Low Carb Lunches: Portable, Out or at Home

I have found the easiest overall plan for sticking to a low carb or keto lifestyle to be:  1) eat the same thing repeatedly for breakfast (I go with a smoothie or bacon & eggs), and 2) save dinner for your more creative or social meals.  That leaves the quandary of what to do about lunch?  Most people are time-starved during this time of day, and will opt for something easy and convenient, which often translates to prepared foods or fast foods.  Here are some a few ideas for low carb lunches that work in a variety of settings.

Low carb lunches

Easy Low Carb Lunch Combo

5 Strategies to Prevent Cheating at Lunch on a Low Carb Diet:

  1. Pre-planning.  This generally means making low carb lunches ahead of time, or planning far enough in advance that you have a refrigerator or pantry full of portable, convenient low carb snacks.  It also means having clean, sealable containers in your kitchen.
  2. Curating nearby restaurant menus.  Many popular and/or fast food restaurants have menu items that are compliant with a low carb diet.  It is a matter of knowing what the menu options are and knowing which restaurants do not balk at substitutions.  This is easy enough to figure out with an online search, or maybe it might take a phone call (old school I know, but sometimes worthwhile).  Some of my favorites are listed below.
  3. Having the right equipment and ingredients on hand.  If you are at an office, having a blender available for smoothies might be problematic but most offices have microwaves and refrigerators.  If you work or parent from home, the equipment is an easier feat, but you do need to make sure your pantry and refrigerator are well stocked with compliant food.
  4. Employing the “Strategy of Inconvenience”.  This is a strategy made popular by Gretchen Rubin and it is useful for low carb lunches, but it is also critical for snacking.  If the office candy dish is open and full of candy all the time, it is a siren for mindless eating.  Ask the person in charge if the dish can be one that is not transparent and that has a cover.  Google apparently tried this and the amount of M & M’s that people ate went down dramatically.  It was just too inconvenient to open the jar in front of everyone and the visibility of the candy didn’t suck you in.  At home this would involve making your kitchen off limits for non-compliant foods, or in the case of mixed diet households placing the candy and snacks in covered, non-transparent containers (or in the freezer).  In other words if you can’t get it out completely, at least make it inconvenient.
  5. Drinking bulletproof coffee or getting in some form of fat fasting that will keep you full until dinner and still keep your brain productive.
Low Carb Lunches

SCD lunch in Valencia, Spain

Ideas for Low Carb Lunches when Eating Out:

These are some of my favorite places for going out to lunch that are quick and compliant:

  • Jimmy Johns – lettuce wraps (called an unwich)
  • Chipotle – salad bowl with meat, beans, veggies, salsa, sour cream and guacamole  (no rice and no tortillas)
  • Red Robin– any of their burger options as a wrap without the buns, and opting for the vegetables instead of the fries
  • Most Popular Restaurants – large salad with protein (chicken, shrimp, eggs, etc.), dressing should be oil and vinegar or blue cheese on the side (no ranch, french, etc.)

Ideas for Portable Low Carb Lunches for Office or Home

  • Celery with peanut butter (easy on the peanut butter)
  • Tuna (I usually get tins of tuna in olive oil or brine, dress it up with capers, mustard, mayo, etc.)
  • Hard boiled eggs (you can buy these already peeled)
  • Deviled eggs
  • Dill pickles (use the corchicon small pickles as dippers)
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese (full fat cottage cheese), with sunflower seeds for extra protein
  • Nuts (keep this to minimum, easy to overdo)
  • Baba Ghanoug (eggplant dip from Holy Land)  with zucchini sticks as dippers
  • Jerky or smoked meats from the deli (read labels, some jerky is made with a lot of sugar)
  • Pre-made bacon to use as “crackers” in a tub of guacamole
  • Sugar-free Jello, alone or with cottage cheese and a sprinkling of nuts
  • Make sugar-free lime Jello with part coconut milk — For a large package, dissolve the powder in a cup of boiling water, add a can of coconut milk, and then add the rest of the water. Stir well.
  • Smoked salmon on cucumber slices
  • Lettuce Roll-ups — Roll luncheon meat, egg salad, tuna or other filling and veggies in lettuce leaves
  • Microwave a can of black beans (rinsed), add some salsa on top and some sliced avocado if you have it.
  • Spread a low carb bean dip or spread on the lunch meat or lettuce and then roll it up
  • Raw veggies and humus (jicama works well for dipping sticks)
  • Pork rinds (these work well as dippers into a tub of guacamole)
  • Pepperoni Chips — Microwave pepperoni slices until crisp. Great with bean or salmon dips
  • Avocado is low in carbs (4-8 g net carbs per 1 avocado) and high in fat, so makes a very satisfying snack. Mash it up with a bit of salt and pepper (drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar for a treat)
  • left-overs from dinner

