It’s a new year and a new chance to start fresh. From vows to be a more positive person, to goals of getting more sleep, moving more, and yes, eating better, new year’s resolutions are something many of us are eager to make, but often fall short of achieving. Last week I revealed the one change I was making to help me get more sleep, and today, I thought I’d offer those of you interested in “eating clean” in 2014, 10 reasonable ways to do just that.
The thing I love about clean eating is that there are no steadfast, strict rules, as there are with traditional and fad diets. There are no points to keep track of, no calories to count, and entire food groups are not eliminated. Instead, the goal is simple – reduce or eliminate overly processed foods, and increase your intake of whole foods. The rest is up to you, and your body. Clean eating for some involves eliminating dairy, while for others, it means no more gluten, but in the end, it’s all about being in-tune with what foods your body feels best on. This loosey-goosey way of eating intimidates some, because there is no guidebook, there are no “rules” to follow, but I promise you, once you get the hang of it, this way of eating is life-changing and easily achievable. Friends and family often ask me, “So how long do you plan to eat like this?” My answer is simple, “forever.” There is no sense of deprivation or longing for foods I’ve given up, and if you take it slow and learn as you go, you’ll see that clean eating can be simple, delicious, and dare I say, affordable even.
Here are 10 ways you can dip your feet in the waters of clean eating. My recommendation off of my own experience? Start slow with just 2-3 of these things, and then layer in more steps as you feel comfortable, as your budget allows, and as your schedule allows.
Change Your Snacking Routine 1 of 10
People often hear clean eating and think they have to say goodbye to convenience, their money, and even their beloved snack foods. As a mother of three who happens to have a vigorous snacking habit, I've just learned to read labels and therefore have switched out our usual packaged snack foods for new ones.
Many of the packaged snack foods you'll find at conventional markets include tons of preservatives and additives, ranging from MSG to high fructose corn syrup, which improve shelf-life and makes them taste so gosh-darned good. But research proves that many of those additives and chemicals are not only addictive, but they are also bad for us. Instead, opt for tortilla chips which that include just 3 or 4 ingredients (organic corn, expeller pressed safflower oil, salt and lime). I know what all these ingredients are, I can pronounce them, my body recognizes them, therefore can digest them, and I feel good putting them in my kid's school lunch box.
More good news: because of an increased demand for these products, they've become more affordable and are often on sale. The tortilla chips, and my kid's favorite popcorn, were both on sale for $2.99 at my local natural-foods market.
Tip: Look for packaged foods with as few ingredients as possible and which use natural spices as dyes. A common rule in the "health-food" world is to buy foods with five ingredients or less. While that's not a steadfast rule you must follow, it is a good starting point and frame of reference.
Clean Your Fridge and Pantry 2 of 10
Just nine months ago, my pantry and fridge looked a lot different. Filled with non-organic dairy items, tons of enriched breads and pastas, frozen waffles, fake syrup, non-dairy coffee creamer, and canned/jarred everything, from dressings and pasta sauce to instant mashed potatoes. We also purchased so much meat, deli meat and cheese that it often overflowed into one of the produce drawers.
Today, it's a different story. We have so many fruits and veggies on hand we can't even fit them in both crispers, fake syrup has been replaced with real maple syrup, and jarred/convenience foods are minimal and used on nights when I just don't have the energy to actually cook. The change did not happen overnight, and I started with several of the worst offenders and moved on from there. My main rule now is if I don't have it in the house, no one misses it, and, of course, no one eats it.
Tip: Go for the worst offenders first, including most jarred dressings and sauces, flavored coffee creamers, and anything artificial that is supposed to mimic the real thing, like maple syrup. If your budget allows, consider switching to organic dairy products, which studies reveal is more nutritious than conventional milk. And aim to increase your abundance of fresh, and even frozen fruits and veggies, adding them into soups, smoothies, oatmeal and casseroles. By increasing your veggies, you're improving your health and saving money by using it to fill up dishes that would otherwise rely on heavy doses of meat.
Say Bye-Bye to Fast Food 3 of 10
Consider ditching the fast food, for at least a period of time, say 30 days. Fast food is often yummy and satisfying, but, as I discussed in my post earlier this week, it can be bad for your health. Now, I occasionally indulge in a meatless burger from In-N-Out because their fries are my favorite, but I have otherwise been fast food-free for almost nine months, and I don't regret quitting my bi-weekly habit one bit.
Tip: Pack your own lunch, stock up on healthy snacks for moments of weakness, and find similar non-fast food places you can turn to when in need of a quick dinner on the fly. There are plenty of restaurants that offer quick, emergency meals, and many of them even have vegetarian options if you're trying to avoid overly processed meats. Some of our favorites include Z-Pizza and Chipotle.
Opt for Whole-Grain Products 4 of 10
Enriched flours, like your standard all-purpose white flour, have been heavily processed and have essentially had many of its nutrients stripped away during production, so they are "enriched" with vitamins and minerals like iron and Vitamin B. In theory it's a great concept, but because enriched foods have become such a staple to our everyday diets, a good concept has turned bad. Because of the enrichment process, our bodies process it differently, and instead of getting a slow, steady burst of energy, our body processes it very quickly, giving us a very quick spike in sugar. The right whole grains, however, are processed less, allowing our body to make better use of its nutrients. By making simple switches, like subbing whole-wheat flour when making pancakes and baked goods, you are adding more nutrients to your diet, and may even notice an increase in energy and a decrease in sluggishness.
Tip: There are a whole host of alternative flours now, including whole wheat, and spelt, for those who aren't trying to cut out gluten. But for those who want to give a gluten-free diet a try, brown and white rice flours, as well as coconut flour, are easily available at any natural-foods store. Many are even sold in bulk to help you save money. You can usually substitute whole-wheat flours cup for cup, but other flours may be a bit trickier. Check out Better Homes and Gardens' tips for making the swap.
