Eating Paleo in the Real World: It’s a Jungle Out There


Most people I speak to about the Paleo lifestyle understand its benefits and can see it working for their family on some level. I most often hear the what ifs and what abouts around things like birthday parties, restaurants, grandparents’ house, and even school. In fact, my WordPress stats show me that many people come to this site via Google searches like Paleo lunches, Paleo birthday parties, and Paleo on the go.

Clearly, this is a valid question for most people considering the switch to Paleo, and I completely understand these concerns. So today I thought I’d share with you the crazy-updside-down week that my family and I just lived through. After reading this you will see that eating Paleo is possible when life pulls you outside of the comfort of your own kitchen.

Scenario #1: The Dance Recital

Dana and Charlotte participate in weekly ballet lessons, and twice a year their studio puts on performances. Last December, Charlotte made her performance debut in The Nutcracker. After agonizing over the decision of whether she was ready for a commitment to the classes, the rehearsals, getting on stage, and the chaos of it all, she put our mind at ease and performed like a champ.

Her motivation to perform and endure the challenges that come with it most likely come from the years of watching her sister dress up in costumes and make-up to be cheered and praised by friends and family. Having survived the stress and anxiety of the December performance, we knew she would love the performing experience again and we used what we learned to be better prepared this time around.

On the night of the dress rehearsal, we were told to arrive at 5:00pm. Both girls needed to have hair and make-up done and were instructed to bring dry snacks, not to be eaten in costume. As you can imagine, examples of dry snacks were non-Paleo foods like crackers, pretzels, and granola bars. I entertained the idea of eating an early dinner just before we left, but with a 30 minute drive to the stage, hair and make-up to be done, and a nap for Charlotte until the last possible second, packing food for dinner was the only option. I had planned ahead the night before by roasting a large chicken with lots of meat and baking a few extra potatoes, ensuring easy-to-pack leftovers.

Dana’s Planet Box is shown below. The foods were not exactly dry, but not messy either. I kept an eye on her in the holding area backstage and made sure she used her napkin, didn’t eat in her costume, and washed her hands immediately upon finishing her dinner. I also let her know that other kids would have junk food/fast food, and that just wasn’t an option for us.

Charlotte’s dinner was similar, but catered to her preferences. Lots of napkins and washing hands kept her and the costume clean and her belly full.

Since I was camped out with Dana at the dress rehearsal until 10pm that night (Chad picked up Charlotte earlier) I knew that Paleo food was the only way to survive the marathon of dance numbers I had the privilege of watching. Here’s my dinner:

Both girls performed beautifully and the recital was a huge success!

It’s worth mentioning that the anxiety that comes with hours of waiting in a holding area filled with jittery, young dancers brought Charlotte’s needs for sensory input out in the open. I managed to snap a few shots of her regulating herself in a stressful environment. While these situations are not ideal, I was very proud of her for finding ways to stay calm enough to avoid a meltdown, still remember her dances, and even smile on stage.                                       








Scenario #2: The Hospital

On the night of the recital, Chad mentioned to me that his stomach was not quite right and he was feeling pain and discomfort. At 3 am, he woke me up from a sound sleep and let me know this stomach pain was like nothing he had experienced before. We phoned the ER, and he was told to come in with a driver. I made a call to my amazing friend Siiri, and she arrived at our door within minutes to stay with our sleeping kids.

After isolating the pain to the lower right quadrant of Chad’s abdomen and getting a CT scan, it was determined that he was in the midst of an appendicitis attack. We were thrilled to see our friend Dr. Mike at the hospital who reassured us that this was a random event that had nothing to do with diet, lifestyle, or overall health. With a sigh of relief, Chad slipped into a morphine nap and we waited for an OR to open and have his angry appendix removed. 

I checked on the kids and then began to think about some breakfast for myself. Seeing that my health issues tend to center around stressful events, bringing on excessive adrenaline, I knew that some clean food was in order to get me through a long day at the hospital. I fought feelings of panic and anxiety as I approached the hospital cafeteria cautiously, expecting to find nothing suitable for to me eat.

I was delighted to find a bar of warm food with eggs, sausage, and bacon. I loaded up my plate with dry-but-edible scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, and some starchy carbs in the form of tasteless hash browns. (I’m one of those carb eating Paleo people, and I do much better keeping potatoes in the rotation a few times per week)

After my Paleo breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, I felt much better and Chad and I hung out until it was time for his surgery. After I got word from his doctor that he had made it through surgery, I ventured back down to the cafeteria for lunch. I ordered a bunless hamburger from the man at the grill and cheated with some sweet potato fries (I’m sure it was not coconut oil that I saw in the deep fryer).

Once Chad was settled in an overnight room, I was back at the cafeteria for dinner and asked for a grilled chicken breast to sit on top of lettuce greens and veggies from the salad bar, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When I returned to Chad’s room to eat my dinner, he joked at how Paleo it was and that we should consider a date night at the hospital cafeteria.

While it was surprising to find Paleo options at the cafeteria, it did take a certain amount of will power and focus to walk past plenty of packaged foods and treats that seemed to be more tempting in times of stress and little sleep. Resisting this temptation and eating clean paid off when I returned home at 8pm and found that I had enough energy and sanity to put my very tired kids to bed. I gave huge hugs to my incredible friends Kimberly and Siiri who not only kept my kids entertained all day but managed to feed them Paleo all day as well.