**NOTES:

NUTS:  Nuts are great, but they are quite dense in calories and have stalled many a diet.  The best options are nuts with higher fat content: macadamia, Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and almonds. Net carb content is around 2-5 g net carbs per 50 g (1.8oz). Stay away from cashews and chestnuts, as they are much higher in carbs.

CHEESE:  Aged hard cheeses do not have the lactose (milk sugar) that makes cheese non-compliant on a slow carb diet.  They are dense in fat and calories however, so be careful.

COLD MEATS:  Choose sliced whole meats such as ham or turkey breast, rather than processed unidentified concoctions. Carb count should be below 1 g per 100 g / 3.5oz. My favorite is Wiltshire cured ham.

JERKEY & PEPPERONI:  Most shops sell small pepperoni sticks as individual snacks. These are highly processed and not the healthiest thing you can eat due to the nitrates. However, there should be hardly any carbs in them (0-1 g total per 1 stick). So if you are in a bind and stuck with gas station food you may have to resort to something like this.  Any time you have a choice, always go for whole foods over processed foods).

DARK CHOCOLATE:  It is the sugar in chocolate that is a problem, not the cocoa. Some sugar-free chocolates products are available.

CHICHARRONES:  Crispy, fatty, salty, zero-carb .  They turn some people off, but they can be a great snack to fill the gap left by potato chips.  Also known as Bacon Puffs or Pork Rinds.

PROTEIN SHAKES:  Protein shakes with limited sugar can make easy low carb lunches.  Just make sure and get a protein powder that is a whey isolate.  A tsp. of cinnamon added to vanilla-flavor shake adds a lot of flavor plus health (no more than a tsp of cinnamon a day though – it is a blood thinner).  Some people add coconut milk (unsweetened) instead of just water.

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Keto Mashed Cauliflower: Mock Mashed Potatoes

Cauliflower seems to be the favorite low carb substitute for a range of comfort foods, including tortillas, pizza crust and mashed potatoes.  I’ve made them all to varying degrees of success, but using cauliflower for mock mashed potatoes is by far the best tasting in my mind.   It wasn’t long (two dinner’s worth) before my family preferred the keto mashed cauliflower over traditional mashed potatoes.  Even my athletic son who wasn’t the slightest interested in a low carb or keto diet came to prefer it.  The bonus is that they are quick and easy to make.

We even slipped it in at Thanksgiving and grandma had no idea that it wasn’t her beloved mashed Yukon Gold potatoes.  Grandma is 94 years old, but still.  She’s had a lot of mashed potatoes in her life and this one slipped right by her.

keto mashed cauliflower

mock mashed potatoes with “fried” chicken legs

Keto Mashed Cauliflower (aka Mock Mashed Potatoes)

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium head cauliflower
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/8 teaspoon straight chicken base or bouillon paste (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon salt)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • S & P to taste

Directions:

  1. Set a large pot of water to boil over high heat.
  2. Cut out stem of cauliflower and pull off florets (if you hold the whole head of cauliflower over a counter and smash it down firmly on the stem end, it should break apart without having to cut the stem out).  Place the florets in boiling water for about 6 minutes, or until tender when pricked with a fork. Drain well; do not let cool
  3. In a bowl with an immersion blender, or in a food processor, puree the hot cauliflower with the Parmesan, garlic, chicken base, and  salt & pepper until almost smooth, or until it is the texture you prefer.

If you want the recipe for the mock fried chicken shown in the picture above click here.

 

 

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Keto Diet or Low Carb Friendly “Fried” Chicken Legs

There are two main problems with fried foods on a low carb diet or ketogenic diet:  the type of oil and the type of coating.  Baked chicken legs with a coating of Dijon mustard, crumbled pork rinds, and a little Parmesan takes care of both of those problems and gives you low carb”fried” chicken legs compliant with a keto diet.  I am betting you will come to prefer these once you are fat-adapted.

keto diet

Mock Fried Chicken Legs

The use of Oil for Fried Foods on a Low Carb or Keto Diet

While olive oil, coconut oil and butter are all great fats for low carb, and keto diet lifestyles, their smoke point means they don’t do well at the high heat required for deep-fried food.  While I don’t miss breads and pasta on a low carb diet, I do miss fried chicken, fried fish cakes, hush puppies and the like.

