Simple Ways to Start Clean Eating
Ready to give up processed foods and eat clean? These tips will help you understand the guidelines and potential pitfalls — and the enticing recipes will get you started.
On Instagram, the hashtag #cleaneating has more than 48 million posts, beautiful images of perfectly styled food and before-and-after photos showing impressive transformations. The concept is simple: Eat only “clean” food — whole ingredients, as close to their natural state as possible. But in reality, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Jump ahead to:
Note: The Yummly Meal Planner is available to paid subscribers.
Clean eating for beginners
There is no single, official “clean eating” diet. Proponents encourage you to change your eating habits, not to attempt a traditional diet plan. They focus on healthy eating, including only foods with little to no processing. The rules are basic:
Eat whole foods. People on a clean diet seek out ingredients that haven’t been touched — as close to the farm as possible.
Avoid processed foods. Depending on how seriously you take it, that could mean saying goodbye to baby carrots, which are processed from larger carrots, or it might just mean choosing brown rice over white.
Say no to refined sugar. It’s highly processed. Get your sweet fix from things like raw honey and maple syrup instead.
Cook your own food. Convenience foods may help you get dinner on the table faster, but they’re far from whole. If you order carefully, an occasional restaurant meal is OK. But obviously, you’ll have to give up fast food.
Potential risks of clean eating
It all sounds reasonable, but there’s no science showing a clean diet offers any specific health benefits. As long as you follow the basic guidelines without getting too caught up in them, there seems to be no harm. But the psychology of designating some foods “clean” can lead to problems. Because if some food is “clean,” it implies that other food is “dirty.”
A handful of studies have looked at the possibility that extreme clean eating can lead to an eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa — an obsession with healthy eating, where eating anything else leads to intense feelings of shame. Of course most people who try to eat clean won’t take it that far, but it’s worth considering your own tendencies. If you like to get really, really into a particular way of eating, you might be setting yourself up for trouble.
Clean eating food list
A basic clean eating diet features a wide range of healthy foods:
High-quality proteins. These include lean meats, preferably hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed, free-range, or sustainably caught — like what you’d get at the farmers’ market. And of course, plant-based proteins like legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), quinoa, edamame, organic tofu, and organic tempeh. Stay away from more processed plant-based proteins, like faux meats.
Full-fat organic and/or grass-fed dairy. This goes for milk (low-fat is more processed). Also avoid industrially-made cheese like American slices or pre-flavored yogurt. Opt for plain, regular or Greek yogurt.
Whole-grain carbs. Look for things like 100% whole-grain bread, tortillas, pasta, soba noodles, and breadcrumbs. Avoid versions sold in a box with seasoning packets.
Healthy fats. These include olive oil, extra-virgin if possible ("extra-virgin" means no chemicals or extreme heat were used during milling, so it’s the least processed). Healthy fats also include safflower oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, coconut oil, and organic butter from grass-fed cows. Or you can eat your fats, from foods like olives, avocados, and raw, unsalted nuts and seeds.
Fruits and vegetables. Any kind works here, including frozen (as long as the fruit or vegetable you’re buying is the only ingredient).
Fewer treats and sweeteners. In general they come low on the list, but if you need dessert every now and then, opt for ingredients like date sugar, raw honey, pure maple syrup, stevia, unsweetened shredded coconut, dark chocolate, and unsweetened cocoa powder.
Tips for clean grocery shopping
When you’re eating clean, you’re not buying many foods in packages.
Fill your cart with whole, unprocessed, or minimally-processed foods. (This can include items like frozen broccoli and whole-wheat pasta.) Basically, if your great-grandma ate it, you’re golden.
Choose organic when you can. If that busts your budget, prioritize organic meat, eggs, dairy, and the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and veggies (which have the most pesticides when conventionally grown).
Look for the fewest possible ingredients. If an item has a label, ideally there should be no more than two ingredients. We’re talking real food, not robo-food, with no artificial ingredients, additives, or preservatives, added sugar (definitely no high-fructose corn syrup), refined grains, or trans fats.
