Action Item #2: Shop, Cook, and Dine Primally

Now, the real changes begin. You’ve purged the SAD foods from your life, and now your fridge, freezer, and pantry are empty, your pans and pots are gleaming and ready, and the menus at your favorite restaurants appear off limits. You know what not to eat, and the Primal Blueprint Shopping List shows you what you should be eating, but what’s next? How do you apply your newfound knowledge? How and where should you shop? Once you’re well-stocked, how do you begin to cook Primally? What equipment do you use and where do you get the proper recipes? And when you’re eating out, how do you make good choices? What do you tell the waiters? How do you navigate the nutritional minefield that is the modern restaurant menu? If it seems overwhelming, it’s really not.

Here: let me show you.


Since most of you will not be hunting and gathering your own food, you’ll be forced to do some shopping. Let’s explore where to shop and how to do it.

Where to Shop

First, go local. The closer you are to where your food is grown, raised, picked, caught, and/or slaughtered, the less time in transit it will take reaching you. Especially in the case of fruits and vegetables, with a few exceptions, nutritional content begins to wane as soon as it’s plucked from the plant or ground. Tomatoes shipped from Chile will taste worse and contain fewer nutrients than tomatoes grown ten miles from your city, every single time. Spinach leaves sitting in a big plastic tub in the deep dark confines of a Costco freezer for two weeks will be less nutritious than the mud-speckled spinach offered up by the gruff farmer from the next county over, no matter how crisp and green and triple-washed the Costco leaves appear. When it comes to food, time is nutrition.

In the case of animal products, staying local means you can look the guy or gal who raised the animal whose remains (or whose eggs or dairy) you’re going to be consuming in the eye and learn about the food you’re paying good money for. Were the pigs pastured? Were the cows grass-fed? Were the hazelnuts that the chickens ate grown locally? Plus, by giving money directly to the farmer, you’re taking the place of the Whole Foods or whatever other specialty grocer who’d subsequently jack up the price; you’re cutting out the middleman, or at least one of them, and saving some money in the process.

“Eating local” sounds hard, but with today’s bountiful, annual harvest of farmer’s markets, it’s getting easier and easier:

To find a farmer’s market (or wholesaler, CSA, farm, grocery/co-op, or meat processor) near you, the best directory appears to be Local Harvest. Simply type in your zip code and see what comes up. There’s also Eat Wild, a directory of farms willing to sell directly to the public. You could also use Yelp to search for “farmer’s markets” or “CSA”s in your area, or search for a Slow Food USA chapter near you (Slow Food International is also worth a look). And finally, I’ve happened across great “pastured eggs” and “raw goat milk” just by typing those terms into a Craigslist search. These were local-as-can-be farmers whose products weren’t available at farmer’s markets or anywhere else. They sold to and traded with their neighbors and turned to Craigslist after running a surplus. Since Craigslist doesn’t receive a fee or a cut of the profits, these are often even better deals than the farmer’s markets.

If there’s truly nothing local nearby, the grocery store will do. Whole Foods is the premier national chain of organic, whole foods (duh) grocery stores; check their list of stores to find one near you. Contrary to popular belief, Whole Foods does not have to be “Whole Paycheck,” so long as you stick to the perimeter of the stores – produce, meat, dairy, eggs, bulk bins – and avoid the inner aisles where most products are, admittedly, insanely overpriced. Trader Joe’s is another promising option whose presence is expanding across the United States. Traditional grocery stores, while unlikely to offer much in the way of pastured meat and local produce, are also fine choices with plenty of real Primal fare on hand; just stick to the perimeter as always.

Consider getting a membership to a big box store like Costco. More and more, I’m finding that Costco is catching on to the demands of a health conscious consumer base and offering organic produce, meat, and other Primal-friendly products. I’ve even heard tell of big tubs of extra virgin coconut oil showing up in select Costcos!

If brick and mortar stores just aren’t providing what you need, check out my list of Primal Resources for online retailers that ship anywhere and everywhere.

How to Shop

These are my tips for making your shopping trips bountiful and fruitful.

  • Once you’re at the grocery store/farmer’s market/CSA selection page/online order form, draw from the Primal Blueprint Shopping List when deciding what to get.
  • Get to know the meat/fish/egg guy. Whether it’s the lanky beanpole severing salmon heads and filleting halibut at the Whole Foods fish counter or the woman slinging grass-fed beef and pastured eggs at the far corner of the farmer’s market, if you develop a strong relationship with whomever represents a direct conduit to the untold delights of delicious animals, you will benefit. You’ll get deals, you’ll get specials, you’ll get your favorite cuts saved for you, you’ll get extras tossed in for free.
  • Embrace frozen meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit. Freezing food shortly after harvest actually preserves the nutrient content quite effectively, so it’s often the case that the frozen spinach is more nutritious than the “fresh” spinach that was picked last week.
  • Look for deals and stock up when they present themselves.

