Award-winning food blogger, Paleo enthusiast and working mom Michelle Tam is the face behind the ultra-popular blog Nom Nom Paleo. And being an ultimate authority on the Paleo diet, Tam just added another achievement to her already impressive resume—New York Times bestselling author for her cookbook Nom Nom Paleo: Food For Humans penned with husband, Henry Fong.
In the playful book, brimming with lighthearted humor and comics, Tam and Fong offer insight into the Paleo lifestyle, reveal tips on how to get started, and share a plethora of tasty, and Paleo-approved recipes. Tam also uses the book to deftly challenge stereotype of Paleo eating and those who believe the Palo diet isn’t healthy for the whole family.
In our Q&A, Tam shares her tips and valuable insight for turning yourself, your spouse, and your little ones into diehard Paleo followers.
Relish: What are the benefits of eating Paleo for yourself, your spouse, and your children? Is Paleo safe for kids?
Michelle Tam: At its heart, Paleo is about optimizing health by getting back to eating real, naturally occurring foods. The idea is that we should eat more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did—before the global spread of modern industrialized agriculture and cheap Frankenfoods. These foods have fed millions, but they’ve also ushered in an age of modern diseases like autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and rampant obesity.
Humans have biologically adapted best to whole foods: plants, meat, seafood—all of them packed with the nutrients our bodies thrive on. By getting back to eating these real, naturally occurring ingredients, we can improve our health and rediscover the pleasures of cooking and eating.
For our family, that means we prioritize the quality of our vegetables, meats, eggs, seafood, and fruit, and we’ve cut out the foods that are more harmful than healthful for us, like laboratory-concocted sugar/soy/wheat/corn bombs and highly processed vegetable and seed oils.
Since we made this switch, we’ve never felt better. My husband was the first to “go Paleo,” and the results were immediate: he no longer felt hungry all the time, and his body composition and athletic performance improved dramatically.
Personally, as a night shift hospital pharmacist for over a dozen years, and before switching to Paleo, I was mentally and physically lagging. But once I changed the way I ate, my energy levels shot up, and my digestive problems disappeared entirely. My moods were sunnier, too. (I was a much nicer mommy!) Paleo managed to both whittle down my midsection and fuel me with enough spunk to wrangle two small boys, hold down a full-time night shift job as a hospital pharmacist, cook meals from scratch every night, lift heavy(ish) stuff at the gym, develop an iPad app, maintain a blog, and write a cookbook.
And yes, Paleo is safe for kids…Paleo isn’t about wolfing down meat and avoiding carbohydrates—it’s about enjoying a variety of whole, real, nutrient-dense food, which is a great way for kids to eat. They’re thriving, strong, energetic—and best of all, they no longer suffer from the sugar-rushes and crashes that they used to get when they mindlessly snacked on the factory-concocted, super-processed, hyper-sugary foods we stocked in our pantry. Plus, they’re eating a lot more vegetables, which is always a good thing!
R: How do you get your kids to try ‘adventurous’ foods like Brussels sprouts, salmon, and lamb?
MT: I bribe them! (Kidding.)
To be honest, it was a struggle at first. My husband and I didn’t learn about Paleo until the kids were already accustomed to toaster waffles and cereal for breakfast, pizza and PB&J sandwiches for lunch, and spaghetti and garlic bread for dinner. (At the time, I thought that “whole grain” pasta and crackers made everything okay.)
But with persistence, we’ve gotten the entire family on board. I stopped buying processed junk foods, and explained to the boys that I’m not a short-order cook. In other words, each night, I’m just making one meal for the entire family to enjoy, rather than making four different meals for each picky eater in the house. The key, we discovered, was simple: model the food behaviors we want to see, and don’t give up.
We also found room for compromise. I try to make dishes that everyone in the family will enjoy—even if that means my husband and I get to indulge in spicy foods only on date nights. We’ve found that there are a number of dishes that we all love, so we tend to keep those in the regular dinner rotation, while continuing to try new things.
R: How does your entire family deal with being Paleo when attending parties, eating out, or snacking at other social functions?
MT: We don’t sweat it. We know that our kids are eating whole, nutrient-dense foods 80 percent of the time (because Henry and I are in charge of making the majority of their meals). Besides, to really take hold, this way of eating can’t be forced. So we just do our best to be good role models, and remind our boys why they should stick with real foods. And we trust them to make their own food choices when they’re not at home.
Does that mean that they sometimes choose to eat stuff that’s less than healthy? Of course! And we’re okay with that. (Fortunately, our kids don’t have any allergies or intolerances that make veering off Paleo more of an issue.) Our boys are free to grab cupcakes at their pals’ birthday parties (though our older son chooses to abstain more often than not). Henry and I don’t force them to sit out the pizza parties at school, and we don’t freak out when grandma visits and sneaks each of them a breakfast pastry. The last thing we want to do is to give them some sort of complex about food.
As for Henry and me, we find that there are often Paleo-friendly foods at social functions. (Unless it’s a pizza party, fondue party, or cookie-tasting party, it’s usually not hard to find Paleo eats at get-togethers!) Sometimes, we might eat a little something before we go to the party just to fill up a bit. And if I’m offered something I’d prefer not to eat, I use a tip from my friend Melissa Joulwan: I just say “not right now.” (The host usually assumes I’m full or will try it later.)
