Tuesday 10: Foods That Are Always In My Kitchen

After three years of paleo eating, Dave and I have drilled grocery shopping down to a science. When our local HEB grocery store rearranged all of its aisles, Dave used the map of the new arrangement to make a spreadsheet that cross-referenced the stuff we buy most often against its location in the store. Genius! (Feel free to take a peek at our grocery list right here. PDF].)

We keep a printout of the list on the front of the fridge and check off the stuff we need throughout the week, then one of us hits the store, list in hand, and follows the path around the perimeter… from produce to meat, across the back of the store from eggs to canned tuna and pickles and vinegar, to a swoop across the front for frozen veggies and tissues… which conveniently drops us right at the checkout. We supplement our grocery store haul with a weekly basket from Farmhouse Delivery and monthly drops of grass-fed beef from Bastrop Cattle Company — with occasional side trips to Central Market or Sprouts for stuff like Sunbutter, dark chocolate, and pork.

The foods listed below fall into a special category all their own; they’re the foods we never let run out. They’re always checked on our list, and we have backups for the backups in our cabinets. These are the foods that are essential for keeping us well fed (and Well Fed).

My Paleo Kitchen Must-Haves

1. Unrefined Coconut Oil
For cooking, organic unrefined coconut oil is my first choice. It lends a somewhat buttery flavor to dishes and can be used at pretty high temperatures without oxidizing (which means it remains good for you, even if you turn up the heat). Because it’s saturated, it’s solid at cooler temperatures, so it’s a good stand in for butter in baked treats. I know lots of paleo people prefer clarified butter or ghee, but once I tried coconut oil, I was hooked.

2. Organic, Unsweetened Coconut Flakes
Eaten on their own as a snack (like Caramelized Coconut Chips) or sprinkled into and on top of dishes, coconut flakes add another dimension of flavor and texture. They’re lovely, little wisps of good-for-you fat that can go savory or sweet. I like to toss a few on top of Thai curries or sprinkle them on a bowl of fruit and coconut milk for dessert.

3. Full-fat Coconut Milk
Equally at home in sweet and savory dishes, coconut milk is an excellent replacement for heavy cream or yogurt in curries and creamy sauces. It’s also luscious when whipped into a creamy cloud and served over fresh fruit. Organic brands are best — and definitely go for the full-fat version. It’s okay if the ingredient list includes guar gum, but avoid brands that include sulfites or added sugar.

4. Organic, Grass-fed Ground Beef
If I have a few pounds of grass-fed ground beef in the fridge, I know I’m only about 10 minutes away from a delicious dinner. Browned and seasoned with garlic and spices, ground beef is like a blank canvas that can be turned into just about any ethnic-inspired meal. Stir-fried with veggies and five-spice powder, it’s instantly Asian. Formed into a burger and piled on top of a big salad, it’s all-American. Wrapped in a lettuce leaf with cucumbers, jalapeno, lime, and garlic, it’s a Thai wrap. And don’t even get me started on the meatball possibilities… Our favorite application of ground beef right now is the Deconstructed Hamburger Salad; we eat it at least once a week.

5. Sardines Packed in Olive Oil
These little fish are perfect on-the-go food. My super-secret lunch weapon is a can of sardines, a red bell pepper cut into strips, a cucumber cut into coins, and a small handful of fresh blueberries or cherries. Just a little oily and not too fishy, the sardines are power food — and the leftover oil is perfect for dipping raw veggies. I like Crown Prince, boneless, skinless the best.

6. Collard Greens
Kale seems to be the superstar of the paleo world, but I’m here to make a case for collard greens. They’re a little sturdier and tenderize during steaming and sautéeing without disintegrating into mushy territory. They can be braised in a coconut milk curry, wrapped around meat fillings and baked in tomato sauce, or sautéed in oil with seasonings to make a vitamin-packed side dish. They’re also mild enough to taste great at breakfast with eggs and leftover protein. I like cut them into 1-inch strips, steam ’til tender-ish, then sauté them with coconut oil until they get a little dry and crispy.

