If you're familiar with the Whole30 program, you know it can be a challenge, even when you're in the comfort of your home and have your handy Trader Joe's store just down the street. When you're living in a country where "Western" food is often nowhere to be found AND all the food labels are written in Chinese, attempting the Whole30 is all the more challenging.
About a month ago, I decided to go all out and try the Whole30. If you're not familiar with the program, it involves stripping everything processed from your diet— artificial sugars, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, and any sort of baked goods— foods which are often found to cause cravings, spike blood sugar, and throw off your digestion. Instead, for 30 days, you focus on eating a moderate amount of meat, seafood, eggs; lots of veggies; some fruit; and plenty of natural fats, herbs, and spices. In a nutshell, eating whole, unprocessed foods for 30 days is intended to "reset" your body.
I had to do something. The past 8 months of eating Chinese food has been great and different and interesting (to say the least), but I knew it was time to make a change. All the noodles, rice, bread, and oil-on-everything was weighing me down, making me feel super blah and killing my energy levels.
So, on April 4 I began the Whole30 challenge, along with my partner in crime, Justin. He's been such a trooper through all of this, sticking to the challenge and cooking most of our meals. I owe him big time.
As I write this, I'm only 2 days away from completing the challenge on May 4. I can't believe it! It was tough to start, but once I was a week in, I didn't miss my afternoon dark chocolate or my favorite tapas dinner of baguette and cheese (well, maybe a little... I just tried not to think about it). I truly feel so much better— I have more energy, I sleep better, and I have less digestive issues. I've always been a fairly healthy eater, but now I feel like my overall relationship to food is better. I find myself genuinely excited to try a new Whole30 recipe knowing the ingredients are real, fresh, and delicious. I think, if anything, everyone owes that to themselves.
Thankfully, most of the Whole30 approved foods are easy to find in China. Meat, seafood, eggs, fruit, and vegetables are a plenty here. However, there are a few drawbacks.
For starters, most Chinese kitchens are incredibly tiny and aren't equipped with ovens. You're lucky if you have two stove-top burners, a toaster oven, and/or a microwave (like we do) because most kitchens here just have a hot plate. This obviously makes cooking larger dishes quite difficult— everything usually takes twice as long to make.
Another challenge is finding "special" Whole30 approved ingredients like spices, oils, vinegar, and condiments. Want some almond butter to add protein to a salad? Not gonna happen. Want to read the back of a mustard jar to find if it has added sugar in it? Too bad— everything's in Chinese. You really need to work with what you know and what you can find here.
Despite the challenges, we did our best, and that's all you can really do when you're living in a foreign country. Read on to learn our tips, advice, and even some recipe recommendations for completing the Whole30 in China!
1. Meal Planning is Your Best Friend
This goes without saying no matter where you are in the world. Spending just a little bit of extra time before you head to the grocery store to find some fun, delicious recipes will help structure your week. Make a list of everything you need to avoid any impulse buys at the checkout counter, too. Meal planning is a great way to save time and unnecessary stress during a busy week when you'd normally have to think of something to make for dinner.
2. Meal Prep is Your Other Best Friend
Aren't leftovers the best? Any time you can double a meal is a win-win. Cook an extra chicken breast with dinner to top on a salad for lunch the next day, hard boil a bunch of eggs for a week's breakfast, cut up fresh vegetables for snacks. Whenever you're in the kitchen, think of ways to extend your cooking efforts to stretch across multiple meals.
3. Find a Local Market
Living in a large city in China, we have many grocery stores to choose from. We can also pop into a small market for vegetables and fruit. The produce is always cheaper and fresher in the markets. Plus, they're often run by a small group of people or a family, so you'll get in with the locals. The market nearby our apartment knows us well— they always greet us with a loud "HALLO!" whenever we stop in.
4. Find a Store That Carries Imported Products
If you can, this will make your life so much easier. This tip won't help so much if you're in a smaller city or town, but I've found that most major cities in China have at least a Wal-Mart. In Xi'an, we have a store called "Metro." It's basically the equivalent to BJ's back home— it's a huge warehouse-style store that sells everything from food and drinks to furniture and clothing. It's also one of the only places that carries imported products with English labels.
Justin and I stocked up there for our Whole30 challenge. We found great deals on extra-virgin olive oil, stone ground mustard, spices, vinegar, curries, coconut milk, and salmon. Although the grocery bill was a bit high on that trip, we were glad to have some special ingredients to add to our meals.
5. When in Doubt, Translate
Even if you don't have a Metro or a Wal-Mart near you, it's still worth asking for a specific product at your local grocery store. If your Chinese is a little lacking (like ours is), turn to a translation app to help you.