Scenario #3: Junk food at Summer Day Camp

There was no rest for the weary over the weekend at home as I tended to Chad in his recovery, nursed Charlotte with a throat virus and a fever, got my house back in order, and managed my own needs for sleep and rest. In the midst of this chaos, I kept the upcoming week in the back of my mind. Dana was scheduled to attend a week-long day camp at our church, and I had been informed of the provided snacks via email. While we normally opt for packing our own snacks at events where a non-Paleo snack is provided, this situation provided a bit more of a challenge.

All of the snacks were tied thematically to the day’s lesson, and most of them involved junk food, including goldfish crackers, pretzels, marshmallows, whoppers, and other candies. I knew that asking Dana to sub a box of raisins for these super fun activities and treats was too much to ask. She is still a kid, after all.

I talked to her about the situation, and the food options would may have worked fine if it were just a one day camp. But given that the camp was all week and the fever bug was running through our house, I knew I needed a more Paleo option to give Dana the best chance at staying healthy and enjoying the camp.

I remembered seeing a cookie-like treat made with sunflower seed butter in our copy of Eat Like a Dinosaur by The Paleo Parents. I was so relieved to find a quick and easy recipe for Mini Nut Butter Cups. We made a bunch of super-yummy, kid-friendly, nut-free, muffin-shaped cookies with just a few ingredients that were easy to transport. This morning we filled a baggie with a bunch of grapes and a few cookies and sent her off to camp with a snack that she was excited to eat, despite what the other kids had. 

We survived this week and managed to eat clean with the help of our amazing friends, some luck, lots of preparation, and a wonderful resource. It has taken two years, but I can proudly say that we have established a lifestyle around Paleo. We were able to make it work in the most trying of circumstances. So the next time someone asks us about Paleo and all of the what ifs and what abouts, I’ll remind them that it’s not just a way of eating, it’s a way of living.

For more inspiration on staying Paleo in trying times, read about NomNomPaleo’s adventures of living in a hotel room with her family for the last 2 months.

4 Keys to Making Paleo Work

In my effort to help special needs families adopt Paleo, I try to balance between posts on helpful tips and strategies, small doses of inspiration and encouragement, and plenty of personal stories that let you know you’re not alone. It’s all done to spell out my message of Please Do This For Your Child in a way that seems positive and possible. (See the story I shared today at

So today I’ve summarized 4 key concepts that we’ve learned on our Paleo journey. While they may be specific to our experience, I’m hoping they’ll help you find the focus and inspiration it takes to lead your family on this tremendous journey toward better health.

1. Put Yourself First. You’re not going to hear this much in our culture. Modern parenthood seems more about striving for some level of perfection and performance from our kids, rather than matching the needs of our children with what we have available to give. Ignoring my own needs and giving every last ounce of myself to my kids only made me sick and tired. It took learning what my body and mind needed and redefining health for myself to really open doors to a new level of connection with my family.

I may be the first to say this, but I firmly believe that taking care of yourself and getting your health in order should be the first step on your Paleo journey. Take the lead and be a role model of good health for your kids. Let them see you taking care of yourself and feel free to think outside the box here. Give yourself what you need for a healthier you on a regular basis: better sleep, cleaner food, time with friends, a glass of red wine, appropriate exercise. Only you can define your needs and make them happen.

Okay, enough with my infomercial-like health and wellness speak. Once you have yourself in check, it’s time to think deeply about your kid(s).

2. Know your kids. I try to keep my recommendations for working with special needs kids pretty general, because any kid’s needs are special and specific. Parents know their kids best and when it comes to making a big change with their diet, my only advice would be: learn what works to make progress and stay consistent. I think you will be pleasantly surprised in what you will learn about your kids as your travel on a life-changing journey together.

I believe strongly in the Favorite Food Technique and also have some ideas on the recommendations and advice page. In addition, I would love to hear successes around adopting Paleo that your family has experienced.

3. Commit to plan and prep. A fast paced lifestyle of high stress and processed foods is what got us into this situation in the first place. Our Paleo journey included learning how to slow down, plan our meals, and value the food we put into our bodies. I can safely say that for our family this is the hardest, but most crucial part of the Paleo lifestyle. It takes a conscious effort to keep up with two busy kids and still find time to plan, shop for, and prepare home cooked meals made with Real Food. I keep myself motivated to stay on track by writing posts like these: Preparation and What’s for Dinner?. Hopefully, they’ll help keep you motivated, too.

4. Set goals while practicing self-forgiveness Launching into a Paleo lifestyle may seem daunting at best, but I often tell friends and family members who are considering Paleo to set small, reachable goals. Starting with one meal at a time (even if it’s the same meal a few times a week) makes Paleo living seem possible. If you fall off of the Paleo wagon for whatever reason, only you know what to tell yourself to get back on track. After two years on this amazing journey, I can tell you that treating failure as a learning experience helps create motivation for more success down the road. Treat any non-Paleo meals/days/weeks as an opportunity to witness the changes your body experiences. Use the information you learn to do what it takes to help your and your family “look, feel, and perform” at your best. (quotation borrowed from Robb Wolf)

If you are leading your family on this journey, it’s certainly not an easy task. Be kind to yourself and do the best you can. Any steps away from a lifestyle of high stress and a Standard American Diet are steps in the right direction. Keep up the good work!