When you go shopping for the first time on the Paleo diet, the grocery store can seem like a completely foreign place! When you’re not used to operating within certain food restrictions, it can be overwhelming knowing what to buy.
Take a deep breath. We’re going to walk you through this! Until you get the swing of things, I recommend printing a copy of this guide (or pull it up on your smartphone) to have with you at the store. I’ll explain how to read nutrition labels and share some tips for saving money on Paleo. But first, let’s get an idea of what it means to eat and shop Paleo.
Foods Allowed on the Paleo Diet
- Meats: any kind, ideally pasture-raised or grass-fed, including organ meats
- Seafood: any kind, ideally wild caught
- Vegetables: any kind, ideally organic and local
- Eggs: any kind, ideally pasture-raised
- Fruits: in moderation, ideally organic, berries are best
- Nuts and seeds: all kinds, in moderation, ideally organic and with no added oils
- Some oils and fats: avocado oil, coconut oil, palm oil, extra virgin olive oil, lard, tallow, ghee
- Other Paleo staples: full fat coconut milk, almond flour or another Paleo-friendly baking flour, spices, raw honey or another Paleo sweetener, and other products made from the above ingredients
Foods Not Allowed on the Paleo Diet
- Grains: including gluten and non-gluten containing grains (this category also includes most “gluten-free” packaged goods)
- Examples of grains NOT allowed: corn, corn derivatives (i.e. maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, etc.), rice, wheat, quinoa, oats, barley, spelt, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, beer, flour, etc.
- Legumes:all beans, soy, peanuts, hummus, etc.
- Examples of legumes NOT allowed: all beans (black beans, pinto beans, lentils, garbanzo beans, hummus, peanuts, etc.), all soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy lecithin, etc.).
- Exception to the legume rule: green beans, snow peas, green peas and other fresh (not dried) green legumes in pods are allowed on the Paleo diet.
- Dairy: dairy from any type of animal (cow, goat, sheep, etc.)
- Most liquid vegetable oils: due to the presence of unstable polyunsaturated fatty acids, most liquid oils are not Paleo.
- Examples of oils NOT allowed: vegetable oil, corn oil, canola (rapeseed), safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, peanut, cottonseed, soybean, margarine, etc.
- Exception to the liquid oil rule: Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, walnut oil are allowed on the Paleo diet. Small amounts of sesame oil, flax oil, fish oils, hemp oil, and other low smoke point oils can be used, but should never be used for cooking.
- Refined and artificial sweeteners: most sweeteners are not allowed on the Paleo diet, but here’s some allowed Paleo sweeteners
- Examples of sweeteners NOT allowed: cane sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, agave, refined honey, brown rice syrup, non-nutritive (zero-calorie) sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, Sweet n’ Low, Nutrasweet, Equal, Splenda, etc.
- Processed, hydrogenated, and refined foods: there’s a lot of grey area here, but in general, if you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce an ingredient on the label of a food, it’s probably not Paleo.
In general, you’ll want to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store (meat and produce sections) for your supplies. It’s a lot easier to find organic produce, pastured meats, and other Paleo-friendly goodies if you shop at a health food store, but it’s not always necessary. Many regular grocery stores have Paleo-friendly options. It might not be of the highest quality, but it’s still likely a ton better than what you were eating before.
Health Food Terminology
If you’re new to the realm of health food, it’s kind of like speaking a foreign language at first. When you enter the Paleosphere, you start hearing terms like pastured, free-range, organic, in season, and other foodie lingo. These terms are used to describe the quality of foods.
In an ideal Paleo world, we would only consume foods that are free from pesticides and other chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, and more. The meat would come from animals that were fed food appropriate for their species, having lived a happy and healthy life outdoors (as opposed to being raised by humans in confined spaces).
That’s the ideal situation, and if you’re able to buy the best quality foods, that’s great! However, this isn’t always possible for people, and it certainly isn’t a Paleo deal-breaker if you can’t swing buying only grass-fed/pastured/organic/wild-caught food.
Here’s a chart to help you determine the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ types of food in each category and the buzzwords to look for when you’re shopping.
Remember, if you can’t afford or find grass-fed meat and organic produce, it’s definitely not a Paleo deal-breaker! You will still reap the benefits of eating Paleo even if you can’t afford organic produce and grass-fed meat.
A Paleo diet consisting of conventional produce and grain-fed/caged/farmed meat is still a million times better than the Standard American Diet (SAD)! And if you think eating Paleo is too expensive, consider all the ways that you’ll save money eating Paleo.