My favorite? Pleco, which you can download on an Android or Apple phone. Pleco is great because you don't need mobile data or wifi to use it. Simply open the app, type in the word you want to translate, and you'll get a few different translations right away.
There's also Waygo, Baidu (the Chinese version of Google), iTranslate Voice, and Trip Lingo for both Android and Apple phones.
Whole30 and China approved. Win-win!
Breakfast: Breakfast Casserole
This dish is best made ahead of time so you have an easy, re-heatable breakfast throughout the week. Just find a small square or circular baking tin that can fit in your toaster oven. I love to serve it with strawberries and banana on the side. So simple and easy!
- About 8 eggs (depending on pan size)
- 1 large potato (thinly sliced to serve as the "crust")
- 1/2 lb cooked ground pork (spiced to your preference)
- 1/4 finely diced onion
- 1/4 chopped broccoli
- 1/4 diced green pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Coat the bottom of the baking tin with a little olive oil. Lay the thinly sliced potatoes along the bottom and edge of the pan to make a "crust."
- Sautee vegetables and ground pork. Spread them along the bottom of the baking tin.
- Wisk the eggs and pour them into the baking tin.
- Turn the heat on your toaster oven to approximately 350 degrees. When the egg rises and is no longer "wet," you'll know the casserole is cooked.
- Allow 5 minutes to cool. Enjoy! Leftovers last about a week in the refrigerator. You can also switch up the casserole by making it meatless or adding different vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, and asparagus.
Lunch: Tuna Avocado Salad With Sweet Potato "Chips"
A fresh and colorful lunch that keeps you satisfied all afternoon.
- 1 can of tuna (our recommendation? "Ayam Brand")
- 1 ripe avocado
- 1/4 cup diced red onion
- 1/4 cup diced carrot
- 1/4 cup diced cucumber
- 1/4 cup diced celery
- 1 large sweet potato (thinly sliced)
- Salad greens of choice
- Optional diced tomatoes to top salad
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Garlic powder
- Chop red onion, carrot, cucumber, and celery and add them to a bowl. Set aside.
- Cut into avocado and scoop out the insides. Mash the avocado in a bowl until it's a creamy consistency.
- Open tuna can, drain, and mix with the avocado. Add in diced vegetables and mix together. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Set aside.
- Wash and slice sweet potato into thin "rounds."
- Cover frying pan with olive oil (enough to submerge the chips). Turn stovetop to a medium heat and place the sliced sweet potato in the pan. Cook until "rounds" are golden brown and crispy, scoop them out of the pan, and place them on a plate. Continue until all "rounds" are cooked. Sprinkle with salt and garlic powder.
- Place your salad greens on a plate. Scoop tuna mixture onto the bed of greens and top with optional tomatoes.
- Recommended homemade salad dressing: wisk together 3/4 part red wine vinegar and 1/4 part olive oil. Add in italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, and pepper to taste.
Dinner: Salmon With Asparagus and Cauliflower "Rice"
Cauliflower "rice" is my jam. This dinner, given the right tools, is easy and incredibly delicious. We even traveled halfway across the city to the Metro to get fresh salmon. Totally worth it.
- Any salmon fillet you can find that will fit in a toaster oven
- 1 head of cauliflower
- Asparagus spears
- 1 lemon
- 2 garlic cloves
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Chop the cauliflower into bite-size pieces. Then use a food processor to make the cauliflower "rice." Try not to process it too finely (it took us a couple tries). Set aside.
- Mince garlic.
- Place salmon on toaster oven baking tin (tip: cover the tin with aluminum foil to avoid sticking). Rub salmon with olive oil. Sprinkle minced garlic and pepper on top (tip: save salt until salmon is cooked to avoid drying it out). Heat toaster oven to approximately 350 degrees and cook until the salmon is flaky, but still moist.
- While the salmon is cooking, add a splash of olive oil to a frying pan. Add about a 1/2 cup of water to the pan and steam/fry the asparagus over a medium heat.
- After the asparagus has been cooked, remove it and use the same frying to pan to cook the cauliflower "rice." Add about a 1/2 cup of water and cook over a medium heat for approximately 5 minutes or until the water is cooked away. While cooking, add any spices that you like. We recommend garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Chili powder can add a kick if you'd like.
- Plate, garnish, and serve with a lemon wedge on the side.
The Whole30 has been great. I plan on continuing to eat as many "whole" foods as I can, while slowly introducing foods back into my diet and paying more attention to how my body reacts. I don't think the Whole30 is realistic for me to do all the time, but it sure is a great way to rethink and reset. With anything, it's all about balance.
Speaking of balance... I'm secretly counting down the days until I can have a glass of red wine and a dark chocolate square. Antioxidants are healthy, right?