These days, we’re bombarded with info about what foods to eat and avoid, the right proportions and ratio, the “right” time, and more. So when I first learned about the concept of clean eating, I was attracted to its simplicity.
The basic goal is to eat more whole foods and less processed ones. A year later, this former boxed-mac-and-cheese junkie now makes all her meals with fresh ingredients from scratch. Why? It improved my health, and the food actually tasted better.
But more importantly, making and eating clean foods was easy. The rules aren’t complicated. The recipes don’t require fussy ingredients. By planning ahead, I learned to quickly prepare meals. By keeping things basic, I ditched complex guidelines and focused instead on eating real, fresh food.
Here’s the best part: Making the transition to clean eating was much easier than I thought it would be. Even in my junk- and fast-food heyday, I already had a few healthy habits in place that helped me make the switch. You likely have a few of these habits, too.
To help us recognize some of them, I enlisted the expertise of two clean eating superstars. Tiffany McCauley is a cookbook author and blogger at The Gracious Pantry. Lee Holmes is the author of the Supercharged Food series. I interviewed both women separately, but they have the same food philosophies: When it comes to cooking and eating food, simplicity is key. Here are seven ways that clean eating is so much easier than you might think.
01. You can make quick, easy meals.
“It would be entirely possible to survive as a clean eater on only the most basic of foods,” McCauley says. “After all, basic food is what clean eating is about.” She recommends simple foods such as hard-boiled eggs, sliced veggies with homemade dip, smoothies that can be thrown together in five minutes, green salad with a simple homemade dressing, or chicken breasts cooked with a few herbs.
Or, Holmes shares, “Grab some veggie broth, poach a piece of salmon for seven minutes in a saucepan, add some seaweed sheets and sesame seeds, and your dinner will be ready in ten minutes.” Holmes, too, is a fan of salads with homemade dressing: She throws salad ingredients with olive oil, lemon juice, and apple cider vinegar into a mason jar and shakes it up for a quick meal.
02. In-season produce is plentiful and easy to get.
Choosing seasonal foods is good for your health and your wallet. If you crave squash in the winter and berries in the summer, you’re already on the right track. Holmes points out that there’s no need to go after fancy fruits and vegetables. Veggie classics such as cauliflower and zucchini can be put to new creative uses (cauliflower pizza “crust” and “noodles” made from grating zucchini).
03. ‘Cleaner’ alternatives are readily available.
“I think anybody who tries to eat healthy in any capacity is most likely already eating a little bit clean without even thinking about it and will probably just need to make a few minor adjustments to their food intake to get the job done,” McCauley says.
Take fruits and veggies: If you’ve had any recently, you’re already eating clean. The same goes for all types of foods. “Remember, we are talking about real food here,” McCauley says. “Food you can pick from a tree or get from a farm in its natural state. The idea is to pick the real stuff and make sure that somebody didn’t already season it for you or change it in some way.” She gives a few examples: Breaded fish sticks that come in a box are not clean, but plain frozen cod is. Any unseasoned, fresh, or frozen meat is clean. Any time you buy “real, unaltered” food instead of something that comes in a box, you’re making a clean choice.
04. Your pantry is housing some hidden treasures.
You probably already have lots of clean eating staples in your pantry or fridge. Holmes considers garlic and herbs her must-have ingredients. McCauley likes to stock up on lettuce for salads, eggs for breakfasts and snacks, nuts for snacks on the go, seasonal fruits, 100 percent whole-grain bread with no added sugar, chicken breasts, pork chops, ground turkey, fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley, basil), and plain seafood such as frozen salmon or cod. When buying frozen foods, she always reads the ingredient lists to make sure no sneaky elements have been added (sodium and chemical additives are popular culprits).
05. It doesn’t have to be photo-worthy.
You know those beautiful food photographs you see on Instagram and Pinterest? “A lot of those pictures are styled and edited and have filters on them,” Holmes says. “Photoshop works wonders, but it won’t work in your kitchen,” McCauley says. Remember to keep things simple, and don’t get intimidated by people whose job description includes professional food photography or cookbook writing.
“Your best bet is to read a recipe you think you might like from start to finish, knowing that it will rarely, if ever, look like the pretty photo,” McCauley says. And make sure to look beyond the ingredient list: If the recipe requires the use of a lot of different pots and utensils, you may want to move along.
“Just make it easy on yourself by finding ingredients you enjoy and ones that make you feel good,” Holmes suggests. She personally loves smoothie bowls and easy stir-fries. Your comfort foods might include casseroles and soups, both of which have plenty of clean recipes out there.
06. Healthy swaps are simpler than you think.
Did you eat white bread as a kid, and now you eat whole wheat? That’s great—you’re already on your way as a clean eater. Small food swaps (like trading soda for water or baking potatoes instead of deep-frying them) make all the difference.
Holmes suggest swapping low-fat products for full fat and using dark leafy greens instead of iceberg lettuce. McCauley recommends trading processed grains for whole grains (such as brown rice instead of white) and 100 percent whole-grain vs. white-flour pasta.
Small changes in snacking make a big impact, too. McCauley points out that when you trade in orange-dyed crackers from a vending machine for an apple or pear with a piece of cheese, you’re opting for nutrients over chemicals.
Also, look at your sugar intake. Added sugar in any form, even healthier sugar, should be used sparingly. Still, making the switch from white sugar to honey, pure maple syrup, or coconut sugar are smart and easy swaps.
07. It’s not a race.
“Just take things one step at a time,” Holmes says. Start with one meal: maybe a smoothie in the morning or a fresh, unprocessed salad for lunch.
“The best thing you can do is ease yourself into it. This isn’t a race,” McCauley says. She recommends replacing your processed ingredients with clean versions as you run out. When your mainstream peanut butter (the one with the added sugar and extraneous ingredients) is empty, buy 100 percent natural peanut butter on your next trip to the store. Take it an ingredient at a time, and you won’t get overwhelmed in the process.
There’s also the 80/20 rule: Eat clean 80 to 90 percent of the time, and eat whatever you want on special occasions. A treat now and then will not derail your healthy eating habits.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to mean sacrificing taste or convenience. Make just a few of these changes, and you’ll be on your way to a diet that will help you feel, look, and perform your best. If you’re looking for more inspiration, try this slow cooker Southwestern two-bean chicken or peanut butter cups from McCauley’s The Gracious Pantry, or check out this quinoa salad or simple oven-roasted vegetables from Holmes’ Supercharged Food.
Photo Credit: Julia Gartland