Paleo Shopping Guides
To further assist you in your shopping endeavors we have additional shopping guide resources:
- Trader Joe’s Shopping Guide
- Whole Foods Shopping Guide
- 3 Tips for Shopping Paleo at Walmart
- Thrive Market Paleo Shopping Guide
- How to Shop Vitacost Like a Paleo Pro
- Nutritionist Favorite Product Recommendations
- The Ultimate Paleo Kitchen Cookware Guide
How to Read Ingredient Labels
When you’re first starting out on a Paleo plan it can be really hard to know whether or not various packaged and pre-made foods are Paleo. Things like full-fat coconut milk and almond flour are obviously processed foods, but they’re allowed on Paleo because they are still close to their whole form.
Because marketing (particularly food marketing) can be so deceiving, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of reading food labels, especially the labels on processed and prepared foods. While most processed foods are not Paleo, some companies have started making Paleo-friendly pre-packaged snacks and foods that you can find in health food stores and online. But if you’re not buying from a reputable company, it’s really handy to know how to read food labels to quickly determine whether or not a food is Paleo.
Is it Paleo? Quick Tips For How To Read Labels
- Print or download onto your smartphone a copy of this blog or the YES/NO List of Paleo Foods list to reference at the grocery store. All meats, vegetables, and fruits are Paleo, so you’re good to go there. It gets trickier with the packaged/processed foods.
- Look for the Nutrition Facts panel on each product. Some foods (like deli turkey), may not have it displayed and you might need to do a quick Google search on your phone (many product labels are available online if you do a Google image search), or you can ask a store employee to hunt down the information for you. I also email companies directly for this information if they don’t have it online. When companies don’t display their product nutrition information and all of the ingredients online, I am immediately suspicious.
- Look at the Ingredients listed at the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label. All packaged foods are required to list the product’s ingredients on the label in descending order of predominance by weight, meaning, the most abundant ingredient in the product will be listed first, and the least abundant ingredient (by weight) will be listed last.
- Avoid products containing grains, legumes, dairy, most liquid oils, and other non-Paleo foods. Please reference “Foods NOT allowed on the Paleo diet” (towards the top of this blog) for which ingredients to avoid. Stick to the foods listed under the “Foods Allowed on the Paleo diet” section instead.
- Avoid these ingredients for sure:
- Anything hydrogenated
- Refined foods
- Nitrates, Nitrites
- Sulfates, Sulfites
- Artificial anything (food colorings), artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners
- (Note: this is just a small sampling of ingredients to steer clear of)
- Be logical when reading food labels. If the first ingredient listed on a product is sugar you should probably put it right back on the shelf. A food is almost certainly not Paleo if sugar is the most abundant ingredient by weight.
- Watch out for condiments and dressings. We have some favorite Paleo-friendly condiments in our Nutritionist Product Recommendations page. In true Paleo fashion, most condiments can be made from scratch at home using real food ingredients, like these DIY recipes for making homemade mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard.
A Note About Sugar on Nutrition Labels
It’s great to avoid sugar on labels, especially if it’s listed first. However, you’ll notice that sugar often appears as an ingredient in bacon and other “low-carb” foods. When you look at the total carbohydrates on the Nutrition Facts panel of these foods, it will read zero. That’s because sugar is used as a stabilizer in some foods, but it is added in such small quantities that it doesn’t contribute towards your daily carbohydrate intake.
I had a friend who refused to eat bacon because he said “it has sugar in it” and he was trying to eat low carb. While it’s true that sugar was the second ingredient on the list (there were only two ingredients: bacon, sugar), his rationale that he wasn’t going to eat bacon because it contained sugar was sort of irrational. In such a small amount, the effect of this amount of added sugar is negligible.
If a very small amount of sugar or soy lecithin is added to a product, it may or may not be a deal breaker. You’ll have to decide for yourself. Having said that, if you’re battling an autoimmune or another chronic disease, you may need to more strictly avoid ingredients that are non-Paleo (at least for awhile)… in an effort to ‘reset’ your immune system by fully removing known triggering agents (especially gluten, grains, seed oils…).
3 Quick Rules to Know If It’s Paleo
1. If you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce an ingredient, it’s probably not Paleo.
2. If a product contains a long list of ingredients, it’s probably not Paleo. Most Paleo products contain around 10 ingredients or less.
3. If the total carbohydrate count is more than 20-30 grams per serving, it’s probably not a good option (even if all of the ingredients are Paleo), as this is likely a high glycemic food that will spike your blood sugar in unhealthy ways. Or just plan on eating this food in conjunction with fat and/or protein.
