Everything you need to know to get started with the (still) trendy diet, including a beginner keto meal plan with tons of high-fat, low-carb recipe ideas.

By Julia Malacoff
Updated July 16, 2021
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So you've decided you want to try out the high-fat, low-carb diet, better-known as the fat-burning ketogenic diet. Whether it's to lose weight, have more energy, or fuel workouts differently, going keto continues to be a popular choice (at least for the time being). But figuring out a keto diet plan on your own is no easy feat, especially since eating a diet super high in fats doesn't come naturally to many people who are accustomed to the traditionally carb-heavy American diet. (It's especially hard to give a keto diet for beginners a go if you're vegan.) But this should help: Nutrition experts explain how to set yourself up for success, plus provide ideas for exactly what foods to eat when you're first getting started with a keto diet for beginners.

Before Starting a Keto Diet for Beginners

When it comes to starting the keto diet (or any diet for that matter), there's one thing all experts agree on. You must have a plan. "Never try to wing a keto diet," says Julie Stefanski, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., L.D.N., a dietitian based in York, Pennsylvania, who specializes in the ketogenic diet. "Set a start date and get prepared by reorganizing your pantry, planning out meal and snack options, and purchasing appropriate foods and dietary supplements," she says. "The biggest reason people have a hard time sticking with keto is that people don't have enough interesting foods to turn to, and high-carb favorites win out over good intention. If you didn't buy foods at the grocery store that fit the guidelines, there won't be an easy option in the fridge when you really need it." (Pro tip: Keep this list of healthy, high-fat foods handy for help grocery shopping while trying a keto diet plan for beginners.)

What's more, it's especially important to make sure your keto diet plan for beginners is well thought out when you're eating this way because the food options can be quite limited. In addition to consulting a dietitian, Stefanski also recommends that you "talk to your doctor and make sure [they're] aware that you'll be starting a diet that completely changes how your body metabolizes energy." Before starting a keto diet for beginners, you might also want to check your most recent bloodwork levels for things such as cholesterol, vitamin D, and other indicators of health because these can change while on the high-fat eating plan. That's because, for some people, a prolonged keto diet can result in certain nutritional deficiencies or even high cholesterol. (In fact, the potential to leave you short on nutrients is one of the reasons why this dietitian is completely anti-keto.)

All that said, many (if not most) experts will tell you that following the ketogenic diet is not a permanent lifestyle change — as is usually the case with lots of trendy eating plans such as the sirtfood diet. (Rather something a bit longer-term than a keto diet for beginners? Consider the Mediterranean diet, which health care pros often consider it be more of a way of life than a "diet.")

What to Eat On a Keto Diet Diet for Beginners

One thing many people love about keto diet plans is that tracking your food is optional. "One of the biggest benefits of the ketogenic diet is that there's no need to meticulously track your calories as you may in other diets," notes Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com and author of Eat Dirt. "Because you're filling up on fat and protein, you're more likely to feel satisfied and energized all day long, which causes you to naturally eat less."

This isn't to say that food tracking on a keto meal plan is discouraged. "Some people may find calorie counting a useful tool to be more mindful and aware of what they're eating, but it's not necessary on the ketogenic diet," says Axe. But there's no need to get too stressed about hitting a certain caloric goal, especially if you're not trying to lose weight. (Related: The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)

One area where food tracking can be especially helpful, though, is ensuring that you're hitting the right ratios of macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat. "The most researched version of the ketogenic diet derives 70 percent of calories from healthy fats, 20 percent from protein, and only 10 percent from carbs," explains Charles Passler, D.C., nutritionist, and founder of Pure Change. "In the ideal world, each keto meal and snack should have that same (70/20/10) ratio of macronutrients, but studies have shown that you'll still achieve great results even if each meal varies slightly from that ratio, just as long as you don't exceed 50 grams per day of carbs, or eat those carbs in one sitting." In order to achieve these ratios without a preset beginner keto meal plan from a dietitian or doctor, some food tracking is probably going to be necessary. But once you get the hang of things, you may not need to keep up with it anymore.

How often you eat while following a keto diet plan for beginners is also up to your personal preference. "For most people, I recommend three to four meals per day with a few healthy keto snacks in between," says Axe. "This ensures that you're getting a good mix of protein and fat all day long to keep you feeling energized and satisfied." That being said, he encourages people to listen to their bodies and tune in to when they're truly hungry: "If you find that you feel better eating five to six smaller meals spread throughout the day, do what works best for you."

Lastly, if you're active, you might need to make some adjustments to take that into account. "For the first one to two weeks, temporarily reducing your exercise load can be helpful as your body adjusts to being in ketosis," he says. "Additionally, for those who have an intense workout schedule, carb cycling may be a good option." Carb cycling essentially means you'll increase your carb intake on the days you're doing exercise, ideally just two to three days per week. "While low-carb days may be around 20 to 30 grams of net carbs daily, high-carb days can range all the way up to 100 grams, although it can vary based on your size and activity level," says Axe. (Related: 8 Things You Need to Know About Exercising on the Keto Diet.)

Keto Diet Menu for Beginners

While it will probably take a little bit of trial and error to figure out your go-to meals at the beginning, this sample keto meal plan can help you get you started.

Keto Breakfast

Option 1: Spinach, mushroom, and feta omelet with keto coffee (coffee with adding fat such as MCT oil, butter, or bone broth protein). "This breakfast is a good source of protein and healthy fats that will keep you feeling full to curb midmorning cravings," says Axe.

Option 2: Whole milk, unsweetened yogurt mixed with full-fat sour cream, a few raspberries, chia seeds, and walnuts. "This type of combo requires careful carb- and portion-counting since all yogurts naturally have lactose, which is a carb," says Stefanski. "Pairing it with a carb-free protein like two eggs can help balance out the macros." (Related: These Keto Diet Breakfast Ideas Will Have You Jumping Out of Bed)

Keto Lunch

Option 1: Oven-baked salmon with broccoli. "This lunch features salmon, which is high in heart-healthy fats, as well as broccoli, which is low in carbs but high in fiber," says Axe. (Related: 20 Keto Lunch Ideas That'll Make Sticking to the Diet Easier)

Option 2: Stefanski suggests a salad with nitrate-free bacon, avocado, cheese, spicy pumpkin seeds, and a few grape tomatoes along with a low-carb, high-fat salad dressing such as ranch or blue cheese.

Option 3: "Make your own keto 'lunchable' with cubes of grilled chicken, a slice of nitrate-free ham, cheese cubes, pickle slices, a hard-boiled egg, a few raw grape tomatoes, raw veggies like cauliflower or broccoli, a few almonds or walnuts, guacamole, and ranch dressing," says Stefanski. (Looking for something meat-free? These plant-based recipes make following a keto diet for beginners as a vegetarian NBD.)

Keto Dinner

Option 1: Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, chicken breast, bacon, and Parmesan. "Rich in protein and super filling, this is the perfect meal to round out your day," says Axe. "Pair it with an olive oil dressing and plenty of cheese to up the fat content."

Option 2: Grass-fed ground beef sautéed with onions and low-carb tomato sauce. "This can be served with zucchini or shirataki low-carb noodles," says Stefanski. "In order to get the fat content up in the meal, the zucchini can be sautéed in olive oil or additional garlic-infused oil can be added directly to the sauce."

Option 3: Grilled chicken served with eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini along with a few tomatoes, sautéed with garlic in olive oil. Adding additional fats in the form of a sauce incorporating heavy cream or coconut cream is a smart choice for balancing macros. (Related: Keto Dinner Ideas That Will Have You Licking the Plate)

Snacks

Option 1: BLT roll-ups with turkey and avocado. "Create a roll using bacon, lettuce, tomato, turkey, and avocado for the perfect mix of fat and protein," says Axe. (P.S. you could also include this kale avocado BLT salad as part of your beginner keto meal plan.)

Option 2: Spread some cream cheese between two cucumber slices. "Cucumber is a great low-carb veggie that works well combined with high-fat cream cheese for a satisfying, keto-friendly snack," says Axe.

Option 3: Spicy guacamole with raw zucchini slices. The foods you choose between meals should still be keto-friendly and may even mimic an upcoming dinner, just in smaller portion size, says Stefanski. "Since carbs are minimal, it's important to spend your carbs on high-nutrient foods like vegetables."