The main thing to know about cooking with different oils at high heat, is to use oils that are stable and don’t oxidize or go rancid easily.  When oils undergo oxidation, they react with oxygen to form free radicals and harmful compounds that you definitely don’t want to be consuming.

So, you’ll want to make sure you’re using fats with smoke points at or above 400°F when cooking at high temperatures.  That’s all fine and good, but most people cooking fried foods on a low carb, keto diet also want to use oil that is neutral in flavor.  The problem is that an oil with neutral flavor (i.e., canola oil, vegetable oils) generally means it will be a highly refined oil, rather than a “virgin” or “cold-pressed” oil, and the refinement process of these oils includes high-temperature heating, bleaching and extracting, resulting in oils that might not be the best for health.

The bottom line is finding the best oil for high temperature cooking on a low carb diet is tricky.  I tend to use peanut oil, but it is a refined oil and I’m not always comfortable with that so I don’t use it often.  A very good primer on the various oils and how to use them in cooking can be found at this site: 

The easiest way to simulate fried foods on a low carb diet without all the worry about which oil to use is to skip the frying altogether and bake it!  Baking chicken legs and thighs with a low carb coating can not only replace fried chicken but has become the preference at our house.  Maybe it will be at yours also.  Try it!!

Alternative for Low Carb Breading or “Coating”

Most fried foods are dipped in eggs (which is fine), but then covered with flour or panko or some sort of breading (not fine).  Crushed pork rinds mixed with a bit of grated parmesan to the rescue!  Many low carb people or those on a keto diet have discovered this delicious way of breading things.

Don’t like pork rinds (aka chicharonnes)?  Often people that don’t like pork rinds out of the bag find that they are quite different in taste when used as a coating mixed with a little parmesan cheese added.  I personally like them all ways.  A favorite lunch of mine is using pork rinds as a dipper into a tub of guacamole.  Not for everyone I know, but I love them this way.

Low Carb “Fried” Chicken Legs (friendly to a keto diet also)

Ingredients:

  • 8 – 10 chicken legs
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp fennel seeds, ground in a coffee or spice grinder
  • 1 cup crushed pork rinds, they crush easily with the bottom side of a measuring cup or spoon
  • 2-4 Tbsp Dijon mustard

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Rinse the chicken legs and pat dry.  Season generously with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp of oil in a skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat and brown the chicken well on both sides (3-4 minutes per side).  This is not high temp deep-frying, but rather med.-temp sauteing.
  3. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan or large sheet-pan (line it with parchment paper for easy clean up).  Baked 15 minutes
  4. While the chicken is cooking,  mix together fennel, the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oi, the pork rinds, 1/ tsp salt and a pinch of pepper.
  5. Remove the chicken from the oven and raise the oven temp to 500 degrees F.  While the oven is heating up, use a pastry brush to brush on side of the chicken legs with mustard and then press the crumb mixture on to of the mustard.  Turn the legs over and repeat on the other side.
  6. Bake until the crumb crust turns golden, about another 10 minutes.
  7. Serve with a green vegetable, roasted tomatoes or cauliflower mash

So, there ya go!  Let me know if you have used the pork rind breading on any other proteins.  I’ve used an almond and mustard breading on fish, but this pork rind coating might be good to try there also.

If you want some delicious mock mashed potatoes with these chicken legs instead of the green broccoli, click on this recipe.

Ciao!

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Low Carb Pork Kebabs – 3 Ways

Winter doesn’t mean you have to miss out on easy and wonderful grilled food.  I bought this “Griddler” a couple of years ago and have used it at least once weekly for getting quick and easy proteins ready for low carb dinners.  This week I had some vegetables left over and wanted to put them to good use before they spoiled (a big reason people don’t put as many vegetables on their grocery list – they spoil before you figure out what to do with them).  These low carb pork kebabs were a perfect way to use the veggies and the protein…..Quick and easy.