But what we never, ever do is make a fuss about the food. We go to social gatherings because we want to relax and hang out with friends and family—not to be annoying or strident about our food preferences.
R: Some moms get overwhelmed at the thought of making breakfast, packing school lunches, and whipping up dinners from scratch every day. How can busy moms make Paleo work?
MT: I can relate! I’m a full-time graveyard-shift pharmacist as well as a mom of two active boys…So if I can manage to whip up three square meals a day from scratch for my family, my gut tells me that other busy moms can, too!
Over time, I’ve found that there are many time-saving tips and tricks that make food prep much easier (and more fun!). I write about them on my blog and in my cookbook, and share many others on Facebook and Twitter. But two of my favorite ways to streamline the cooking process are to make good use of slow cookers and pressure cookers.
Slow cookers are wonderful; they’re cheap, no-frills countertop appliances that offer an easy way for us to cook food at a low, steady temperature for hours. There’s no need to babysit the pot—just set it and forget about it. After working a long night shift, I like to chuck the components of a hearty stew into my slow cooker before conking out; eight hours later, I wake to the intoxicating aroma of a delicious, ready-made meal. My family gets a home-cooked supper, and I get to sleep in. Win-win.
I’ve also found pressure cooking to be a game-changer—especially for home cooks with hectic schedules like me. When I’m pressed for time but craving foods that usually take forever to prepare (like bone broth, tough cuts of meat, or braised winter vegetables), I turn to one of my pressure cookers. Dinner will be on the table in minutes instead of hours.
R: Is the Paleo lifestyle expensive? Is it possible to cook and eat Paleo on a budget?
MT: Paleo emphasizes high-quality ingredients like organic vegetables and grass-fed or pastured meats, so if you’re not careful, this can easily translate into higher grocery bills. But it doesn’t have to be this way; as with any type of food approach, Paleo can be as cheap or as pricey as you want it to be.
To keep food costs down, buy in-season, pesticide-free vegetables and fruit at your local farmer’s market, or join a CSA. You can also supplement with frozen organic produce, too.
The meat of grass-fed ruminants can be pricy, so when you spot a sale or discount, stock up on as many different cuts as you can haul away in the trunk of your car: steaks, ribs, roasts—you name it. Tougher cuts are cheaper, and can be slow-cooked or pressure-cooked to tender perfection. Make sure you have plenty of ground beef, too. It can come in handy when you need to whip up a quick dinner. If the only meats available to you are conventionally raised and/or grain-fed which have a less-than-optimal fat profile), just choose lean cuts and trim off the excess fat.
It does take a bit more planning to source high-quality ingredients, but I find that the health of my family is worth the extra effort!
R: What do you say to critics who condemn the high-protein, high-cholesterol Paleo diet? Some studies show that a mainly meat-based diet has harmful effects on health ranging from kidney damage to osteoporosis to cardiovascular disease.
MT: I would say that they fundamentally misunderstand what the Paleo approach to eating is all about. The “caveman” label has confused a lot of people into thinking that we eat endless piles of meat, but for my family, it is absolutely not a “mainly meat-based diet,” nor is it a super-low-carb, short-term weight-loss-focused diet like Atkins.
This is probably the biggest myth about Paleo. The caveman is just a mascot; we don’t actually eat hunks of meat and spit out carbs. Just because Paleo eaters have incorporated healthy fats and high-quality grass-fed or pastured meats into their diets doesn’t mean that’s all we eat. That would be like saying that since vegetarians eat apples, they eat a mainly-apple-based diet!
Take the typical American dinner plate. Let’s assume it features a big portion of grains (like pasta or bread), a decent-sized helping of vegetables, and a reasonable portion of meat. “Going Paleo” doesn’t mean replacing this meal with a gigantic steak and a pile of greasy bacon. Rather, the simplest way to Paleo-ize this meal would be to replace the grains with more vegetables (which offer much more nutritional bang-for-the-buck than grains), and to make sure that all the ingredients are of the best quality that we can afford. We can even keep the portion of meat the same size as before (though I should point out that there is actually no evidence of any connection between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease). So now we have a plate loaded with healthy vegetables and some protein. I would argue that this isn’t the type of meal that deserves condemnation.
Sure, some people have adopted a low-carb Paleo approach, just as some folks eat a low-carb vegetarian diet. But Paleo isn’t about counting carbs, and it doesn’t involve transforming ourselves into carnivores. Frankly, I probably eat more fresh vegetables than I did when I was pretty much a vegetarian. I also eat plenty of carbs—just not the crazy amount that I used to devour when dinner took the form of mac ‘n cheese or pizza with breadsticks.
R: In honor of the upcoming season, what are your kids’ favorite Paleo meals in the springtime?
MT: We’re fortunate to live in the temperate climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, where fresh ingredients are available year-round—so my kids’ favorite springtime dishes are often the same as their favorite winter dishes!
Right now, they love Cracklin’ Chicken—a simple, crispy-skinned chicken dish that I make at least once a week. My older son often asks for Maple Sausage Patties from our cookbook for breakfast. And when it comes to vegetables, they both agree on Roasted Broccoli with Bacon.
Inspired to give the Paleo diet a try? Get cooking with some of Tam’s healthy, flavorful and nomtastic Paleo eats…