How to start clean eating

Eating clean is simply eating more natural, healthy, wholesome food, and less processed, nutrient-depleting, industrial food. Put like that, it sounds easy, doesn’t it? But how to start clean eating, for the majority of us out there, can be daunting. Processed food (anything with a packaging, really) is the norm, it’s what we grew up on and it’s the only food that’s (seemingly) available in the shops.

So do you start eating clean? Do you go T-total, or try a more gradual approach? It will depend on you and your circumstances, and I believe there are ways to go clean to suit everybody. I have listed few tried and tested methods below, from the most radical to more moderate approaches.

Option 1 – The Great Purge

This is the most radical approach to quickly purge your kitchen, pantry, fridge, and freezer and start from scratch. Not really suited to families though.

Market stall full of fruits and vegetablesSome folks out there go for a radical, uncompromising approach: they throw away all their foodstuff that isn’t considered clean and start with a clean slate. The idea is to purge your pantry and your fridge of all food that would detract you from eating clean, so you are not tempted to eat something processed or refined from there on.

The pros – it allows you to start from scratch and stick with your new clean diet quickly, simply by removing the temptation at home. This might work well for people that need to radically and suddenly change their diet, for serious health reasons, for example.

The cons – while the temptation might not be at home unless you know exactly what to eat and how to eat it, you will likely fall back on old habits the next time you shop or go out. So a fair amount of research must go in hand with the purge.

You might also get the dreaded detox flu as your body has to get rid of vast amounts of toxins in a short period of time.

The risk is also to end up removing a lot of junk food, but without knowing what clean food to add back into your diet, and not eating enough. Eating clean is not a restricting, short-term diet, it’s a lifestyle. Deprivation and calorie-counting do not belong in a clean eating diet.

It takes a good few weeks (some say 3, but evidence shows that even 21 days is not enough for massive changes like this) to set up habits, and unless you have a major reason to do this, this method is more likely to fail as you battle through your new way of eating.

Good for – the Adventurers, the Radicals and the Highly Motivated

Option 2 – The Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner approach

“Clean” one meal at a time, breakfast, then lunch, then dinner is a gentler approach. This is the one I personally followed, without realizing it.

Breakfast
How I did it

I started with the breakfast, which was giving me a lot of grief. Being French, I grew up on “tartines”, French bread smothered with butter and jam, or sugar-laden breakfast cereals, with a cup of hot chocolate as a child, then coffee or chicory as an adult.

And at 10 am, I would crash. I would get brain-fog and cranky at school. In my teens, the sugar crash would actually cause me to feel faint if I didn’t eat anything by 12. I actually passed out a couple time during my student years, because I had forgotten or hadn’t had the time to eat anything by lunch. Did I learn from my mistakes? Nope, I just carried on glucose tablets in my bag all the time!

Eggs on toast with saladI later alleviated the problem somewhat by switching to good old porridge oats in the morning, but I would still need a snack at 10. I only switched to a protein-based breakfast after the birth of my second daughter, when I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance and had to forgo oats. The relief was immediate and immense. I could just have 2 eggs and a tomato and carry on with the same level of energy until 12. I stopped feeling faint, I didn’t need to permanently carry glucose tablets or snacks with me. and I lost the sugar-induced brain fog. My hunger signs became, well, normal “empty stomach” hunger signs, rather than crankiness and faintness.

Apologies for the long personal digression, but this was truly my turning point. And given that most people’s breakfast is sugar-laden, I’m guessing it might be the same for a lot of people out there.

Why start with changing your breakfast?

Breakfast is also an easy meal to turn clean first, because it usually happens at home, is quickly prepared and is by far a personal affair. So, you don’t have to find recipes to please a whole family. It’s just you, your taste buds and your appetite.

But being the first meal of the day, if you find the clean breakfast that works for you, it will make a huge difference in how comfortable and productive your mornings are. Basically, that’s half of your day sorted. There and then.

Lunch

…will naturally be next, again because it mainly involves you. It typically requires a little more prep at home, if you’re bringing your own lunch, or being savvier with your choice of bought-out lunch. But you only have to cater for yourself, and you, therefore, have a lot more options.

If you haven’t done so naturally by then, snacks should probably be your next target, to make sure you don’t ruin your clean day by snacking on the wrong kind of food after work or when in need of a pick-me-up.

Dinner

…will probably be the most challenging meal to swap to clean food. Not through lack of delicious options, but simply because it usually involves other people, their taste buds, and their culinary expectations. Serving a whole plateful of healthy, natural greens to your kids every evening is not likely to earn you any brownie points.

Chicken kebabs with vegetablesBut by then, you are likely to have a good idea of what foods are allowed in a clean eating kitchen and how to prep them. My honest advice here is to involve the rest of your household. There are plenty of recipes that allow you to replace the family favorites with cleaner versions. Your children are also more likely to try your new meals if they have chosen the recipe and some of the ingredients. Or, even better, if they have helped prepare it.

