I Tried It

I Gave Up Carbs at Dinner for a Week. Here’s What Happened.

No pasta, no bread, no rice, no potatoes, and no idea how I'll make it.

I’m not one of those people who thinks carbs are evil. I love carbs. Carbs are fuel. Dave’s Killer organic bread is practically my comfort food, sweet potato oven fries make an appearance at my dinner table on the reg, and I don’t think I’d survive long on a dessert island without whole wheat tortillas.

So why did I decide to spend an entire week skipping my beloved carbs at dinnertime? Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea: A trainer asked if I wanted to participate in his January health challenge, which included giving up starchy carbs — pasta, potatoes, bread, and rice — at dinner. And, like some kind of crazy person who thinks experiments are fun, I agreed to this.

To make matters worse, I was also trying to eat 20 to 25 percent of my daily calories in the form of protein. That meant I couldn’t shove my face with pizza and doughnuts all day and then just eat chicken for dinner. Nope, this week was going to be all about balance.

To give you an idea of what a typical breakfast and lunch look like for me, it’s this: two eggs on toast at breakfast, with almonds, carrots, an apple, and a banana for lunch. That means that by dinnertime, I’m ready to eat (and eat and eat).

Was it hard? Did I break down and order pizza two nights in? Read on to find out.

Night One: Hoisin Sauce Stir Fry Bowls

I made this meal before I decided to write about it, so here’s a terrible photo of the last time I made this meal. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

For my first night, I decided to kick it off with something really tasty: a twist on this Budget Bytes recipe for hoisin sauce stir fry bowls. I say a twist because I swapped the pork for ground turkey (yay, lean protein!) and since the bell peppers at the grocery store were weirdly expensive (sorry, nope, not paying $4 for one pepper), I threw in some leftover yellow squash.

I’ve made this recipe before, and it’s delicious. But typically, I’d have it on a nice bed of rice. This time, however, I opted for riced cauliflower from my local Acme. 

I dug into my bowl fully expecting to miss the rice, but to my surprise, I actually liked the riced cauliflower even more. Sautéeing it in a little olive oil on the stove really brought out the sweetness of the cruciferous veggie, which balanced perfectly with the spicy peanut sauce on top.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good and pretty proud. Carbs shmarbs. This week was going to be easy. 

Of course, about an hour after dinner,  I was eyeing the Wheat Thins on top of my fridge for a late night snack. Saying, You can’t give in on the first night! in my head was pretty much the only thing that kept me on track.

Night Two: Garlic Chicken Stir Fry

Garlic chicken stir-fry with riced cauliflower. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

Feeling empowered by my riced cauliflower success, I decided to do another stir fry. I’d originally planned to come home and heat up some organic boxed soups, but knowing I couldn’t pair them with a sandwich or even a few crackers quickly put the kibosh on that idea. 

Instead of soup, I opted for this garlic chicken stir fry from Recipe Critic, minus the corn starch. I loaded up the stir fry pan with veggies, which helped fill out the starch-free meal. Overall, it was very light and fresh — and not nearly garlicky enough.

Though I was full by the end of the meal, I wasn’t fully satisfied. Plus, it was a Friday night and my sweet tooth was giving me some serious attitude. Instead of baking brownies like I wanted to, I followed dinner with an apple and organic peanut butter — my favorite sweet-but-can-still-call-healthy treat.

Night Three: Black Bean and Kale Soup

Organic black bean and kale soup. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

Normally a li’l ol’ bowl of soup wouldn’t quite cut it for dinner, but earlier in the day I’d gone for a late brunch at Sabrina’s Cafe, which meant I’d eaten my weight in eggplant and mushroom omelette and wasn’t all that hungry. Still, when my husband cracked out the Garlic Butter Ritz crackers he’d bought, I had to resist stabbing him with my spoon.

Maybe it was this last bit of willpower that put me over the edge, but later that evening I broke down and dug some cookie dough ice cream out of the freezer. This wasn’t any of that high-protein “healthy” ice cream either. It was the full-fat, fully creamy, wear-your-stretchy-pants kind. I felt guilty immediately.

But also, what are Saturdays for if not eating cookie dough ice cream straight out of the tub? (Don’t answer that.)