Unfortunately, food manufacturers have figured out how to hide ingredients in fancy names. For example, corn might be listed as HFCS, malt syrup, or dextrose. And dairy might appear on the label as caseinate, lactose, casein, or whey. Neither corn or dairy are Paleo.
Most baking powder contains cornstarch or aluminum. You’ll want to make your own baking powder or choose a Paleo-friendly baking powder instead.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself as you redefine your understanding of “healthy” and re-learn how to navigate the grocery store. This can be a big learning curve, and it won’t happen overnight. But with continued experience and practice, soon enough you’ll have an arsenal of go-to items and brands that you trust, and be able to spot a Paleo imposter an aisle away!
7 Tips for Shopping Paleo Affordably
A common question we often hear is: how can I save money on Paleo?
Since Paleo groceries can range anywhere from $100/mo per person to $600 a month per person (and beyond), it’s an understandable question. There can be a lot of variety in the things people buy, where they buy them, and what quality food they’re buying. Here are some practical ways to help slash your grocery budget without sacrificing quality!
1. Buy only what you need.
People usually over-buy groceries when they first start eating Paleo, and end up wasting a lot of food as a result. Don’t let this happen to you! Exercise restraint and don’t buy more food until you really need to. This means you’re going to have to keep tabs on what’s in your fridge at all times, and eat or freeze stuff before it starts to go bad. It’s better to have to run to the store more frequently at first versus wasting a bunch of money as food goes bad. After you’ve been eating Paleo for awhile, things get a lot easier to plan and anticipate. After 7 years of Paleo eating, I only go to the grocery store twice a month!
2. Buy local and in season.
Buying locally grown meats, eggs, and vegetables will save you a ton of money in the long run, but it may take some time to find the good hookups. Stick to produce that’s in season and local to where you live. You’ll recognize these because they will be the least expensive vegetables and fruits in the produce section. In a perfect Paleosphere, we would eat only organic produce, but that can get really expensive and may not be a possibility for some. If you can’t afford to buy all organic, check the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists of veggies and fruits with the most and least pesticide residues, so you know which veggies to prioritize eating organic.
Search locally (or online) to find a rancher selling pasture-raised/grass-fed meat for much cheaper than you’ll pay in stores (around $3 – $5/lb. hanging weight is a fair price). You can often buy a quarter or a half (or whole) cow or pig and save big when you buy in bulk. Be sure to ask for the organs, bones, and fat when you’re getting your meat from the butcher, as these parts of the animal are some of the most nutrient dense! Here’s a tutorial on the process of buying local meat.
3. Buy in bulk.
Buying meat, Paleo baking flours, and other Paleo ingredients in bulk is one of the best ways to save money eating Paleo. If you see a good deal on something in bulk, scoop it up then freeze the excess for later use. Buy vegetables when they are in season and dirt cheap, then blanch and freeze, can, or dehydrate them for later use in soups, stews, stir-frys, desserts, or whatever! Most foods retain their nutrition pretty well when frozen or canned (albeit fresh is always best). (1) Consider investing in a Costco or Sam’s Club membership. These stores are carrying more and more organic products every day!
4. Buy cheap meats.
It can be expensive to buy grass-fed and pastured meats on the Paleo diet, however, if you buy tougher cuts of meat they will be much cheaper than steaks and other fine cuts. Try slow cooking or pressure cooking these tougher cuts of meat to make them juicy and delicious. Buying whole chickens is much cheaper than buying the individual parts. Also, buying the less expensive parts of chicken (thighs, legs, wings, etc.) will not only save you money, but the dark meat will also provide you with more nutrition and healthy fats than the more expensive white meat! Buying grass-fed organs is also quite inexpensive. When chopped up into small pieces and mixed with ground beef, you have a really cheap, nutritious blend of protein and fat, and you won’t even know the organ meat is there!
There’s a lot of luxury items you can make on your own that will not only save you money, but end up being a lot healthier as well! Try making your own:
You can make these things at home for a fraction of the price it costs to buy them at the store!
6. Shop deals.
I’m sorry, if you’re shopping at high-end grocery stores (read: Whole Foods), you’re going to be paying a lot more for items that are available for cheaper elsewhere. Do some research and cost comparing to see which stores sell your products for cheapest, and buy accordingly!
I save a lot of money by clipping coupons and waiting for sales. I know it sounds old school, but I love it. I even have a small plastic accordion folder that I organize my coupons in and leave in my car, so I never forget my coupons at home! There are apps that you can download that compare local sales for you. Many stores will match sales prices from their competitors, so don’t be afraid to ask! Also consider store loyalty or reward programs which can sometimes get you exclusive discounts.