If it’s not a grain, legume, vegetable oil, or refined sugar-containing item, you’re essentially good to go. You’re really not limited on this way of eating, when you really think about the vast number of real food available to humans nowadays.

Meal Preparation

Cooking is easy, especially when you start with great ingredients. So, before you even begin to think about turning on that burner, get your workspace in order. My suggestions:

  • Ditch the non-stick cookware and get a good cast iron pan and some stainless steel cookware – pots, pans, skillets, and roasting pans.
  • Grab a crockpot (for easy meals you can start in the morning and forget about til you get home), a stockpot with a steamer addition (for making broth and steaming veggies), and a Dutch oven (for braising tougher cuts of meat).
  • Grab some glass snapware and ziploc bags for food storage and easy transport.
  • Consider a blender.
  • Consider a standalone freezer, which allows you to buy quality food in bulk and save it for later.
  • Assemble an arsenal of salts, peppers, spices, herbs, and other “supplementary foods” to provide culinary variety and health benefits: cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne, ginger, garlic, dill, rosemary, thyme, mint, lemon/lime, to name several.
  • Gather your cooking and salad fats. I recommend coconut oil, at least one type of animal fat (I like grass-fed butter or tallow), and a bottle of good extra virgin olive oil. Palm oil (from sustainable outfits that don’t murder orangutans; since it has no orangutans, Nigerian palm oil is said to be a better choice than Sumatran or Bornean palm oil, if you can find it) is another worthwhile one.
  • Get some good Primal cookbooks. This one guy has a couple decent ones that I’d definitely recommend, and you could always sign up for the free newsletter for free access to two user-created cookbooks.
  • Google “Primal recipes” for the dozens of recipe sites out there pumping out delicious food every week.
  • Pick five favorite staple recipes. Make them your go-to meals that you can whip up without much trouble, without thinking too hard, and without pulling out a lot of ingredients and kitchen implements. Rotate recipes in and out as you please, but always have a solid quintet at your behest.
  • Learn to cook a steak.
  • Learn to hard boil an egg (for softer yolks, drop the time with the lid on to 7 or 8 minutes).

Dining Out

I admit – this may be the trickiest part of going Primal. You’re at the mercy of what the establishment deigns to offer. You have to hope the server or cashier understands the difference between “real butter” and “butter-flavored soybean oil shmear.” You’ve gotta count on the head chef actually listening to and honoring your requests. You have to be prepared to possibly pay a little extra to get what you really want. But it can be done. And in time, you’ll become truly adept at making it out of almost any restaurant without a stomachache.

First, you have to realize that some places are simply not going to work out very well. The hot wing spot, the Chinese buffet, the pizza joint – these are not easy places to find Primal food. Prepare yourself to eat a lot of salads.

But this just means you’ll have to branch out and try new types of food. Greek, Persian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, soul, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Brazilian, Caribbean, and dozens of other cuisines await you.

My favorite strategies for assuring the food I eat is Primal-friendly, wherever I am:

  • Stick to “grilled”  and “steamed” over “sauteed” or “stir-fried.” Grilled usually refers to open flame and little else and steamed tends to mean just heated water vapor, while the other terms generally involve the use of copious amounts of vegetable oil.
  • Build your meals around protein and vegetables.
  • Ask that your food be cooked in “real butter” or olive oil. You have to say “real butter,” because oftentimes what passes for butter is a butter-flavored abomination. I’ve been in breakfast joints where they had “no real butter on the premises.” Madness, I know.
  • Get your burger “protein style,” or wrapped in lettuce, or atop a garden salad. More and more places are catching on, so this likely won’t be an outlandish request.
  • Go for lamb when possible. It’s the most likely meat to be grass-fed in your standard restaurants, doubly so if they use New Zealand lamb, which is always grass-fed.
  • Be firm and resolute when asking for modifications or making special requests. Sure, the waiter at the Vietnamese pho place might not quite understand why you don’t want the noodles in your bowl of broth and beef parts, but that’s okay. Don’t feel weird or like you’re imposing; after all, you’re paying them!

This may seem like a lot to take in all at once. When you think about it, though, you don’t have to do all this right away. You can keep referring back to this post as you make your way along the Primal path, buying a crockpot here, a spice there, and trying a dining out strategy one at a time. Just realize that even if you don’t immediately enact all these changes right away (which is frankly impossible or improbable for most), any changes you do make will be positive ones that get you that much closer to where you’re going. Most of all, I just want you to know that you’re not alone and this really is possible.

Thanks for reading, folks, and be sure to chime in with your successful strategies for shopping, cooking, and dining out. Hope your challenge is going well!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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