Night Four: BBQ Chicken Salad

Barbecue chicken salad. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

After falling off the horse the night before, I knew I needed to recommit. I baked some chicken breasts, slathered them in Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, then threw them on a bed of romaine and spinach with some red onion, peppers, and shredded cheese. A little Light Ranch on top, and we were in business.

Something about the mix of sweet and salty in the salad — and perhaps, the fact that I wasn’t trying to substitute anything else for a carb — left me fully satisfied after this meal. Even though I went to see a movie afterwards, I resisted the candy and popcorn with monk-like restraint.

Okay, fine, I did at one point snag four little pebbles of Buncha Crunch. I had to make sure they were as good as I remembered, you feel me?

Night Five: Beyond Burger with a Protein Shake

The Beyond Burger at BurgerFi. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

I have to confess: I’m a pretty hangry person. Deprive this girl of food for longer than, well, a couple of hours, and I turn into a miniature, less-green version of the Hulk.

So on this night, I had a visiting relative and had planned to take him to Reading Terminal Market — where I knew I could score some turkey at The Original Turkey and just not eat the bread. Except we arrived too late, and the market was closed. Hangry, stressed about where I was going to find carb-free dinner that would keep the rest of my group happy (Sushi? Nope, rice. Pizza? Nope, crust.) we ended up at BurgerFi.

A few bites into BurgerFi’s Beyond Burger (which is made of all plants, not beef) on a lettuce bun, I’d already decided it wasn’t going to fill me up. It was a patty of plants on some lettuce, for heaven’s sake. Plus, I hadn’t hit my protein goals for the day.

Afterwards, we picked up milkshake ingredients at Mom’s Organic Market, and I grabbed some vegan protein powder. At home, we mixed up strawberry milkshakes for my guest and husband, a banana-peanut-butter-protein shake for me. It was yummy, but I couldn’t finish it. My eyes had been bigger than my stomach, and my lettuce burger had definitely filled me more than I’d originally thought. Yay, plants!

Night Six: Zucchini Lasagna

Zucchini lasagna. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

It’s winter, guys. And you know what the body and soul wants during winter? Pasta. You know what I gave up this week? Pasta. So I had to get a little creative.

I decided to try this eggplant lasagna recipe, except the grocery store was out of eggplant, so I made it with zucchini and with turkey sausage instead of ground beef. The recipe also calls for breading the eggplant, but I skipped that part, too.

The meal was perfect in the comfort-food department, but probably not the best in the health department. The cheese and turkey sausage made it pretty greasy, and even though I was getting in a serving of veggies, it honestly didn’t feel much better for me than traditional lasagna.

I caved and had some vanilla ice cream afterwards. It’s like my sweet tooth was trying to embarrass me.

Night Seven: Fajita Salad

Fajita salad. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

I am obsessed with fajitas. Flavorful chicken, peppers, onions, all lovingly wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with a generous dollop of guac? Perfection.

As much as I love when the cheese gets all melty inside the tortilla and scooping up mouthfuls of guacamole on chips like it’s my job, this was going to be a chip-and-tortilla-free fiesta. That said, my fajita salad was still the party in my mouth I’ve come to know and love, and as much as I thought I’d miss my wheat tortillas, it was just as good on a bed of lettuce. Plus, with all the fat in the guacamole, I was full and happy by the end — and ice cream didn’t even cross my mind.

Sooo…Did I Learn Anything?

If you’ve given up reading at this point, it’s cool. I get it. This was long. But if you’re still with me, here’s the surprise ending: I don’t think giving up carbs at dinner really my eating healthier. Honestly, suppressing my cravings only made them stronger, so instead of eating a sweet potato with dinner, I ended the night elbows-deep in chocolate chip cookie dough. Does that sound healthy to you? Plus, some dishes — like the lasagna — showed me that just cutting starches from a dish doesn’t magically turn it into a health food.

But one benefit of this experiment was it helped me to highlight how many unnecessary carbs I eat. Do I need to eat my guac with chips? It was just as good and satisfying as a salad-topper. Do I need to cook rice? The cauliflower actually tasted way better!

The other thing I learned: There’s way more room for creativity with my veggies, and the more the merrier. Filling up a stir fry — or burger — with veggies was a great way to get more good stuff down my gullet, and it’s definitely a lesson I’m going to take with me.

Now, who wants some pizza?

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