7. Cauliflower
Cauliflower might be the most versatile vegetable in the kitchen, so I always have two heads in the fridge at all times. Grated in a food processor and sautéed with fat and spices, it’s instant “rice.” Or boiled in broth and mashed with coconut milk (or a dollop of homemade mayo), it transforms into mashed “potatoes.” It also adds a big crunch when chopped raw in salads, and becomes crisp-tender when roasted in the oven.

8. Frozen, Unsweetened Blackberries
Low in fructose and high in anti-oxidants, blackberries are loaded with nutrition and flavor. I like to eat them frozen with coconut milk drizzled over the top as a go-along with eggs for breakfast, or as dessert after a paleo dinner. Because they’re not too sweet, they don’t trigger the sugar demon, but they’re sweet enough to feel like a treat.

9. Jicama
To be fair, jicama isn’t a nutrition powerhouse, but it’s not doing any harm either. I love its crisp texture and almost-sweet taste. Peeled, cut into matchsticks, and kept in the fridge, jicama is a cool addition to a crudité platter — julienned, it makes a lovely salad mixed with lime juice, diced avocado, and slivers of red bell pepper. Its mild taste makes it great at breakfast, too!

10. Free-Range, Organic Eggs
Great any time of day, eggs are quality source of fast protein. I like to keep a dozen hard boiled on hand for egg salad or deviled eggs made with homemade mayo. When my day has been long, and I want something comforting, an omelet (or egg foo yong) does the trick — and gently scrambled eggs with zucchini noodles are amazing comfort food in a flash.

Turn it up to 11: Spices
Spices and seasonings can transform ordinary ingredients into magical meals. I have an extensive collection of spices, but these are the ones, in addition to sea salt and black pepper, that are absolutely essential. (Here’s a lengthy list of almost everything in my spice cabinet.)

Ground Cinnamon: A must-have basic for sweet and savory foods in just about every ethnic cuisine. Add to Chinese stir-fry, roasted butternut squash or sweet potatoes, or beef chili.

Ground Cumin: My favorite spice, cumin adds a rich, earthiness to North African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Mexican, and some Chinese dishes. Try it with ground beef or lamb, cauliflower “rice,” mixed with chili powder in Mexican dishes, or baked sweet potatoes.

Garlic: Put garlic in everything you eat. The end.

Ground Ginger: Ginger adds a warm, spicy bite to coconut milk curries and stir-fries. Scrambled with eggs, it’s a paleo home remedy for a cough.

Dried Mint: Fresh and tangy, mint adds sunshine to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. Try it on roasted carrots, tossed with raw onions, or stirred into tuna salad with lemon juice.

Dried Oregano: The “pizza herb” for everything Italian, oregano is great with tomatoes, green beans, and zucchini. Mix it into ground meat with garlic for instant Italian sausage.

Ground Paprika: Paprika is another equal-opportunity spice that adds zing and rich color to Moroccan, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European dishes. Sprinkle it on fresh melon for a treat.

Chili Powder: Used in Tex-Mex, Indian, Chinese, and Thai foods, chili powder is a blend of peppers, cumin, oregano, garlic, and salt. Mixed with paprika and salt, it transforms into BBQ seasoning.

So there you have it: the foods I need to keep my paleo kitchen stocked so it’s easy to keep saying “yes” to the good stuff and “who needs you?!” to sugar, grains, legumes, and dairy.

What are your kitchen musts?

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  • Stephanie says:

    Love this list!! Mine is pretty similar though I dunno…can’t wrap my head around the sardines yet 😉

    • Mel says:

      The trick with sardines for me was getting the boneless, skinless kind — which is why I like Crown Prince so much. VERY delicious and they have the texture of fish fillets instead of weird little fish, if you know what I mean.

