Low Carb Menu Planning 101: The Basics

Low Carb Menu Planning is Easy

In just a couple of generations, Americans have become accustomed to picking up carry-out meals on the way home from work, if we’re not so busy we just eat fast food in the car. On the nights we’re home a lot of us buy a rotisserie chicken or a ready-meal at the grocery for a “sit down meal”. Others rely on mixes, “cooking” by dumping a few cans and boxes together.

Cooking at home is healthier and more satisfying than ordering take-out or eating at a restaurant. The time needed to cook at home need not take more time than a frantic unplanned drive to the grocery store or waiting for pizza to be delivered. It just takes a little pre-planning. It’s also easier than you think on your low carb lifestyle.

Let’s start with basics. What should go into your low carb meals?

Basic Low Carb Ingredients: Protein, Fats, and Vegetables

For a low carb supper you need protein, fat, and vegetables. You can include low carb fruit, cheese, and nuts if you can tolerate them; those will be the main sources of carbs in your meal. Keep in mind that seasonal foods tend to be cheap, and seasonal cooking techniques save you money (and comfort-making a huge pot of stew during the summer costs money because the air conditioner works harder).

You can use these low carb basic ingredients in many ways. You can make a one-dish low carb meal like a casserole or a stir-fry, or you can grill the protein course, grilling the vegetables separately. You can serve grilled meat as part of a salad, or with a salad on the side. Depending on the season and your mood, you can combine these basics in a hearty soup or kabobs.

Low Carb Seasonal Ingredients and Cooking Styles

So: Consider the season and choose your ingredients. Then pick your dish and cooking technique accordingly. During the winter, making something that bakes for an hour might be just right for nights where you come home briefly, then head right back out to take a child to play practice. Dinner can bake while you’re gone. If you have time earlier in the day, you could use the slow cooker. Other nights, you might come home later, but be staying in for a while, so a stove-top one-dish low carb meal might make more sense.

Low Carb Main Dishes

Generally, when I’m planning low carb meals I pick the meat first. I do this because I plan a full week of low carb menus all at once, and I don’t want to be eating chicken every night of the week. We had chicken last night, so I’m using beef tonight. This helps simplify your low carb menu.

Next, choose an ethnic style. My family loves food from around the world, from the U.S. to Saudi to Thai, along with the more familiar Italian and Mexican. If I want Italian tonight, I will likely want something different tomorrow. There may, however, be a common ingredient like onions, in both dishes, so I should be sure to include enough for both nights on my shopping list.

Low Carb Side Dishes

Next, plan side dishes. Whether you serve one or two sides will depend on how many carbs you include in your main dish. If you use a sauce with a lot of carbs – because of tomatoes or onions or the like – you may want only one side, and one that is pretty low in carbs, at that, like asparagus or a green salad. But if your main course is quite low in carbs – say, a grilled steak – then you can likely handle two sides: perhaps both a salad and mashed cauliflower or mashed kabocha squash with bacon. Just keep your personal carb limit in mind.

There are a few directions you can take for simple meals that are very quick to cook. In the summer, you can marinate things during the day, and then pull them out and grill them at night. Most marinades are oil, an acidifier (like lemon juice or wine vinegar) and spices/herbs, similar to salad dressing. This is a pretty quick way to go. You can also do main-dish salads in the summer, starting with a rotisserie chicken or canned meat.

In the winter, the simplest are either slow cooker meals or stove-top meals. You can use similar ingredients to a marinade in your slow cooker. You can even marinating the meat first, and then pour the sauce over meat and vegetables to cook. It should take you about five minutes. You may need to thicken the liquid once it’s done, but generally it’s quick to serve, too.

Stovetop meals need more attention. Generally, you brown seasonings like onions and mushrooms, add a meat to brown, then remove the meat and turn the rest into a sauce by the addition of sour cream, cream cheese, or broth with a thickener. You can steam vegetables right on top of the meat, even if they are not going to be incorporated into the sauce!

If non-low-carbing family members are still hungry, they can have seconds on the carbier dishes. You can even buy low carb bread for them, serving it with butter and low-sugar spread. This was my mom’s strategy when I was growing up, especially when she was having trouble affording low-carbing. Done with your chicken leg, salad and California blend? Have a piece of bread with butter and jam. There are several brands of low carb bread that are widely available, including Light and Healthy low carb bread 6 gram net carbs, and Sarah Lee’s 45 Calorie low carb bread. Each comes in several varieties.

Note: CarbSmart will be evaluating other varieties of low carb bread in the near future.

Low Carb Desserts

Do you need to plan dessert? Maybe. Long time low carbers who have been avoiding both natural and artificial sweeteners may find that they don’t really want or miss dessert. If you do want something sweet at the end of the meal, it’s hard to beat berries and heavy cream! I can also remember “dessert” being Jell-o gelatin or Jell-o Pudding – and Jell-o is pretty simple. If you’re avoiding artificial sweeteners, you can make your own from plain gelatin.

But if you do want something more elaborate, it’s a good idea to go really elaborate. Why? It’s enough work you won’t be tempted to eat dessert every night. In our processed food culture, we’ve gotten used to easy access to desserts that would take hours to make in a home kitchen. Our moms and grandmas didn’t spend an hour or more cooking dessert more than once a week or so. It also sets a better sense of what’s normal for your kids, pulling them away from the expectation that every meal should be followed by a shake or turnover.

Prepping Your Low Carb Meals Ahead of Time

Another way to streamline weeknight meals: Do as much prep work as you can at once. If you plan several nights ahead, not only can you consolidate grocery trips, but you can easily see that you are using ground beef twice. This lets you brown it all at once so you don’t have to do it the second time around. Likewise, if you are using chopped onion several times during the week, chop enough for the week all at once, the first time you need it. Then bag what you’re not using that night, and stash it in the fridge – you won’t have to spend the time chopping later in the week. If you need both chopped onions and browned ground beef twice during the week, you’ll save yourself 20 minutes or so of prep time the second night!

Planning several low carb meals at once makes a lot of sense: you can do all the grocery shopping at once and make sure that you’re not going to end up with no ideas and no time on a busy night. So that will be the topic of the next article in this series.

What are your ideas for low carb menu planning? Do you have favorite go-to low carb meals? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Andrea says

    I don’t plan specific meals but I do prep lots of things in advance so I can fix meals in fifteen minutes or so.

    Yesterday I baked three pounds of chicken thighs, made venison chili and roasted kobucha squash. I also chopped a sirloin into half inch pieces to use in a stew sometime in the future and cut a round steak into strips that I portioned into 4oz balls. Most of that went into the freezer. The round steak is for Erik’s pho soup.

    Today I’ve been cooking steaks in the sous vide and made beef stock. I also chopped and washed salad greens, lightly steamed some broccoli and shredded a pound of cheese. I will start the yogurt in the sous vide when the last of the steak is finished.

    That will be the bulk of my cooking for the next 10 days or so. Most of the time I just pull stuff out and assemble a meal, but I do occasionally cook a meal from scratch if there is something in particular we want.

    • Tracey Rollison says

      Lots of pre-prep work can come in handy, too. I have certain ingredients I *always* have around, like butter, coconut oil, chicken thighs, mushrooms, tons of seasonings, shredded cheese, broths, and my herb garden (at least in season). It does really help to build up a well-stocked pantry!


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