Ditch Refined White Sugar for Healthier Alternatives 5 of 10
We all know that white sugar is bad for us and that we should do what we can to eliminate it from our diets as much as possible. But what in the heck do we swap it out for? In many instances, you can use real maple syrup, raw honey, brown rice syrup, and even coconut nectar and sugar as alternatives. For example, when I ditched my coffee creamer, I started adding in 1/2 tsp of maple syrup to my morning coffee, and I couldn't be happier with the alternative. Brown rice syrup is also good for baking, and raw honey is wonderful in tea and makes the perfect simple syrup when used in replacement of refined sugar.
Tip: Sugar is sugar and should be used in moderation, but not all sugar is created equal. The ones I've recommended above have several different advantages over standard white table sugar, including a lower GI, meaning they cause a slower spike in blood sugar, and are rich in vitamins and nutrients including manganese, magnesium, Vitamin A, calcium and potassium, just to name a few. White table sugar can't make those claims.
Make Sauces, Stocks, and Dressings from Scratch 6 of 10
I know, I know, this sounds like a huge feat, but I promise it can be manageable. Granted, if you cook at home at least a few times a week, you can make use of your time in the kitchen by making batches of things from scratch. Making a salad or a stew? Save your vegetable ends and throw them in a pot of boiling water while your dinner cooks to make vegetable stock from scratch.
If you had bone-in chicken for dinner, place the bones, along with a cut up onion and a few stalks of celery and salt and pepper in the slow cooker, cover with water, and let cook over night. Come morning, you'll have yummy, homemade chicken stock!
Freeze both in 2-3 cup increments, and defrost as needed. Say bye-bye to store-bought dressings and learn to make a simple vinegar- and cream-based dressing from scratch, make enough for a week's wroth of meals, and refrigerate. By the end of the week, you may be tired of that same dressing or sauce, but you'll have saved yourself money and have been in charge of the ingredients.
Tip: You don't want to feel enslaved to the kitchen, so of course keep some cans/boxes of stock on hand, or a favorite healthy dressing, for emergencies or nights when you're short on time. And try cooking and prepping some of the items I mentioned above over the weekend, when you may have more time.
Get in the Kitchen! 7 of 10
While some people naturally love to be in the kitchen, for others, it's often seen as a chore. But if you really want to eat clean and control what goes into your food, you've got to make it yourself. Otherwise, it gets pretty expensive dining out at healthy restaurants and subsisting on fancy prepped foods.
Tip: Assuming you don't love to cook or don't have a lot of time to cook, start out by making it a goal to eat at home one more day a week than usual, then turn it into two more days. Clean foods are really very basic to begin with. Roasted chicken rubbed with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper is as easy as they come. Steaming fish requires no other ingredients besides salt and pepper. It doesn't have to be fancy or complicated to be clean, and, in fact, it's quite the opposite. In the end, try to look at your time in the kitchen as a gift to yourself and your family instead of resenting the time it takes and the clean-up involved. Having a positive attitude is half the battle when trying out a new way of eating.
Choose Clean Proteins 8 of 10
What in the world is a clean protein, you ask? Well, it's usually free of antibiotics and animal by-products (factory-farmed animals are sometimes fed ground up blood and remains of other dead animals), they could be fed an all-organic diet or raised on a pasture instead of corn and grain, resulting in leaner, more nutritious meat.
In the end, it comes down to knowing where your animal products came from, what conditions they were raised in, and how they were processed at slaughter. It seems that almost every day more and more reports, including the recent closing of a Foster Farms processing plant, due to a cockroach infestation, give us reason to be leery of where our animal products come from. Ask questions, read labels, and, if you can, know your farmer.
Tip: Farmers markets are a great way to find locally raised meat products, and they give you a chance to speak to your farmer directly. Some are even kind enough to invite you for a farm tour, where you can see firsthand how the animals you eat and feed your family are raised.
Experiment with Eliminating Certain Foods 9 of 10
Some clean-eating purists like Gwyneth Paltrow commit to eliminating dairy from their diets, whereas some have said sayonara to gluten. But before you make any stringent, drastic commitments to eliminating certain foods, just experiment with how your body feels when you ditch them from your diet for a certain period of time. Personally, I eliminated dairy for several weeks, and sorely missed cheese, and half and half. I added those back in, but "cleaner" versions of them, and I felt fine. One size does not fit all, so see what works for you before you make any assumptions about what you'll have to give up.
Tip: Conventional dairy products are overly processed, many times going through an ultra-high temperature pasteurization process which changes the proteins and makes it even harder to digest. So if you're sensitive to dairy but love your cheese, look out for, and try to stay away from dairy products that are "ultra-pasteurized," and go for just standard "pasteurized" dairy products instead. And in case you're wondering if organic milk is really worth the extra price, studies confirm that it is.
Use Your Resources Wisely 10 of 10
Eating clean is not a diet. There are no calories to count, and you will not be asked to give up carbs. You will need to learn to cook in an alternative way, though, and avoid certain ingredients. With this in mind, have a few good books and blogs/websites to give you inspiration and ideas. Favorites of mine include It's All Good of course, Nourishing Traditions, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and An Everlasting Meal. Aside from It's All Good, these books aren't considered clean-eating cookbooks, but do offer great insight and direction in choosing your foods wisely and understanding the benefits of eating a certain way. Not to mention, many feature wonderfully tasty recipes!
Tip: Remember that slow and steady wins the race. Eating clean isn't just a diet you do for 30 days to drop 10 pounds, but a way of eating that you can maintain for the rest of your life. So take it in stride, learn as you go, and don't give up!
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