If you read any of those “10 Reasons Keto is the Worst” articles out there, the common anti-keto argument you’ll see is that it’s too hard. The premise: keto must be unsustainable because eating meat, eggs, avocados, veggies, nuts, coconut, etc. is just too arduous long term. I’m sure you can guess how I feel about that.
Nonetheless, when you switch from a SAD diet to Primal or Primal-keto it genuinely becomes harder to grab convenience foods. It’s not that you can’t. The selection of packaged foods being marketed to keto folks has exploded in the past year or so. Rather, your growing awareness of ingredient quality, coupled with a desire to control your food and nutrition, makes it feel harder… and probably less desirable.
For that reason, many people end up doing more cooking at home, which means more time devoted to grocery shopping and meal prep. This is good news. But once in a while, especially during busy weeks, it’s nice to give yourself a break and grab something easy. Plus, sometimes you find yourself stuck somewhere without a lot of food options. And then there’s the craving for foods you once loved and wish you could find keto-friendly versions of….
So, while I think that preparing your own food is a great ideal, I also want to cover keto where keto dieters actually live—in the (generally speaking) non-ideal world. I’ve always said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” How can we apply that to keto convenience food?
My readers know I’ve always advocated for the 80/20 principle:aim for 100% compliance, but give yourself the freedom to respond to your circumstances and (occasionally) your desire for wisely-chosen indulgences. Primal and keto eating have to be enjoyable to be truly sustainable. If this means you sometimes incorporate convenience foods, so be it.
Convenient “Whole Foods”
Pre-made frozen hamburger patties and pre-cooked chicken skewers were in heavy rotation when my kids were deep in the school-sports-homework-friends circus. Rotisserie chickens are usually not the “cleanest” (look for “naked” organic options if you can), but they aren’t the worst thing in the store by far.
Bone broth is easy and economical to make, especially if you have a slow cooker or pressure cooker, but there are several companies now offering high-quality bone broth that I enjoy sipping on throughout the day.
While fresh is best when it comes to vegetables, I haven’t riced a head of raw cauliflower in ages now that frozen organic cauliflower rice is available in every market we frequent. Frozen veggies retain most of their nutrients. Pre-cut vegetable noodles are an easy time-saver.
With all these foods, you’ll definitely pay a premium over doing the work yourself. However, if you can afford them, and it buys you some time in your busy schedule, don’t let concerns over small nutritional trade-offs get in the way. Grab that rotisserie chicken and a bagged salad, or pre-made zucchini noodles and a jar of (extra virgin olive oil) pesto guilt-free.
Convenient “Packaged Foods”
Basically I’m talking here about eating food with labels, foods specifically meant to make your life easier or to quell a craving for a SAD food.
Spoiler alert: I’m not going to give you a straight up NO to any of these. If you want to eat them, ingredients should be your primary consideration. There are plenty of foods being marketed as keto and low-carb that are not at all Primally aligned. Carb count doesn’t matter to me—if a product contains hydrolyzed wheat gluten and canola oil, I’m out. Yes, some of these you can make yourself—and I’ll provide some recipes for alternative options within each category even though I know this misses the point of convenience foods.
Breakfast is such a sticking point for people when they go Primal or keto. It’s the area in which folks seem to feel the most “deprived.” One of the most common questions we get in our Facebook groups is, “What do I eat for breakfast if I’m sick of eggs?” It’s no surprise then that you can now buy keto pancake and waffle mix, and grain-free “oatmeal” and granola. There are even keto cereals creating quite a buzz in the marketplace. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with these products occasionally. While you can find a thousand ways to do keto-friendly breakfasts that offer more nutrition, I know Americans have a particularly nostalgic attachment to our conventional breakfast foods. If eating keto cereal once in a while is the thing that makes the rest of your diet smooth sailing, go for it.
I’m not a neutral bystander here—Primal Kitchen makes a keto-friendly protein bar. Primal Kitchen or not, however, I’m not opposed to bars as a snack, as a quick pre- or post-workout bite, or as a lunchbox treat. Personally, I like to take a bar during a long paddle or bike ride. This is a category, though, where you really want to check labels. A lot of manufacturers fill their bars with fiber (to drive down the net carbs) and sweeteners, which some folks are sensitive to.
Again, I have skin in the game here, since Primal Fuel was one of my flagship products. I still love and use it regularly, so obviously I have no problem with whey protein shakes. At the same time, I’d offer this caution: if you’re consuming a protein shake most days but otherwise aren’t eating a variety of complete proteins—ideally animal based—you should aim to diversify your protein sources.
You’ll find a variety of keto shakes on the market being sold as complete meal replacements. I have to admit I’m leery of these, perhaps because they harken back to traditional diet shakes promising quick weight loss, nutrition be damned. A popular diet brand that shall remain nameless—you know the one—is even marketing keto shakes now.
Since whey protein powder is already so convenient, I’d suggest whipping up a quick smoothie with veggies and a few high-antioxidant berries, plus some MCT oil if that’s your thing. However, if you can find a meal replacement shake with ingredients that pass your personal bar, I’m not going to tell you no. Just use them sparingly, not to regularly replace meals of whole foods.
If a plate of cheese and crackers is what you crave the most, a couple brands make seed-based crackers that are actually pretty tasty. On the other hand, you can just get crackers made of dehydrated cheese and double down. Every year at the various conferences I attend there are more and more chip substitutes made with unconventional ingredients like chicken. Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to make popcorn keto (sorry), and I’ve yet to see a good keto pretzel, although I’m sure someone’s working feverishly on it.
My sense is that when people want snack foods, it’s really the crunchy texture and salty taste, and the easy, even mindless, quality that they crave. Unlike the breakfast foods, it’s not so much an emotional or nostalgic attachment to specific foods. For those reasons, I think this is one category where it’s usually just as easy and satisfying to find different snack options altogether rather than seeking out keto-fied versions of the old SAD foods.
At the end of the day, it’s all about choices. We live in a food environment where temptation is everywhere. Our lives are too often over-busy and over-stressed, and sometimes reaching for a convenience food option is something we depend on.
Let me be very clear: I’m not suggesting that these are on par nutritionally with whole, “real” foods, nor do I think they should be staples in your diet. Of course, it’s best to treat these foods like occasional treats or fallback rations. If being able to grab convenience foods here and there makes keto living possible for you, then go for it. Just be intentional about it, and don’t let it become a slippery slope. As you become more accustomed to keto, you might find yourself reaching for them less frequently.
What say you? Which keto convenience items, if any, do you enjoy? Have your choices changed over time? Thanks for reading.
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 three decades researching and 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 Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.