How long should it take you to change every single meal? As long as you need. Everybody is different. This is not a short-term fad diet, but a new way of eating. Set yourself realistic targets and stick to them. Remember the 80/20 rule. It might be that clean eating works for you during the working week, but that you need to relax it a bit at the weekend. Or all the time, apart from lunches with clients. My kids know that they’re allowed a “naughty” in their lunchboxes on Fridays.

Good for – the Inadvertent Clean Eaters, the Morning Slumpers

Option 3 – One food category at a time

Or how to swap one food category for a cleaner version at a time, starting with the worst offenders.

This is another stepped approach that can work well to change from a drastically processed diet. It consists of identifying the industrial food that needs to be removed from your diet. Then the clean food that needs to make its way into your diet. Then decide to make one change per week or per month.

Fresh clean water is bestFor example, the first change could be gradually cutting out sugary drinks and drinking more water. The second one, replacing refined starches with whole grain ones. The third one, adding an extra portion of vegetables per meal. Then replacing biscuits, cakes and sugary treats with fruits or clean snacks. Switching to cleaner protein sources. Cutting down/out shop-bought prepared meals and takeaways. Etc.

The key here is to seriously take stock of what you are currently eating, and making a plan to stick to, with realistic timeframes for you and your family.

Good for – the Organised, the Reluctant Families

Option 4 – The Meal by Meal approach

Change one meal at a time: take each of your meals and try and go cleaner every time. In small baby steps.

This is a very gradual option: you consider each meal and replace it with its cleaner equivalent.

Breakfast bowl with granola and fruitsFor example, replacing your breakfast cereals with organic granola, or your morning toasts and jam by rye bread and plain peanut butter.

For lunch, you can just switch to wholegrain bread for your sandwiches, and choose chicken over salami. Or pick a quinoa salad, rather than your usual pasta salad. You could replace your usual chips with vegetable chips or plain corn or potato chips.

And instead of cheese macaroni at dinner time, try whole wheat pasta Bolognese for a healthier option. Soft drinks can be replaced by 100% fruit juices, then diluted juices, then water.

The idea is to constantly try and go cleaner and more natural. Until you reach a point where the vast majority of your food is untampered with and free of added sugar or additives. Hint – to get to that stage, you will have to buy whole products and prepare them from scratch.

The good thing about this technique is that the changes will be very gradual. You keep your favorite meals, just tweaking the recipe a bit. Sor it’s great if the rest of the family is initially not so keen on changing their eating habits. But it will take you much longer to arrive at a stage where you only feed your body whole natural ingredients.

Good for – the Hesitants, the Reluctant Families

Option 5 – The Cleaner Shopping option

Basically, you replace the content of fridge and pantry with cleaner ingredients as you go along.

This probably goes along the previous method. Every time you run out of something in the pantry or in the fridge, replace it with a cleaner version. Again, the changes are gradual and will allow you to eat the same food, to a certain extent, just cleaner.

On the plus side, there’s no wastage, as you get a chance to finish what you have at home before buying new cleaner groceries.

Grocery basketThis approach will still get you to look at cleaner options out there and checking out ingredients list, which is a good start.

But the risk is to only clean up your diet so far, as shop-bought options can only be that clean. Ultimately, you want to get rid of all processing, and this involves buying raw, unadulterated ingredients and cooking from scratch.

To avoid this, this approach is best combined with Option 6 below.

Good for – the No-Wasters, the Careful Shoppers

Option 6 – Change your Favorite Shop

Swap you main shopping haunt for another one offering more natural, whole products.

Make a point of buying food in shops or places that offer cleaner products. You’ll automatically end up discovering new ways of eating and trying more wholesome food.

Cleaner supermarkets

Whole Foods Market seems an obvious choice. Trader’s Joe comes up time and time again in clean eating food blogs. But there are other supermarkets out there that are just better stocked with fruits and vegetables, offer lesser processed foodstuff and more geared towards natural and organic products. Look out for them and try them.

Don’t forget to shop online too. Thrive Market allows you to buy clean, organic products at a fraction of their retail price.

Farmers’ markets

Fresh marketIf you are lucky to live near a farmer’s market, this could become your favorite place to stock up on fresh local food. We belong to those lucky ones. Since we have to cook everything from scratch, it makes sense for us to source the best and cheapest fresh products out there.

Farm-to-door boxes

Farm-to-door services are also a great solution to make you get fresh organic fruits and vegetables delivered regularly. Some cover an extensive area in the US, but I would favor local ones, simply to reduce the transport and storage.

Good for – the Undecisives, the Marketing Junkies

Whichever the option you decide to go for…

…education is key

Unless you know who the Bad Guys are and who the Good Guys are out there, there’s a high risk you will just end up piling up on junk food labeled “natural” or “healthy”, because their packaging (and their clever Marketing Managers) says so.

