Beef and sweet potato meatballs with almond yogurt sauce, dill and chili oil.

When a Gourmet Does Whole30

Erica Lovelace Cooks


Resetting the eating habits of a persnickety eater without drab diet recipes and monotonous meal prep.

Six months into shelter in place orders and eating our feelings, my partner and I decided to take control of something…our diet. We did some research on various resets, diets and cleanses. I contacted my friends who had previously done one this year. Every single one of them had nothing but good things to say about Whole30. ‘It’s awesome…such a great program’. ‘You’ll love it but beware the sugar crashes, you can do it!’ Sounds intimidating but it has to be healthier than using booze and rich food as a crutch. This thought compounded with my sense of mortal dread thinking about counting calories, cooking drab recipes and purchasing expensive health foods that I’d never use again really made for a pleasant start.

I digress.

Whole30 is technically a ‘diet fad’ that was started by a husband and wife team, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig back in 2009. Both are certified sports nutritionists. Their book titled The Whole30: The 30 Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom acts as the prophetic word for the month-long regiment. Thirty days, according to Hartwig, is the amount of time that it takes to truly develop positive habits. The diet itself eliminates sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, MSG, dairy and fried foods— basically a way more restrictive paleo diet. The protocol has faced criticism from dieticians because of the severity of restrictions and negative effects on the dieter’s social life. Truer words have never been spoken.

My idea of a “diet” or a “cleanse” was always reminiscent of Bon Appetit’s The Food Lover’s Cleanse or Mireille Guiliano’s philosophy outlined in Why French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure. You simply eat seasonal, well-spiced foods that are thoughtfully assembled to reduce the consumption of sugars, carbs, unhealthy fats and animal protein. While these books are a great inspiration for long-term lifestyle changes, we wanted a full reset. Whole30 also presented an opportunity for us to identify foods that adversely affect our bodies and practice limiting our intake of them in the future. So we purchased copies of the Hartwigs’ book and dove into the finer details of planning.

My recommendations for Whole30 meal planning

In addition to the tactics that the Hartwigs outline in their book, I recommend using the following to help make your life easier.

Know what is off-limits and why before you shop

It sounds obvious. Even writing them as a note in your phone will help immensely. There’s a pretty long list of ingredients and exceptions so having an easily accessible list while you shop will give you more creative freedom. It’s always easier to make delicious things on the fly when you know the parameters of your ‘culinary sandbox’.

Prepare as much in advance as possible so that it’s easier to assemble meals.

This can include roasting vegetables, Instapotting pork shoulder, or soft boiling eggs. Having a variety of ready to go components in your fridge means faster assembly. I also recommend doubling the amount of servings in a recipe so you can have leftovers on hand. You won’t be doing much eating out.

Fabulously grilled whole chicken from Il Pollaio with onions and steamed potatoes in parsley oil.

Research restaurants before ordering takeout

If you do need to go out, there will be a night this happens, research compliant restaurants or dishes within restaurants ahead of time.We frequented a charbroiled chicken joint for filling meals in a pinch (see above); pristine sashimi for a date night splurge; and a trendy “bowl” place that offered compliant entrees, sides and beverages.

Purchase short cuts

While Whole30 encourages people to homemake everything, including sauces, in order to avoid sneaky ingredients like sugar, canola oil and MSG, you can save yourself time by purchasing condiments and snacks from Whole30 approved brands like Primal Kitchen, Chomps or Kettle & Fire. Thrive Market even has a Whole30 “starter kit” available.

Freestyle —leave room for improvisation

Don’t feel like you need to prepare a completely composed dish from a recipe every night — I am notorious for getting bored with the meal-prepped food. Tomato and red pepper soup can easily become a sauce for Instant Pot Butter Chicken; roasted potatoes from the Sunday dinner can become the base for a breakfast hash.

Allow yourself to eat simply

That being said, a satisfying meal some days may be soft boiled eggs, cured ham and nuts instead of your usual flare of a protein and two sides.

Whole30-ify your favorite recipes

Another tactic for shaking up boring meals — challenge yourself to turn your favorite meals into compliant ones. I especially enjoyed doing this on weekends when I have a bit more free time. This is a critical step in forming healthier, long-term eating habits. For example, I made a Whole30 take on chicken piccata that was as good as the traditional version using coconut and almond flour for the breading.

Camp breakfast consisting of pre-cooked potatoes, eggs and sugar-free bacon. Carefully watched by hungry eyes.

The first week of Whole30 wasn’t hard. We glided into the cleanse with tons of prepared ingredients, easy to assemble and reheat meals and a positive attitude. In my diary — which the book encourages you to keep — I wrote, “I feel more empty in my stomach after coming home from a long walk…My fear is that I’m going to get bored with eating if there’s not a lot of diversity in our meals.” We rounded out the first weekend of Whole30 with a completely sober weekend, the first we’ve had in a long, long time. I missed the booze at first but being used to staying indoors, we spent time working on personal projects and organizing our pantry for the week to come.