      • Sardines were a part of my childhood! Way better than the Diet Coke that was also a part of my childhood. Thanks, Mom. But seriously, I have always loved them. I just wish my husband and kid could get into them. Maybe someday!

    • sarah says:

      salt, pepper, and mustard does the trick for me… sometimes a little mashed avocado.

      generally speaking, i’ve decided that if i’m going to restrict so many foods, i’d better damn well learn to eat the foods that are good for me–asparagus and olives have been my biggest successes so far, i just kept eating them with other foods i like until i became a person who goes out of my way to get asparagus!

  • Mary Parker says:

    yeah, I don’t do the sardines at all… just substitute sardines for chicken breast and this is what my kitchen looks like too: )

    Go paleo!!!

  • Mariah B says:

    “Put garlic on everything you eat. The end.”


    I’m a sucker for anything with cumin, chili powder, and red pepper extract too.

    And I’ve never been a sardine person.. but have to do some traveling coming up. Would they allow those to be carried onto planes?

  • Samantha says:

    My favorite must-have weekly shopping item is hands down avocado. I can eat them every day in every way, mmmm.

  • Suzan says:

    The list is similar to mine, except, I’d sub:

    frozen spinach for collards
    Tuna for sardines
    Frozen blueberries for frozen blackberries.
    Garnet yams for jicama.

    Not a fan of mint
    I must have regular and smoked paprika.
    I must have Maldon smoked sea salt. To.Die.For.
    Fresh parsley
    Lemons and Limes

  • Kim says:

    I’m so glad that I’m not the only person with a grocery list that’s mapped to my local store! My husband thought I was nuts, but having that list of our most commonly bought items has saved me so much time!! No more repeat visits to the store because I forgot XYZ item. The premade list has it all! 🙂

    • Mel says:

      I have to admit, I kinda teased Dave when he was doing the mapping exercise, but every time I use it, I think, “My husband is a genius.”

  • Linda Sand says:

    In October I will be picking up a new RV in Austin. You just made stocking its galley MUCH easier. I bookmarked this post to use then. Thank you.

  • hillary says:

    I just ordered a bunch of grass-fed ground beef from a local farm and I will fully admit to struggling with the best way to prepare grass-fed beef. They suggest cooking at a lower temp for a shorter time.

    Do you have any tips or tricks re: grass-fed ground beef?

    • Mel says:

      I usually just brown mine in a non-stick skillet on medium-high heat until it’s cooked through and browned, then I use it as raw materials for other stuff: stir-fry, sauté with veg and spices, mix into eggs, put on top of a salad, mix with coconut milk, curry paste, and veggies… that kind of thing. Mostly because I’m lazy.

      • Teri says:

        Thanks for the great ideas, Mel! I’m just starting to learn about Paleo and I’m amazed how it seems like a perfect fit for me – all natural and low carb with focus on humanely raised animal products and delicious fresh local produce . Yum!
        The ground beef ideas will be so good and so easy! I’m a little concerned about the non-stick pan, especially on med-high. Do you use Teflon or something safer? I love my old fashioned well-seasoned cast iron.

  • We liked your list! How creative! Some examples from our ingredient must list are extra virgin olive oil, feta cheese and quinoa.

  • Wendy says:

    Your list is masterful, my constants are similar but include:
    canned tomatoes
    canned salmon
    nuts and nuts and nuts!

  • Thanks for mentioning the sardines… I have three tins in my cupboard that I picked up in France, and can’t seem to get up the nerve to open them and try to eat them– I love fresh fish, but struggle with the canned versions. But I will do it this week!

    Coconut butter is high on my list, and of course so is regular butter. I keep kombucha and fizzy water handy, it fills the same sort of craving as a beer on a warm day. Tahini is super versatile and satisfying, so that gets used a lot. Also, I try to make babaganoush frequently, so there will be something to dip veggies in.

  • Ted Barbeau says:

    I should probably ask Amazon directly about this, Melissa. But do you see any different in the Bob’s Red Mill link you published and this one?


