On any given day, a casual scroll through Instagram will lead you through picturesque snacks, meals, and tabelscapes labeled #cleaneating. But what exactly falls into that category? And do you need to shell out hundreds of dollars at a health food store or create a three-page recipe to eat that way?
In the broadest sense, clean eating is all about eating ‘whole foods’ that have not been processed, says Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Think produce, lean proteins, plain Greek yogurt, nuts, beans, and whole grains, and no conventional frozen meals or packaged snacks. Some people may choose to buy organic and non-GMO whole foods, but that’s not a requirement of eating clean, Pritchett says.
By ditching processed foods, you cut back on sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat, which can contribute to chronic disease in large quantities, Pritchett explains. That doesn’t mean any food that comes in a package is off the table, though. Frozen fruit, for example, is just as nutrient-dense as fresh fruit. Just take a look at your ingredient labels. A few whole-food ingredients? You’re good to go. Long lists or obscure words? Leave it on the shelf.
To take all of the guesswork out of clean eating, we worked with a few healthy-eating experts to map out an entire day of clean eating for you. Snacks are included, of course!
Our morning meal is often the trickiest when it comes to eating clean. With sugary flavored yogurt, processed cereals, and refined carbs off the table, the options seem slim. But that’s not the case!
If you’re a novice in the kitchen—or just crunched for time—whip up a quick egg-veggie scramble recommends Stacey Mattinson, M.S., R.D.N., L.D. (Mattinson likes adding spinach, mushroom, onion, asparagus, and/or bell peppers to her scrambles—but any leftover veggies you have in the fridge will do!)
If you like your breakfast on the sweeter side, top plain Greek yogurt with your favorite fresh fruit and a sprinkle of nuts for crunch. You could also prep some overnight oats the night before. Just mix equal parts old-fashioned oats and milk or Greek yogurt along with your favorite toppings (think cinnamon, honey, peanut butter, chia seeds, and/or fruit) in a jar and stash in the fridge overnight. Mattinson likes these breakfast options because they’re high in protein and fiber, which help keep you feeling full all morning long.
If you have a little extra time to spend in the kitchen, try this gluten-free shakshuka recipe from Abbey Sharp, R.D. Shakshuka is basically tomato stew with eggs baked into it—and makes for a warm and comforting breakfast. Sharp’s recipe also adds spinach and zucchini into the mix for an extra dose of vegetables.
If you’re ready to ditch the sodium-heavy deli sandwich for a clean, feel-good lunch, your main objective is to strike a balance of protein, vegetables, whole grains, and maybe some fruit, recommends Marisa Moore, R.D.N. That way you’re more likely to get all the nutrients you need throughout the day.
If you didn’t have eggs for breakfast, they’re a great option for a clean midday meal. Moore likes to make omelets filled with sautéed seasonal veggies (like peppers, onions, and spinach) and topped with a few slices of avocado.
A simple tuna bowl is another easy-to-make lunch, suggests Michelle Dudash, R.D.N., author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. Mix a can of tuna, olives, diced tomatoes, chickpeas or cannellini beans, and toasted pistachios or almonds into a bowl of greens. Top it with a drizzle of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and a sprinkle of seasoning—like smoked paprika. Dudash likes this meal because it includes two sources of protein and some omega-3s.
Have leftovers to get rid of? Try a veggie-packed wrap. Grab some leftover protein like chicken or salmon and wrap it into a whole-grain wrap with a healthy helping of spinach or arugula, avocado slices, and drizzle of vinaigrette, recommends Dudash. Serve with a side of crunchy sugar snap peas and you’ve got a meal with lean protein, whole grains, fiber, and antioxidants, she says.
Dinner is your last opportunity to squeeze in some nutrition before bed, but it doesn’t have to be a high-maintenance meal. For a simple, clean eating meal, try roasting a bunch of veggies and a lean protein on one pan, says Dudash. This way you have less prep work and cleanup to worry about. Dudash likes seasoning salmon with fresh dill and lemon zest and roasting it alongside some asparagus—but you can mix and match whatever protein and produce you like! (Check out our favorite one-pan recipes here.)
Make clean eating flavorful and fun by upping the health-factor in some of your favorite meals. Mattison recommends trying meatballs with no-sugar-added sauce over spaghetti squash, or making homemade fajitas with whole-wheat tortillas, lean beef, plain beans, grilled onions and peppers, tomato, and avocado.
Another quick-but-tasty meal: Shrimp and veggie kebabs served over brown rice, says Mattison. Zucchini, red onion, and bell peppers all make for delicious kebabs.
If you have a slow-cooker handy, Dudash recommends making a batch of pulled turkey or chicken breast, which can be served atop a salad or wrapped into a whole-wheat wrap with lettuce, salsa, and avocado.
When you start to feel hangry between meals, having a few clean eating snacks prepared can keep you from falling off the deep end. Pritchett recommends grabbing a hard-boiled egg, or carrot sticks or apple slices and almond butter, which provide more nutritional bang for their buck calorie-wise.
A perk of eating whole-food snacks is that they’ll satisfy you for a lot longer than a processed snack out of the vending machine—often because they pack more protein and fiber, without refined grains or high levels of sodium, says Mattinson. She likes plain Greek yogurt topped with chopped pecans or veggie sticks (like carrots, cucumber, or zucchini) with hummus.
If sweets are your thing, swap candy for frozen grapes, adds Moore. “They are a sweet treat and natural source of antioxidants and other polyphenols” she says. Plus, they take longer to eat when frozen, helping you satisfy your sweet tooth without downing a whole bag.
Consider this infographic your quick and easy guide to eating clean all day long: