but when we’re busy, dinner is usually grilled or roasted protein—pork loin, steak, burger patties, chicken thighs—with cooked veg on the side, Silky Gingered Zucchini Soup, and a salad with homemade salad dressing. A few times a week, we pick something from the cookbooks and get a little fancier.
How do you do meal planning?
Honestly, I’m not much of a meal planner—but that’s because after eating this way for 7+ years, I have a good idea of how to manage groceries and the kitchen. What I do is less a “plan” and more a “buy a bunch of stuff I like and stock the fridge so I can grab whatever, whenever.”
I think this approach can also be helpful to people who are just starting out because a full week of all new recipes—that could mean 21 new recipes!—is really overwhelming. Rather than planning what to eat each day, you can stock up on the basics that you know fit within your eating template. For example, stock up on lots of veggies and fruits, a variety of proteins, cooking fats like coconut and olive oil, and the extras that make meals special like nuts, dried fruit, nut butters, and fresh herbs. Instead of buying ingredients for specific recipes, you’re buying raw materials that you can turn into spontaneous meals. This is the method I usually turn to when I’m very busy because it removes the thinking involved in eating well. I know my husband and I eat about 2 1/2 pounds of protein per day, so I use that as a guide and load up on pork loin, chicken thighs and breasts, ground beef, little steaks, eggs, canned tuna and salmon, and shrimp. At meal time, I pick a protein, choose some veggies, and throw it together according to what we’re craving that day.
But for people who enjoy “real” meal plans, I 100% recommend the Real Plans service. It will generate a meal plan for you based on the number of people you want to feed, their food restrictions and preferences, and how many days of the week and meals per day you want to include in your plan. Real Plans also provides detailed shopping lists for the grocery store and farmer’s market, and supplies a Timeline that reminds you which tasks need to be performed when. Real Plans includes all of my Well Fed recipes, Whole30 recipes, and Nom Nom Paleo’s recipes, too.
I also have a very extensive 4-week cooking plan on my site that includes menus, shopping lists, and step-by-step instructions to get everything cooked in one afternoon. You can find the first week here.
Every week, I also do a blog post called “Five Paleo Dinners To Cook Next Week” that recommends five dinner recipes, a condiment, and a treat, along with instructions for how to work the recipes into a Weekly Cookup to save time. I send a reminder out in my weekly newsletter about those posts so it’s almost like having free meal planning.
Can you always afford to buy top quality meat, grass fed/pastured? Or if your budget doesn’t afford it do you do conventional meat?
I do both! I get large quantities of meat from a local farm to stock the freezer, but I also buy grass-fed or local organic meat at the grocery store. I’m not militant about it, but I try to make good choices. We always buy organic, pastured eggs, and organic chicken. If grassfed, pastured meat is outside someone’s budget, I recommend they buy the leanest cuts they can because the fat is where the impurities are stored. Plus, then you get to add fat to your protein, which is always fun.
On the spectrum of very strict Paleo to very lenient Paleo where do you fall and why? What foods do you eat that are on the boarder of Paleo-Non-Paleo?
I eat very strictly at home so I don’t have to stress out about questionable ingredients when I eat in restaurants. We generally don’t eat paleo treats unless it’s a holiday or special occasion. I eat white rice sometimes, and I have ½ ounce of 85% dark chocolate most days, but always with other food so it’s part of my meal, not a snack.
What kind of food do you eat when your not cooking something up at home?
I always eat gluten free and avoid dairy, even when eating out. My biggest splurge in a restaurant would be flourless chocolate cake, and if it’s just a regular meal out—not a celebration of some kind—I eat the same things I do at home: eggs, bunless burgers, big salads, Thai coconut milk curries. I have a big blog post about eating in restaurants that might be helpful to you readers.
What are some struggles/roadblocks that you’ve run into eating Paleo?
Once I got over the shock of not eating stuff like pasta and bread and cereal or yogurt for breakfast, the real challenge of paleo began to emerge: socializing. I’m fortunate because many of my friends are at least paleo-aware and some of them are as committed as I am to this lifestyle. I also know and love a bunch of people who fall into the “eat whatever they want” category, as well as the “stay up late” and “enjoy adult beverages every evening” groups. Over the years, I’ve figured out tips that help me navigate social situations and travel. You can read them all here.
What inspires you to try out new recipes and dishes? Are there certain foods you have a hard time experimenting with?
I love to travel and eat local foods, and that’s my biggest inspiration for inventing new paleo recipes. I eat something delicious out in the world, then try to figure out how to recreate with healthier ingredients. Later, it’s a really nice reminder of where I’ve been, and it’s a way to understand more about other cultures by learning how ingredients and dishes fit into their lives.
Do you have any tips for someone who is just starting out on Paleo?
One of the things that was the most difficult to get used to when I first switched to paleo was the sheer volume of food I had to buy – here’s a post I wrote about how to estimate how much food you might need each week – and the amount of time I spent cooking. There are ways to make it all less time-consuming: buy in bulk, do a weekly cookup, get really organized about grocery lists and shopping… but there is no getting around the fact that eating very clean and very well means eating at home. A lot.
For me, switching to paleo became about more than just what I was eating. I realized it meant I had to get my whole life in balance. It is not outrageous to spend an average of an hour a day to feed myself well. But in our hardcharging culture, we’re conditioned to think meals should be fast; we’ve been taught – mostly by the media – that dinner in minutes is not only possible, but required, to have a great life. I say, “Wrong!” It is very satisfying to cook a meal that tastes delicious and nourishes the body. Cooking and eating quality food is among the most caring things you can do for yourself and others. My new cookbook Well Fed Weeknights is the best of both worlds: really delicious paleo meals with very short cook times.
My other piece of advice would be to keep it simple at first: build meals around delicious ingredients and don’t worry too much about recipes. Cook a bunch of protein and vegetables in advance, then mix and match throughout the week to make your meals. For example, browned ground beef can go Italian when it’s sautéed with zucchini, tomatoes, and oregano – or make a quick stir-fry with snow peas, broccoli, ginger, and coconut aminos for Asian flair. You can find more details on how I do that in this article The Method Behind My Madness. There’s also a TON of information about this approach in my first book Well Fed.
What is your favorite: protein, vegetable (leafy or hardy), starch and fat?
Favorite protein: tie between pork shoulder and lamb shoulder
Favorite vegetable: another tie! Zucchini and cabbage
Favorite starch: Zero competition! It’s plantains.
Favorite fat: Duck fat. Always and forever.
What can we expect next from you?
The biggest thing on the horizon in my personal life is that my husband Dave and I are moving to Prague in 2017. I suspect our adventures will find their way into my recipes and my blog posts. On the professional front, our next project is a comic book about nutrition. My husband Dave is a cartoonist, and he’s going to apply his extensive cartooning skills to the tough subject of how we should feed ourselves.