    It seems like it’s the same product at half the price and shipped “prime” by Amazon. It seems like a steal, so of course I’m skeptical 🙂


  • Tiffany says:

    The only thing I see different is the cat food. One of our cats has asthma, the other arthritis, and the dog has three herniated discs. So the animals in the house are Paleo, too! They eat either home made grain free or FreshPet brand which can also be purchased grain free. What a huge difference in all of them! After just a few months the dog was off all of his medications which he’d been on for over 5 years and still had episodes of pain. Now, two years later, no meds and only one bad relapse of pain.

    • Debbie says:

      My dogs eat paleo too!! Their food and snacks are grain free! I have noticed a huge difference in their energy levels. I made the switch because the oldest dog who is only five seems to have troubles with leg cramps. I made the switch with the food and saw a huge difference with the cramping, but now that they are 100% grain free she hasn’t had an episode yet. Crazy….but amazing!

      • Penny says:

        I’d like to know more about feeding your dog a grain free diet do you cook all his/ her food or do you buy a brand of kibble that is grain free? My 5 year old chocolate lab has stopped jumping into the car, etc due to hip problems. I asked the vet about diet but she went straight to meds. Would rather try a “food fix” first!

  • Alex says:

    Have you tried Herbie’s spices? They are from Australia (as am I) but I used to order them in New York also when I was there. I swear they are the best I have found anywhere. Their Ras el Hanout and Baharat are my personal favourites. Also the best dukkah for boiled eggs! There is a huge range of unique blends. http://www.herbies.com.au

    • Mel says:

      Thanks for the link! That’s a great tip for our friends in Australia. (Hello, friend in Australia!)

      Note to self: Must make dukkah.

  • Vi says:

    As I am taking stock of how poorly I have been caring for myself over the past two years I have found your witty and informative blog a must read! Thank you.

    I would add for the workplace locker/desk drawer:

    Raw almonds

    Paleo friendly jerky

    Dark chocolate

    Cans of tuna or the pouches


    Toothbrush and paste (most patients and coworkers don’t appreciate sardine breath)

    Vi in VA

  • elaine! says:

    I finally got the nerve to try sardines after watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats with the sardine avo toast. 🙂 Now I’ll occasionally eat them out of the can with some hot sauce or mustard instead. Brisling sardines have a fairly mild flavor. And I always get the beheaded ones because the ones with the heads still on creep me out. 😛 You should definitely try the ones WITH bones, though, it’s a great source of calcium! And it’s not like they’re crunchy or anything, canned fish ends up all the same texture, more or less.

    • Mel says:

      Sorry, no can do. Don’t like the bones. Must be skinless, boneless for me.

      I used to love sardines as a kid, then I stopped eating them for a long time. The first time I had them again as an adult, I got the whole kind. I really had a serious gag reaction to the heads and dtails.

  • Ms Jane says:

    Are collard greens the same thing as silver beet?

  • Sarah says:

    I love it! And oh how I wish I could get myself to love sardines. I just haven’t gotten there yet.

  • AustinGirl says:

    Savory Spice Shop has harissa that I am in love with. I tried an ounce of it and blew through it in less than a week. I make it into the oil/water/spice combo that’s traditional, and use it that way for awhile (excellent on lamb-burgers, btw). Then, I’ll mix that sauce with homemade mayo for a spicy dip that leaves anything “chipotle” in the dust. Soooo good.
    Oh, and I always have almond butter in the house too. Just the ground nuts. Nothing else added. I use it in all kinds of things. Also,a teeny bit of almond butter on a dried date, with a sprinkling of salt on top has kept me from diving face-first into a tub of ice cream many-a-time.

  • janine says:

    I just bought your cookbook, and will be doing the Whole30 starting august 1!! I am excited! I just wanted to say thank you! Your site and cookbook make me feel like I can make this transition to a new way of seeing food!!! I lovelovelove your site!!! Thank you! this list helps me get my kitchen ready!