Even better: Buy food that doesn’t have nutrition labels. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans from the bulk bins, and lean proteins. If you can afford it, buy most of your food at the farmers’ market.
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s where you’ll find fresh produce, dairy, and meats. But don’t ignore the interior. You’ll find plenty of shelf-stable foods that fit the clean eating lifestyle, like beans (dried or canned), canned tomatoes, and whole grains and other carbohydrates. Avoid store-bought condiments and salad dressings — make your own with a healthy oil and vinegar.
Buy 100% fruit juice. If you must have fruit juice, buy 100% juice, not from concentrate (though fresh-squeezed, homemade juice is the gold standard).
Clean eating recipes
Ready to start eating whole, “clean” foods? Check out these easy recipes.
Clean eating breakfast recipes
Plenty of whole ingredients suit the breakfast table: Eggs, of course, as well as fruits and vegetables and whole-grain toast.
The key differences between “clean” waffles and the traditional kind: You’ll use 100% whole-wheat flour, farm-fresh eggs and milk, and maple syrup instead of sugar in the batter.
Who wouldn’t want to eat a bubbling ramekin of blueberries topped with an oat and whole-wheat streusel for breakfast?
Make a batch of these vegetable- and feta-loaded mini frittatas at the beginning of the week, and you’ll have an easy breakfast (or snack) ready and waiting.
This one’s so simple, it barely counts as a recipe. All you do is scramble an egg, mash a lusciously ripe avocado, and eat them together on 100% whole-grain toast.
Clean eating lunch recipes
Midday means eating something simple to grab, or simple to make ahead.
Quick, filling, and healthy, this wrap features the expected fresh mozzarella and sliced tomato, and pairs it with avocado, arugula, basil, and balsamic.
Whole foods often give you more flexibility. This bento box is a great example: You can use any fresh fruits and vegetables you like, along with cheese, hummus, and whole-grain crackers.
Meal prep helps you handle the extra cooking that comes with a clean diet. Here, marinated chicken and homemade tzatziki meet up with fresh vegetables, quinoa, black olives, and feta. You’ll have four lunches from one batch.
Homemade soup featuring chickpeas, warm spices, and fresh spinach will keep you warm and satisfied until dinner time.
Clean eating dinner recipes
A whole foods-based diet doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite comfort foods. It just takes a little tweaking.
It’s everything you love about tacos, from the seasoned meat to the guacamole and salsa, in one big, filling bowl.
Betcha didn’t think lasagna filled with ground meat, melty mozz, and creamy ricotta was diet-friendly. This version has everything you crave, made with whole-wheat noodles.
When the focus is on the quality of the ingredients, even the simplest beef stew recipe comes out hearty and bursting with flavor.
One pan and 40 minutes is all you need to make this paleo-friendly, crowd-pleasing chicken dish. Serve it with potatoes, brown rice, or whole-wheat noodles to soak up that lemony sauce.
Clean eating snack recipes
While a piece of fruit is without a doubt the easiest snack for a clean eating diet, sometimes you want something a little more fun.
When you thaw a bag of shelled frozen edamame, toss with olive oil, salt, and garlic, and roast them for less than 20 minutes, you get a crunchy, eat-em-by-the-handful munchie.
Submerge thinly sliced potatoes in vinegar, and they soak up that tangy flavor — the longer they sit, the more mouth-puckering they get. Dry them off, toss with oil and salt, and bake. You’ve got chips that taste way better than store-bought.
Nut butter sandwiched between slices of banana, dunked in chocolatey coating, and frozen? This might be the perfect healthy treat.
The name of this recipe says it all: You won’t find an easier, more irresistible, or better-for-you peanut butter cookie in all the land.
What's the healthiest eating plan for you?
Wherever you are on your healthy eating journey, we're ready to support you with articles and recipes to inspire every meal.