They cook much quicker than on an outdoor grill because the indoor griddlers cook from both the top and the bottom at the same time.   My indoor griddler is a Cuisinart Griddler Delux and it was just over $200.00  I was inspired to get one by watching Hubert Keller on his PBS cooking show.  He made it look so easy…..and it is!  I’m sure the smaller ones and different brands work just as well.  I just wanted to be like Hubert!  There’s a photo of it at the end of this post.

Low Carb Pork Kebabs

Low Carb Pork Kebabs

Why 3 Different Ways to Cook Low Carb Pork Kebabs?

Well, it’s called indecision.  I couldn’t decide whether a fennel and rosemary combination or a Thai-style kebab with soy sauce and lime juice would taste better.  And then I also wanted to try one with a little sugar to see if it made that much difference to the taste (it didn’t).  I used the same veggies on the skewers so the only difference was the marinade for the pork.  I thought I would like the ones with peanut butter and the bit of sugar better, but my favorite was actually the rosemary and fennel skewer.  Try whatever marinade appeals to you and use whatever veggies you have in your refrigerator.  It’s pretty hard to go wrong.

Low Carb Pork Kebabs with Rosemary and Fennel

Ingredients:

Serves: 4

  • 2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 bay leaves, torn
  • 1 1/2 lbs. pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced or chopped
  • 1 bulb fennel, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 red onion, quartered
  • 1 orange or yellow bell pepper, cut into large chunks
  • 2 Tbsp or more for drizzling
  • juice of one lemon

Directions:

  1. Combine the fennel seeds, 1 tsp salt, pepper flakes and bay leaves in a spice grinder (aka coffee grinder) and pulse until you have a fine powder.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the pork cubes with the ground fennel spice mix, the chopped rosemary, and the the garlic.  Cover and refrigerate 1-4 hours.
  3. Preheat grill to a fairly high heat (don’t sweat a specific temperature, just turn it high enough that you will get that nice sear).  While the grill/griddler is preheating, thread the fennel, pork and other veggies onto skewers (eight 10-inches skewers is about right) and place the skewers side by side on a plate.  (*note: the onion quarters may fall apart a bit, so just stack them together on the skewer).
  4. Drizzle the skewers with some olive oil and lemon juice and place them on the griddler.  Close the lid on top of them and cook for about 7-10 minutes.  If you are using a regular grill, you will need to turn the skewers after about 5 minutes.

Low Carb Pork Kebabs with Peanut Butter Marinade:

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup lime or lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup root ginger, grated finely (alternatively use 1/2 tsp ground ginger but it’s not as fresh)
  • 1 lb pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 red onion, quartered
  • 1 orange or yellow bell pepper, cut into large chunks

Directions:

  1. Combine soy sauce, lime juice peanut butter, sugar, garlic red pepper flakes and ginger in a large bowl and mix together thoroughly.  Set aside 1/2 cup of mixture for basting (optional).
  2. Add the pork cubes to the bowl and mix together with hands to evenly coat all of the cubes.  Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours.
  3. Preheat griddler to high heat.  Thread the pork strips onto 8-10″ wooden or metal skewers, alternating pork with peppers and onions  (*note: the onion quarters may fall apart a bit, so just stack them together on the skewer).
  4. Place skewers on griddler and lower the top down.  If you are using a regular grill, you will need to turn the skewers after about 5 minutes.  If using a griddler, just cook them for 5-7 minutes or until pork is no longer pink and the juices run clear.

Low Carb Pork Kebabs; Thai Style

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 2 tsp hot chili oil, or a couple of tsp hot chili powder (*see note at bottom of recipe)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 lb. pork tenderloin, cut into cubes (I did mine about 1″ x 1″)
  • 1 orange or yellow bell pepper, cut into chunks
  • 1 red onion, quartered

Directions:

  1. Combine soy sauce, lime juice, water, chili oil (or spice), garlic and ginger in large bowl.  Set aside 1/3 cup mixture for dipping sauce.
  2. Add pork cubes to the bowl and mix well with the sauce using hands or large spoon.  Make sure the cubes get a good covering of sauce.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
  3. Preheat griddler to high heat.  Thread the pork strips onto 8-10″ wooden or metal skewers, alternating pork with peppers and onions.   (*note: the onion quarters may fall apart a bit, so just stack them together on the skewer).
  4. Place skewers on griddler and lower the top down.  If you are using a regular grill, you will need to turn the skewers after about 5 minutes.  If using a griddler, just cook them for 5-7 minutes or until pork is no longer pink and the juices run clear.
  5. Serve with the reserved dipping sauce

 

*if you want to make your own hot chili oil, combine 2 tsp peanut oil with 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes in microwavable cup.  Microwave at high 30 to 45 seconds.  Let stand 5 minutes to allow flavor to develop.

