How to tackle Whole30 and other life changes for the struggling mom

I was desperate.

For more than six months, I had been clawing my way to the end of each day, fighting the pain of throbbing headaches, stumbling through brain fog, and pushing against a brick wall of fatigue. I had bounced from specialist to specialist, who ran test after test, trying to figure out why I felt this awful. I had some answers, but no relief yet from my list of symptoms.

So when my naturopathic doctor became the third medical professional to recommend a radical elimination diet, I threw up my hands, defeated. Fine. It was worth a shot.

I really didn’t want to do it. I was so overwhelmed, barely treading in the deep end of daily living, that the thought of changing what I eat–even for a limited period of time–seemed like it would be the anchor that would pull me under. I didn’t think it would solve my health problems. I thought I already ate pretty well. And I really, really didn’t want to give up brownies and ice cream after the kids were in bed. That just sounded like pure torture. Needless pain and sorrow. Agony upon agony.

But I was already suffering, and the medical professionals thought that though changing what I ate was unlikely to completely resolve my issues, it could potentially treat or reduce some symptoms, particularly the aches, fatigue, irritability, and brain fog. And it wouldn’t hurt to try.

As my doctor went over the list of food groups that she wanted me to eliminate, I realized it was very similar to a plan I had recently read about in a college friend’s tumblr post.

“You mean like a Whole30?” I asked.

“Yep, this is very similar to that,” she said. “In fact, doing a Whole30 is a great way to go, because there are so many resources out there on how to do that.”

I left the appointment with orders that she wanted me to complete it before my next follow-up visit. Since we had a vacation coming up in about six weeks where I didn’t want to be finicky with my food choices, I decided if I was going to do it, the time was now. Or most likely never.

So what exactly is the Whole30 program? For 30 days, participants cannot eat any dairy, grain (wheat, oats, corn, rice), soy, or legumes (peanuts, beans). No added sugar. No alcohol. And you must avoid certain preservatives, including MSG and sulfites. (You can read more about the program specifics here.)

At first, I thought giving up sugar would be the hardest part. I mean, a couple Dove dark chocolates or Ghiradelli squares were an essential pairing with my afternoon coffee during the kids’ naptime. But as I started assessing my eating habits to see what I would need to change, I realized I ate a lot of dairy. Like, a lot. Greek yogurt first thing in the morning. Cheese several times a day. Milk in my scrambled eggs and as an ingredient in many recipes. And grains. So many grains. Bagel or English muffin almost daily. Oatmeal. Sandwiches or quesadillas for lunch. Pasta for dinner. Ugh. Sugar now seemed like an easy loss.

So I decided to focus on what I could eat instead of what I couldn’t. Mainly think of it as protein + veggies + fruit. Thankfully, I love food, so I knew I wouldn’t hate what I was eating … I just hoped I wouldn’t harm someone I loved if a craving for something on the naughty list took over.

Bottom line: It wasn’t that hard to do, I learned tons about food and cooking, and I found doing a Whole30 had many benefits. Here are my tips for making it a simple, worthwhile, and dare I say enjoyable experiment … even for the struggling mom.

Planning to succeed was way easier than I thought. One of my biggest hang-ups about starting a Whole30 was that I was in such a state I barely had the energy to put together a grocery list for my husband to take to the store. Meal plan and prep? That seemed impossible. As I mentioned before, there’s tons of info out there on how to do a Whole30, from books and blogs to Pinterest boards and podcasts, but even that was overwhelming. 

Somehow, I found Mel Joulwan’s Well Fed blog, and that was my saving grace. She has meal plans, straightforward explanations of how to prep, and even better, shopping lists with everything you need on them to eat the entire week, down to the spices. Like, I could just print off her grocery list and head to the store. I didn’t even have to think. (BONUS.)

I spent the majority of my planning time reading her methods and covering the basics on the Whole30 website. I’ve been asked a lot if you have to read one of the best-selling Whole30 books by the Hartwigs before starting. My answer is no, I did not find it necessary. There is TONS of free info–step-by-steps, recipes, FAQs about ingredients–on the site. I did end up buying The Whole30, but I didn’t reference it that much. Instead, I do recommend buying all three of Mel Joulwan’s Well Fed cookbooks, including her just-released Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes or Less. However, I don’t think you have to run out and buy her books before you start, because she has plenty of free recipes on her blog and more than enough resources to help you navigate the process. But I think it’s a good investment, because I (and my pretty picky hubs) have grown to love her recipes and style, and I use those cookbooks as pretty much my main source of cooking now.

full fridge

What my fridge looked like after my first stock up: packed full of produce for the week.