You can educate yourself about clean eating before starting, or as you go along, there isn’t any right or wrong method here. But read, read, read. Know what constitutes processing. How it affects the food and your environment. Know what your motivation for eating clean is. Learn how to read labels. Become addicted to shopping lists. Master your way around the different aisles of your supermarket.

Oh, and keep reading Simply Go Clean.

I have tried to cover various methods to embark on a clean eating journey, but please feel free to tell us how you have started and how it worked for you in the comments below.

And if you believe these tidbits could be useful to others, don’t forget to share! Oh, and follow me on Pinterest for more tips and hacks!

How to start clean eating
How to start clean eating
How to start clean eating

10 Comments

  1. Joo

    May 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

    I like the one food category at a time approach, I find it not so daunting. Especially with kids, it’s not easy for them to understand the reason behind cleaning up their diet. Some food categories can be massive changes in itself, because it is in almost every food. For instance, removing eggs and dairy, that’s already almost completely wiping out all packaged foods as well.
    Thanks for the tips, they’re all so useful to anyone who is trying to go on a clean diet!

    1. Isabel

      May 30, 2018 at 6:32 pm

      Hi Joo, my kids only started to understand the concept of eating cleaner food when they had some “naughties” and suffered the consequences, time and time again! But they are now, at 6 and 8, champions are deciphering labels and choosing their health over a treat. And yes, some of the most allergenic foods are in everything, because so many more unnecessary ingredients are added to processed food. Which is why removing all or most packaged food is best in the long run, not just for people with allergies or intolerances.
      Glad you enjoyed the post, go well!

  2. Goran

    May 30, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    HI Isabel, I like the look of your site and your niche is fantastic. You are helping others to determine what is CLEAN food and I really like you have used that term. Keep up the good work and I am sure you will have much more success than you have now. Goran Nadj WA Member.

    1. Isabel

      June 1, 2018 at 8:36 pm

      Hi Goran, thanks for your kind words. Eating and living clean has helped us, as a family, get rid of so many ailments, I would feel ashamed of myself if I didn’t try and give others the tools to do it too… All the best, Isabel

  3. Thabo

    May 30, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    Had I known this approach of clean eating 8 years ago my journey to changing my diet would have been way easier. I specifically like the first option ( The Great purge). This is what worked I basically worked with when I changed my diet. However it did upset my body at the time when I started. Had I got this information earlier I would have gone for the “One category at a time” option. For me option 2 would have not been feasible since I was busy during lunch 8 years ago and would have never have had time to get the healthier lunch meal.

    1. Isabel

      June 1, 2018 at 8:33 pm

      I tried the Great Purge right at the beginning after being diagnosed with all my food intolerances and I got detox flu really bad for a few weeks. My digestive system also got so upset, I ended up having to fast for a few days, triggering more detox symptoms. I don’t wish this on anybody… So when I decided to get back on track for good a few years later, I went for a more gradual approach! Worked much better for me! But everybody (every body) is different, hence the different approaches, so motivated folks can find the right method to get started.

  4. Sandra

    May 30, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    Thank you for the great options and how to start clean eating. I have not gone all the way with clean eating. I still eat a lot of packaged and canned foods, but I have incorporated many more healthier choices. I hate all the chemicals and preservatives and sugar in packaged foods and often look for the best of the bad. I need to to better. This article is a good guide!

    1. Isabel

      June 1, 2018 at 8:19 pm

      Well done on making a few changes, and on educating yourself about chemicals and preservatives, you should be proud of yourself! Looking out for the best of processed food is a great step in the right direction. Cooking from scratch doesn’t suit everybody and everybody’s lifestyle. But by buying the cleanest industrial food you can find, you’re sparing yourself a fair amount of chemicals and added rubbish, while encouraging the food industry to produce cleaner products! Win-win.

  5. Kevin McNamara

    May 31, 2018 at 3:11 am

    Hi Isabel,
    Great post as usual! Eating clean is definitely tough to start out but once you get on top of it you feel so much better. I think for me I have always eaten reasonably healthy but I had a health scare a few years back and I changed overnight. So certainly those kinds of things can make you go clean. I have stayed eating clean since then but I do know of family and friends who have had a health scare and change for a short while but once they are well again they go back to their old habits and diet. So its tough no doubt and I love your options. We started going to the fresh food markets many years ago for all our fruit and veggies and that really helps.
    Love your website. keep up the great work, Kev

    1. Isabel

      June 1, 2018 at 8:14 pm

      Thanks, Kev! I will confess that until recently, I thought that having to eat clean because of health reasons was a plague and we felt constantly a bit sorry for ourselves, especially the girls. But when I mentioned it to a trainer/nutritionist at the gym, he got very excited and just said ‘This is wonderful, your children will grow up on the best diet in the world!’ And it somehow changed my mindset. And I do feel that our food intolerances and allergies are turning out to be one of the best things that might have happened to us… Hence this website, to help others change the way they see food, step by step. 🙂

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