7. Order online.
For many items, it’s actually cheaper to order them online. Order online from companies you trust. I buy most of my shelf-stable grocery products online, and two of my favorite stores to shop are Vitacost and Thrive Market. Both of these companies have a Paleo search filter that you can apply to quickly see all of the Paleo-friendly products available (be sure to double check ingredients just in case). They also list the ingredients and nutrition facts for every product, which makes it a lot easier to figure out which products are Paleo. Here are a couple of shopping guides to help you navigate these online stores:
Another favorite online store specializing in Paleo goods is One Stop Paleo Shop. These guys have Paleo, AIP (Autoimmune Protocol), and Ketogenic snacks and foods available on their site, with shipping available to the continental US. They specialize in everything Paleo and always carry the new and exciting Paleo goodies.
Get Paleo Food Delivered
Speaking of shopping online, there’s actually a lot of great companies who are sourcing, making, and delivering Paleo pre-made foods and snacks, grass-fed meats, and other healthy living supplies. Here are a few of our favorites!
- Butcher Box—Grass-fed, pastured, and organic meats
- U.S. Wellness Meats—Grass-fed, pastured, and organic meats, bones, organs, etc.
- Kettle & Fire—World’s first shelf-stable, grass-fed, and organic bone broth (chicken or beef)
- Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club—premium, fresh-harvest extra virgin olive oil
- Ava Jane’s Avocado Oil—100% natural, unrefined, extra virgin avocado oil
- Primal Kitchen—Paleo mayo, Paleo salad dressings, supplements, and more
- Siette Paleo Tortillas—Incredible grain-free tortillas
- PaleoLife Box—Paleo Life Box is a monthly box of Paleo snacks delivered to your door, with shipping available to the United States and Canada. I love the variety and tasting experience that I get in my box each month and it’s a great bang for your buck, too. Expect a mix of meat snacks, bars, cookies, veggie chips, granola, chocolate treats, seed and nut mixes, dried fruit, and more.
- POTG—Paleo On The Go is a certified gluten-free kitchen and Certified Paleo company that prepares and ships pre-made (frozen) Paleo, Autoimmune Paleo (AIP), and low-carb meals right to your doorstep, anywhere in the US with guaranteed overnight shipping! Their turkey pot pies are my absolute favorite!
- Eatology—Paleo, Primal, and Paleo-Zone gourmet cuisine delivered nationwide to your doorstep. In fact, they were the first company to start delivering pre-made Paleo foods in the US, so they definitely have experience under their belt!
- Trifecta Nutrition—100% Organic Paleo (and Vegetarian/Vegan) meals and “a la carte” items shipped (with free delivery!) nationwide in the US. The meals and a la carte side dishes arrive frozen, ready to be popped into the microwave or oven (or warmed up on the stovetop) or you can keep them frozen for up to six months.
- PaleoPlan’s Nutritionist Favorite Products—a chart of our some of our favorite products
Paleo Kitchen Overhaul
If you’re looking to eat strictly Paleo, then I recommend removing the non-Paleo items from your kitchen and home. Aligning your outer environment with your inner goals will help keep you on track and it’s much easier to avoid temptations when they aren’t staring you directly in the face! Here are some guides to help you at Paleoizing your life:
If you are sharing kitchen space with someone who eats foods that you’re working to avoid, consider setting up different areas or shelves that have clearly defined boundaries. There are organization baskets and Tupperware containers available that are useful for subdividing shared storage space.
Bottom Line: How To Shop Paleo
The moral of this (Paleo) story is to EAT REAL FOOD! Our bodies are engineered to utilize the nutrients found in whole foods, in their natural form. The same cannot be said for man-made chemicals that are now abundantly found in our food supply. Our bodies are not equipped to handle these foreign chemicals and altered foods and they make our immune systems go haywire, and can trigger countless diseases.
Some people complain about the cost of eating Paleo foods, but trust me, you will end up saving more money with time and practice. I personally don’t spend more than $200 per month on food for myself, and only go to the grocery store twice a month. Now, I’m only cooking for two people, but the point is that I’ve drastically cut down on my grocery bills (and trips to the store) as I’ve refined my Paleo shopping skills. Be patient and soon you’ll be there too!
If you’re asking yourself whether or not the cost of eating Paleo is worth it, just consider all the money and energy you’ll save on healthcare and foods that are actually hindering your health goals instead of supporting them. Seems like a no-brainer to me!