After I reviewed the first week’s meal plan and downloaded the shopping list, I headed off to stock up on specialty items I would need. For me, I found Trader Joe’s to be the best and most economical spot, though unfortunately, the closest one to our home is about 30 minutes away. But if I planned it right, I found I only needed to go once every two weeks. Nearly everything else I purchased at my local Meijer or Kroger. So if you have a Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or another market that specializes in natural ingredients in your neighborhood, lucky you.

Also, it is helpful to carve out one bigger block of time at the start of your week for prep. The more cooking you can get done at one time, the easier it is to resist temptation, because you have compliant foods already prepared and are less likely to get yourself in a hangry situation. I modified Mel’s cook-up plans to work for my lifestyle (stay-at-home-mom in poor health) so I didn’t spend an entire afternoon or evening prepping, because that’s just not realistic. (Hello. Kids.) I broke it up into two or three cook-ups a week, making several meals at once, mostly taking 1-2 hours after the kids were in bed.

Before you think that still sounds like too much time, I found I actually spent LESS time in the kitchen overall during the week. I mean, I regularly took more than an hour a day making even quick meals for the family. Instead, in about 2 hours, I was making almost all meals for several days. When it came time to eat, you just pull your prepped stuff out of the fridge, reheat, saute your fresh veggies, and that’s it. Any mom who’s dealt with the “witching hour” before dinner can appreciate cutting that trying stretch of meal-making down to mere minutes. Plus, I found I was not as stressed and frazzled when we sat down to the table, because I wasn’t fighting off kids while trying to not burn food for the last 45 minutes. There are some meals I made without prior prep, but those mostly involved grilling and roasting, so still very little hands-on time before they are cooking.

I ate lots of coconut. And eggs. And cauliflower. And guac. I found that coconut is a staple in the Paleo/Whole30 kitchen. Coconut oil. Coconut cooking spray. Coconut milk. Coconut aminos. Coconut creamer. And so on. Also, I easily blew through a dozen-and-a-half eggs in a week, so I learned to buy 3 dozen at a time just to be safe. (I would often hard-boil a half-dozen at a time and have them ready in the fridge for a protein-fueled snack.) I used cauliflower frequently too, both fresh and frozen, for “rice” substitutes (Trader Joe’s actually makes a pre-riced cauliflower that is amazing) or “mashed potatoes” or in soups. And guacamole was great as a topper on breakfasts or salads. Or by itself. Because it’s guac.

Other ingredients or foods I found helpful:

  • Larabars (there are several compliant flavors) for snacks on-the-go.
  • Aidells or Trader Joe’s chicken sausages–high in protein, ready in minutes.
  • Cashew butter (Trader Joe’s is my favorite, but Kroger’s Simple Truth version is pretty good too)–I found I like cashew butter better than its counterpart of almond butter as a peanut butter replacement. And it is great as a fruit dip for a little “treat.”
  • Boneless, skinless chicken thighs–I would roast or grill 2 dozen a week. Done in 30 minutes when roasting and then you have a base protein ready-made for lunches or many dinner recipes.
  • Tessemae’s compliant dressings–their balsamic is great on salads or as a quick marinade.
  • Coconut aminos–this replaces soy sauce and is used in many of Mel’s recipes, and I went through a few bottles. ALERT: this was my hardest-to-locate ingredient, but they do sell it on Amazon if you can’t find it elsewhere.
  • Trader Joe’s dried fruits, especially their mangoes–just enough to satisfy a sweet craving.
  • Trader Joe’s frozen Chile Lime chicken burgers–these are so, SO good. Meal in a flash.
  • Frozen salmon fillets or shrimp–more protein in a pinch.

But besides these specific, simple foods, I followed Mel’s “stock up” methods pretty closely for buying and preparing my weekly protein and veggies.

chicken salad

Simple, delicious lunches were easy to throw together once I knew what I was doing and had plenty of healthy ingredients on-hand.