  • De23 says:

    I go into a panic if I find that I’m opening the last can of coconut milk in the pantry. Most of the pancakes/baked stuff I make for my kids is coconut-milk based, so we go through it like crazy.

    And like others here, I have a can of sardines in the pantry that I haven’t gotten the nerve to open yet. 🙂

    • Mel says:

      I just realized that I have, like, 5 cans of coconut milk because whenever I go to the store, I think, “I better get some so I don’t run out.”

  • Cate B says:

    I’m with ya on the collards! I love me some kale, but collards withstand our Texas heat so much better. They are literally growing up to four feet high in the garden next door to me, which makes me super happy since the cute little old man that lives there inevitably passes some along my way 😉 VIVA LA GREENS!

    • Mel says:

      I feel like they’re so much easier to work with — and I like the taste more. I also love that collards get a little crispy if you let them sit in a sauté pan with a little coconut oil (after steaming to make them halfway tender).

      • Cate B says:

        YES! Even when I don’t steam them, I still think they end up just delicious sauteed w/ the coco oil as well. They also make delicious wraps stuffed with chicken thighs and mayo. Why? Because they are the badass of greens. They can’t help it. They just grow that way.

        (…I might be getting a little dramatic on my collard love – but they are so under appreciated!)

  • Dana says:

    I thought this was a fun read when you first posted it, but didn’t think it “applied” to me…

    By Thursday I was compiling my own personal list of staples, and this morning I was organizing the list according to the layout of my main grocery store!

    Now after stocking myself back up using my cool new tool, I sit typing this comment with still-greasy fingers from having wolfed down my very first can of sardines. They were YUMMY! (Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would eat sardines!)

    You are so great!

    • Mel says:

      HOORAY! Good for you, Dana! I love that you have a dorky shopping list now, too. Neener!

      Glad you like the sardines. Surprising, right?! But so so so good.

  • Danielle says:

    My list has a lot of overlap with yours, especially the eggs. I get downright panicky if we are low on eggs!

  • Bill says:

    I got turned on to Paleo about two months ago. I didn’t expect to start feeling different so quickly. My clotehs started to fit differently right away, but most importantly for me, I wasn’t starved and didn’t suffer from having to eat bland food (I’m a bit of a cook myself).

    I got several Paleo cookbooks right at the start, and then my good lady wife found Well-Fed…. I was done in just looking at the pictures.

    Happily Well-Fed (with lots of garlic and smoked parika) in Virginia,


    • Mel says:

      Congratulations on making the switch and on your awesome success so far. YAY!

      I’m so glad you and your lady are enjoying Well Fed. Thank you for stopping by to let me know. Wishing you many happy kitchen adventures and continued paleo success.

      Keep us posted on how you’re doing!

  • Cat says:

    Lettuce, lettuce! I can’t believe no one else has lettuce on their top ten. Lettuce, chard, kale, collards, spinach. At least a few of those need to be in the house at all times.
    And sauerkraut.

  • Spinach: I eat it everyday in my morning omelet.

    Blueberries: again, I eat them everyday for breakfast.

    Pure Wraps: good for a quick lunch with leftover chicken or homemade tuna.

    Eggs: I buy 3 dozen at a time.

  • Andrea T. says:

    Hi, Mel. I just started going Paleo (having some trouble with wheat, eek!), but I’m wondering how to pick out a coconut oil that is good. I’m in Vancouver, Canada and we have Whole Foods and other, smaller stores similar to that. Are there any brands that you’d recommend or to stay away from? Thanks!

    • Mel says:

      If you want to buy online, Tropical Traditions is tasty, very high quality, and they offer free shipping pretty frequently, so you can stock up and save.

      If you buy it in the store, don’t buy the cheapest brand because they tend to taste metallic. Look for unrefined, virgin coconut oil, and if you can find/afford organic, that’s a good addition to the list of adjectives, too.