Clean Eating Made Easy (Really!)

Embrace fresh, whole ingredients by following these smart tips.

Clean eating has such a nice ring that it’s not hard to get an enthusiastic response to the idea, especially when everyone is looking to make healthy improvements in their lives.

But it’s a bit harder to describe exactly what clean eating is, particularly since there is no scientific consensus on what the term means. One way would be to think of it as relying on food that does not come from a bag, box or can. It all starts with real, whole, organic, one-ingredient food. Although I’ve lived in New York City for more than a decade, with 12 restaurants on every block, I’ve never ordered takeout. Not once.

So I know from experience that if you really want to eat cleanly, you can do it. This isn’t about being vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian. The most important thing is to eat foods that make your body feel good.

I came to clean eating after years of being very sick. Many people think that having headaches and bloating and feeling tired and foggy is normal. But in my journey to wellness, I’ve learned it’s not normal, and you can do something about it. I used to want a quick fix, but I now know that it’s a gradual process of teaching yourself to choose clean, healthy foods.

Here are my best tips for starting your new year on a path to good health and wellness.

1. There is no one ideal diet.

You don’t have to eat the superfoods that seem trendy. Everyone’s diet will be a little different, based on your individual makeup. The most important thing is to eat whole, organic, fresh foods that make your body feel good.

2. If a food makes you feel lousy, it’s not for you.

Forget the trends or whatever the buzziest superstar is doing. You are the expert on what you can eat. No matter what anyone says, if something doesn’t make you feel good when you eat it, you can choose to eliminate it from your diet.

It’s a lesson the gluten-free diet teaches well. For those who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, cutting out gluten is the only treatment and is the key to getting rid of symptoms and achieving good health. For a long time lack of gluten-free processed food meant that those who followed the gluten-free diet almost automatically relied on fresh, natural foods. The introduction of many processed gluten-free products has changed that, but you can still decide to follow a simple, clean gluten-free eating plan.

Real, clean food should never make you feel lethargic, bloated or irritable. It should make you feel energized and amazing. Trust me, I don’t advocate deprivation. You can still create incredible flavor with whole foods and enjoy
every bite without feeling deprived.

3. Feed your body, not just your belly.

You do not subsist on calories alone. You need a whole spectrum of nutrients and vitamins. A 100-calorie snack
pack is not the equivalent of 100 calories from an avocado. Choose foods with one ingredient, such as avocados, bananas, walnuts and spinach, and you’ll be feeding your body, not just satisfying your hunger pangs.

4. Processed food can’t hold a candle to one-ingredient foods.

Food in its whole form is the healthiest version. That’s my rule of thumb, and it should be yours, too. The more a food is processed, the less of its original nutrients remain. Do more of the processing yourself, be it heating, blending or chopping, and leave less of it to food manufacturers.

5. Your diet should change with the seasons.

Through the magic of the modern food economy (and I say that slightly tongue-in-cheek), you can get plenty of food year round. But the healthiest diets shift throughout the year. There’s a reason you want bright, juicy berries in the summer and crave hearty butternut squash in the fall. That’s when these foods are at their peak and when you should be eating them.

Part of the fun of clean eating is the anticipation of enjoying foods in season. I can barely wait for August when tomatoes are at their ripe, perfumed best. I love the fall for its rich, caramelized root vegetables, such as parsnips and carrots.

6. A healthy diet gives you more options, not fewer.

Eating clean is not restricted eating; it’s adventurous. It pushes you to try new fresh foods that you otherwise might bypass on your way to pick up something boxed or bagged. Look for probiotic-rich foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and chickpea miso, and prebiotic-rich foods, such as onions, garlic, asparagus and leeks. Reach for turmeric, whole mustard seeds, fresh ginger, unsweetened cocoa powder and cinnamon, all of which can contribute to good health.

Clean Eating Basics

What you put in your shopping cart matters

One of the first steps toward clean eating is clean food shopping. Here’s how:

Try a new food. Try one new whole food ingredient each week; it will encourage you to get a little creative with your meals. And you may find a new ingredient you love.

Buy only what you need. This is the best way to stock your refrigerator while saving money. For fresh foods that spoil quickly, don’t buy larger quantities than you and your family can eat. Nothing will turn you off from clean eating faster than vegetables and fruits that go soft and slimy and have to be thrown out. Also be mindful of foods you know you’ll never eat. If you really aren’t going to eat kale after that first try, don’t buy it again just because everyone else is.

Make a list. Organize your shopping list according to where you’ll find items such as produce, gluten-free whole grains, spices, frozen veggies, etc. Include the new food you want to try, and mainly stick to the list to avoid making spur-of-the-moment impulse buys.

Get creative. You might have kale on your shopping list, but collards are on sale. Go for the collards; sometimes you have to let your wallet do the talking.

Stock your freezer. Keeping ready-to-eat homemade foods in your freezer is like  finding ten dollars in your coat pocket. Just when you couldn’t figure out what to do for a meal, you have that nice, perhaps forgotten, back up. Roast or grill veggies and freeze them in small batches. Keep frozen berries for morning smoothies all year round.

Watch out for hidden ingredients. Learn how to identify any ingredients you are trying to avoid. They’re not always as obvious as you may think.

Look for the “9.” Check out the little stickers on your fresh produce. Fruits and veggies starting with the number
“9” are organic.

Shop online for bulk. Buying staples such as legumes and grains in bulk can save you money. Online shopping
for larger quantities will enable you to take advantage of lower costs without exposing you to the cross-contamination that commonly occurs in bulk bins in supermarkets and health food stores.

Top Clean Picks

These are products I use again and again:

  • Earthbound Farm Spinach. Earthbound’s products are committed to clean organic greens—this brand of fresh greens is a staple for everyone’s kitchen. I eat the Earthbound Farm organic salad blends daily; they’re so easy for prepping my meals, from tacos to salads and soups.
  • Living Now® gluten-free organic quinoa pastas are a great source of protein and taste and cook like traditional pasta without gluten, soy, eggs, corn and dairy. They’re made from only three ingredients—organic rice, organic quinoa and organic amaranth.
  • Barlean’s Forti-Flax features lightly milled, organic flaxseeds that provide naturally occurring nutrients, including omega-3, fiber, amino acids and antioxidants.
  • Navitas Naturals makes organic, gluten-free snacks using freeze-drying and low-temperature processing to preserve nutrition and flavor. Their snacks are great for traveling as well as baking at home or tossing into your salads and whole-grain recipes.
  • Nutiva® Organic Coconut Manna is puréed organic coconut butter made of pure, dried coconut flesh that can be used in cooking or straight from the jar.
  • Manitoba Harvest has organic hemp seeds, bite-sized snacks and protein powder that can be added to smoothies and oatmeal.

Amie Valpone is editor of, where she blogs about clean eating and develops gluten-free, vegetarian recipes. She has written about health and wellness for numerous print and online publications, including Prevention, Glamour, and The Huffington Post. Her new book, Eating Clean, is available on and in bookstores.