Clean eating focuses on consuming real, whole, minimally processed foods at least most of the time, choosing organic and sustainable options whenever possible, and selecting foods that meet our individual nutritional requirements. That means that while the majority of what we eat should be quality, nutrient-dense foods free of chemicals and additives, it can also be gluten-free, dairy-free, or vegan if that’s what works best for you.
In this sense, the “clean” in clean eating refers to transparency in your food choices—
evidence that your food is actually what it appears to be instead of a sugar- or chemical-filled imposter masquerading as a health food.
Oklahoma City-based registered dietician and nutritionist Sam Carter, says clean eating should be viewed as a journey towards health and not a quick fix.
“Clean eating emphasizes foods that provide the vitamins, minerals and nutrients essential to maintaining the fast-paced lifestyle we desire: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and more water,” she says, while avoiding the foods that don’t, such as refined grains, added sugars and overly processed foods. It’s not so much about counting calories as making those calories count.
But for families that regularly rely on fast food or processed convenience foods for their meals and snacks, the process of “cleaning” up the kitchen can seem overwhelming. By starting small and gradually working more whole foods onto the table (while putting limits on fast and junk food), the switch to clean can feel more manageable than a cold-turkey approach guaranteed to meet resistance.
Dedicated clean eater Tiffany Pate used this strategy to successfully change her family’s diet and health over the past seven years, and has since also helped others make the clean eating switch.
“For me, it was spurred on by being overweight and finally getting sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Pate says.
Gradually, the mother of three eliminated most processed foods and all sodas and other sugary drinks from her home, and drastically increased meats, fruits and veggies. Now, when she does buy processed foods, she checks labels for recognizable ingredients and limits them to no more than five or six.
“If we can’t pronounce the ingredients, our bodies aren’t going to recognize them either,” she says.
That being said, it’s a good idea to expand your food knowledge if necessary. Farro, kamut and even quinoa are unrecognizable, hard-to-pronounce words for many, but most nutritionists agree they have their place in a clean-eating program.
Both Carter and Pate say it’s never too late to improve your family’s eating habits, but the earlier you introduce kids to a clean eating lifestyle, the better. Not only is it necessary for building a lifetime of healthy habits, it’s much easier than switching them over once their palates prefer less wholesome foods.
Pate’s daughter, who was very young when she began the clean eating journey, is much more adventurous about healthy foods than her two older brothers, who were more aware of what they were giving up.
But switching to clean eating is not about deprivation. Most recipes can be prepared clean if made with real food ingredients—even pizzas, pastas, burgers, and baked goods. For Pate’s family the motivation to continue clean eating is the improvement in how they feel.
“I’m human. I like cupcakes,” she says. “But I know when I eat a regular cupcake what my body is going to feel like, so I weigh that out. Is it worth it?”
Pate, whose clean eating regimen has reduced her from a size 14 to a size 6 says sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes no.
“The kids are the same way. When they go to a birthday party (or to their grandparents’ home) they may indulge, but they also know they may not feel great afterwards,” she says, adding that getting buy-in from the whole family was a challenge at first, but it is possible. “We were that family that ate at McDonald’s every single day. Now we only go out once or twice a month—and we haven’t had McDonald’s in years!”
Carter says prep work, such as meal planning and keeping your pantry and fridge stocked with good foods, is crucial to setting yourself up for success. It can also help keep your grocery budget in check. She shares some tips:
Buy fresh produce in season or frozen year round. Just make sure they aren’t packaged in salt or sugar.
Organize your meals for the week so you don’t overbuy groceries. This is especially important when buying fresh foods.
Shop the sales and/or buy in bulk when possible. When organic chicken breasts go on sale, buy extra and freeze them for later.
Organize your cart so you can visualize the week’s meals. Go further by literally dividing your cart into sections to reflect how you should be eating: half should be produce, a quarter should be lean protein, and a fourth should be whole grains. There’s not much room for processed/cheat foods.
Know your store’s layout. While it’s true the perimeter of the store typically features produce, lean proteins and dairy, things like brown rice, quinoa, nuts, beans, oils and frozen foods are usually found in the center aisles.
Cook once, eat twice: Get creative by using taco Tuesday’s leftover chicken breast as a topper for Wednesday’s lunchtime salad.
Realize eating clean is about priorities. Often once we give up the artificially flavored latte at the coffee shop, we find extra cash for organic produce.
By // Stacy Barry