I spiced up my cooking habits. I realized somewhere in the second week of Whole30 that I didn’t really know how to cook before starting the program. I mean, I could plod my way through a recipe decently enough, but I never really knew how to season meats or veggies without following a plan. In fact, I had to buy many spices, because I rarely ventured outside of salt, pepper, and garlic. Suddenly, foods seemed to come alive in ways I didn’t know possible. David decided foods he had previously turned up his nose to (brussel sprouts especially) were actually quite tasty with the right seasonings. And I now was equipped with what to quickly do with that chicken instead of having to consult Mr. Google. (Salt + pepper + garlic + paprika, throw in oven.)

One of the biggest take-aways was Mel’s steam-saute method for veggies. David has declared he never wants me to make broccoli or green beans any other way. It is so simple and flavorful. I could eat piles of veggies prepared this way.

I also learned making foods from scratch really wasn’t that difficult or time-consuming nor is it only for crunchy or CrossFit people (no offense if you fall into either of those categories, but it’s just not me). Make my own mayo? No problem. Cut and roast a spaghetti squash? Piece of cake. Special spice combinations? I try to keep four whipped up in my pantry that I can sprinkle on a variety of foods. (My favorite for breakfasts is Mel’s Sunrise Spice.) I found myself regularly pulling out my Ninja without fear. (A couple tools that I didn’t have at the time that would be useful are an immersion/stick blender, which I got for Christmas, and a noodle spiralizer or Kitchen-Aid mixer attachment.)

meatza pizza

Meatza instead of pizza? It’s actually really good.

Overall, Whole30 changed me. While I set out on the program for health purposes, I found many other reasons why it was a beneficial experience. It taught me to read labels more closely. (I had no idea how often sugar is hidden in prepared foods!) My skin improved. I lost 5 pounds. I learned to make wiser choices with what I put in my mouth and that I could indeed make healthy yet convenient meals. I noticeably had more energy.

It wasn’t all puppies and rainbows though. It didn’t solve my underlying health problems, and I continued to have headaches during it. (In fact, on Day 3, I was sick as a dog, most likely from detox, so be prepared for this if you try the program.) I did have to fight back cravings, but it wasn’t impossible. It can be more expensive than your normal food-buying habits, but you don’t have to buy organic and grass-fed everything if your budget doesn’t allow. (Just focus on the most natural ingredients you can get for the price.)

But it fundamentally altered the way I have eaten moving forward, because I found it was easy to implement. Instead of cereal or some other grain for breakfast, I usually make quick omelettes and scrambles full of veggies (my favorite go-to is three scrambled eggs mixed with half a diced pre-roasted sweet potato, reheated in coconut oil and seasoned with a teaspoon or so of Sunshine Spice). Rather than a sandwich with the kids for lunch, I make tuna or chicken salad or eat leftovers. I no longer fix my coffee with half a packet of Splenda and a pour of Coffeemate; I now drink it without sweetener and only a splash of coconut creamer or black. Almost all of our dinners are now Paleo or Whole30 (though I am not strict Paleo right now by any means–I still love Friday night pizza). And for the first time since I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia after a glucose tolerance test confirmed it in college, my blood sugar was stable. I no longer regularly felt periods of shakiness throughout the day, which I used to experience despite eating frequent, small, protein-filled meals. 

Along with the Whole30, I made other life changes. I began taking a daily probiotic and a couple other supplements recommended by my doctors. During the toughest period, I said “no” to anything that was non-essential to caring for my kids. I purposed to get outside every day that I could. I slept at every opportunity. I said “yes” to help from my husband, family, and friends. I listened to worship music. And though Whole30 by itself didn’t cure me of my health struggles, about a month after I finished it, God allowed my daily waking headaches to stop. I started feeling normal again.

Many of you have prayed and asked about my health. We are overjoyed that I have felt as well as I have for the past few months after I struggled for much of 2016. This month, I plan to have another MRI to follow up on my cyst, but I do not expect any negative change, based on my symptoms. And after the … er, decadence of the holidays, I am ready for a fresh start and plan to do another Whole30 again.

It most certainly can’t hurt.

Or at least it is temporary pain. Because a lifetime of lacking a little afternoon treat with my coffee is just not a sacrifice I am willing to permanently make. I have toddlers, after all.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭10:31‬)