**Note:  If you are not low carb and want to get fancy, serve the kebabs with a dipping sauce of your choice.

Heathglen’s Harissa is a great choice for a dipping sauce also!  No sugar and high flavor with organic chilies!

Here’s what my griddler looks like by the way:

Cuisinart Griddler Delux

Cuisinart Griddler Delux

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Keto Sheet Pan Dinners

Love good food… don’t want carbs…no time to cook?  Enter the darling of the year, Sheet-pan dinners.

Sheet-pan dinner with chicken & veggies

Sheet-pan dinner with chicken & veggies

Can Sheet-pan dinners take the place of Fast Food?

In the 70’s the quick and easy dinner darling was Hamburger Helper (remember that?).   In the 80s the crockpot was the way to go, as long as you added a spice packet of Lipton’s French Onion Soup.  The 90’s were all about foods in pocket form, packaged salads and lunch kits, and things you could cook in the microwave or toaster (pizza bagels, pizza pockets, toaster strudels).

Somewhere around the 2000’s farmers’ markets really started to come into their own (in the US anyway), and the number of farmers markets offering fresh local produce has grown to the level of abundance.  You can often find a good farmers market within 50 miles of your home these days.

The problem is our knowledge of how to cook with all this fresh produce is a bit rusty and the grandmothers are not always nearby anymore.  Sheet-pan dinners might be the rescue dinner of the 2000’s.  They are certainly gaining in popularity right now, and rightfully so.

What is the biggest complaint about Low Carb or Keto Lifestyles?

One of the biggest obstacles I have seen in coaching people on a range of different diets is the challenge of cooking whole foods at home.  In particular cooking vegetables.  It seems dieters these days fall into one of 3 camps:

  • a stressed out professional who doesn’t have time;
  • a busy parent (often a working parent) who needs to get something on the table without fuss;
  • a non-cook who just isn’t familiar with cooking and is either intimidated to learn or has no interest

The thing everyone seems to have in common however, is we all like to eat.  And we prefer eating something that tastes good!  I have heard of some people that really don’t enjoy food or eating, but so far in my fairly lengthy life I have not met any of them.

The Sheet-pan

Historically, sheet pans were a tool seen mostly in professional kitchens. You can get good ones in any kitchen store these days and they typically measure 18 x 13 inches with a lipped edge. You’ll often find them labeled as half sheet pans if you’re purchasing them from a restaurant supply store. If you have a pan at home that is a different size, don’t worry about it.  As long as you have enough space to spread things out into a single layer, everything will be fine.

The How-To:

The idea around sheet-pan dinners is that they are easy and it allows you to be creative with whatever you have available.  The idea is to get proteins and vegetables that cook up golden and crisp — not steamed and mushy?   The best way to achieve this wonderful crispy ideal is a combination of high heat (usually around 425 F) and enough food to fill in the space in your pan.   The only trick is to select proteins and veggies that will cook at approximately the same time.  If you need help with deciding perfect combinations of proteins and vegetables this link to Food 52 is a great resource.

Tips and Tricks to Sheet-pan Cooking

  1. If you want crispy proteins, leave the skin on chicken thighs or choose meat that will render its own fat.
  2. Use a piece of parchment paper to line your sheet pan with for fast and easy clean-up
  3. Frozen vegetables can be tossed onto the sheet pan without having to wait for them to thaw.
  4. Eggs and beans are great additions to make it something like a hash.
  5. I like to add some lemon wedges to use to squeeze over the dish at the end.  The fact that they are broiled lemon wedges makes them even more powerful of a taste treat.

Last week a neighbor brought us some lake fish (sun fish and croppies) and that went onto the sheet-pan with some chard, garlic, lemon wedges and fennel.

This week I went with chicken thighs, brussel sprouts, carrots, fennel, lemon and rosemary (see above photo).

It is really the simplest way to be a creative cook that I have seen in a long time.  Not to mention I finally have a way to easily make all those vegetables from the farmers’ markets!

I will add the exact chicken recipe to this post next week.  Otherwise check out the Food52 link and go wild!

 

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