Week two rolled around and we were tested with our first Whole30 vacation. A true feat of strength. Camping without booze seemed like a major downer — not being able to enjoy company by campfire with a warming glass of whiskey seemed blasphemous. On our way to Humboldt National Forest, we stopped at a medicinal cannabis shop and grabbed some tinctures — our answer to feeling ‘relaxed’ while in the great outdoors. Weed is not recommended by Whole30 because of its tendency to cause munchies. Part of the Whole30 regiment focuses on resetting eating habits as well as what is consumed on a day to day basis. Snacking is really intended to be additional fuel as 3 meals a day doesn’t cut it when coupled with regular physical activity. So when we snacked, we did so to fuel ourselves for hiking.

The third week DRAGGED on. We were confined to our apartment more than our usual shelter in place regiment due to the fires across Northern California. It was tough having to avoid a stiff drink in the face of impending doom. Additionally, we experienced our first major social event that included dining at a restaurant. A friend was celebrating a birthday and we were responsible for choosing the restaurant since we were juggling this diet. I admit, I hate eating with people who are on restrictive diets, whether or not they are warranted by a physiological or psychological reason. Who wants to eat with the person with ‘that order’ — you know, the one that makes the restaurant staff roll their eyes. Not matter, we chose an oldie but a goodie. We watched as everyone dug into our favorites — fried calamari, charcuterie & cheese, garlic bread, pasta, and, of course, loads of wine. It was painful to watch everyone eat with abandon. We finished dinner, steak and broccoli, and opted out of the night cap.

Finally, we hit the fourth week. According to the Whole30 timeline, this was when we were expected to hit the “Tiger Blood” phase (see calendar above). We felt invigorated by our diet and our new gym regiment as San Francisco finally agreed to allow them to reopen in limited capacity. Secretly, we also weighed ourselves for first time since we started the journey. At this point, I lost 16 pounds and my partner lost 12 pounds. Seeing actual weight loss helped us cross the finish line in fantastic spirits — despite the literature advising against weigh yourself until the end — but could you blame us? Doing one of the most restrictive diets — we wanted to know it was for something.

Other things we learned during this journey

Besides the weight loss, experiencing better sleep and waking up with a clear head, here’s what else we learned during our time on Whole30.

Everything and I mean everything has sugar in it.

According to UCSF’s Dr. Robert Lustig about 90% of the sugar we consume comes from processed foods, and 75% of packaged items in grocery stores are spiked with sugar. The first day we shopped for ingredients, we had a dickens of a time finding things that were compliant. Again, so helpful to have an accessible list of off-limits ingredients in hand, including the many sneaky forms of sugar — i.e. sucrose, dextrose, fructose, etc. For example, I went to Safeway to grab a rotisserie chicken for a quick midweek meal only to discover it had dextrose, a sneaky form of sugar in it. Bottom line, be skeptical and always check the ingredients list.

Be prepared to make an investment

Dieting ain’t cheap and it’s a privilege. It costs lots of time and money that some people cannot afford. The first $500 Costco trip made us wince but those groceries formed the backbone of our meals during the 30 days so we only had to do smaller “refill” trips to mainstream grocery stores. We also invested in food storage containers and a vacuum sealer to help break up larger, bulk packages of meat for the freezer.

Forgive yourself if you make a mistake

I made plenty along the way. I accidentally ate a handful of roasted chickpeas on Day 1, thinking they were a complaint snack without realizing that chickpeas are legumes and therefore off limits. We ate some Genoa salami that had dextrose in it while we were hiking. Hell, we took THC tinctures to help us have a relaxing evening while camping. We recognized they were small and not grave mistakes. The Hartwigs implies in her book that there is no room for forgiveness and that if you slip, you must start over. While that is true to a certain degree — like if you ‘accidentally’ order a Double-Double animal-style on a stressful day — you will be able to determine want warrants a restart. Don’t think of it as punishment, it’s a learning opportunity.

If you’re doing this with a partner or friend for the first time, over communicate your feelings and emotions

You will have days when you are extremely irritable and may want to lash out. Listen to your body and give your partner some fair warning when you feel a mood swing coming on. You will learn to be more empathetic to episodes of ‘hangriness’ in the future.

Holding yourself accountable works

What the Hartwigs means by this is that you should publicly display your intent to complete Whole30. Truth be told, we are vain and proud creatures that feel social pressures, even self-induced ones. Use it to your advantage as a means of crossing over that finish line. This includes reaching out to friends or family that have done Whole30 — think of them as your tribe of empathy that checks in on you from time to time to offer advice and support.

A meal on the fly — using soft boiled eggs, zoodles and bone broth, I combined with Lion’s Head-style meatballs to make Whole30 ramen.

Here are some recipes that I made and would absolutely make again:

Here are my must-have pantry ingredients and the best place to purchase:

Additionally, a good friend and Whole30 disciple put a photo album together of ingredients from various stores, here. (Thanks Caitlyn!)

Some final words of advice. In a world where things feel so unpredictable and out of control, if you have the ability to do this, I promise it is worth it. Do it to be in tune with your body and above all, to feel good.



Erica Lovelace Cooks

Hapa Southerner living in San Francisco | North Beach. Documenting recipes, collecting cookbooks, and writing. Marketing by day.