Clean Eating Food List for Beginners

When you ask your average “healthy” person what diet they follow, I’m sure you’ve heard something incredibly vague like “I eat clean”.

Okay, but what does that MEAN?

Generally they aren’t talking about observing the 5 second rule when their food hits the floor. Clean eating is kind of a catchphrase in healthy living right now, but two people could both claim to be “eating clean” and eating different things in different ways.  Although clean eating has many basic principles, it can be uniquely implemented to suit YOU and your family’s needs. This clean eating food list will help you get started.

What is clean eating?

The Beginner’s Clean Eating Food List

  • Focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, preferably organic or local.
  •  Most meat is encouraged: beef, chicken, turkey, pork, seafood, buffalo. Preferably organic, grass-fed, free range, etc.
  • 100% whole grains are acceptable in limited amounts.
  • Natural sources of healthy fat like avocados, guacamole, nuts, nut butters, coconut oil.
  • Full-fat dairy, possibly in limited amounts.
  • Avoidance of processed food (chips, crackers, anything with a lot of ingredients, or pre-packaged is generally a no-no).
  • Avoidance of sugar and artificial sugar substitutes.
  • Avoidance of sugared drinks: sweet tea, soda, most juice.
  • Limited or no alcohol (I would say red wine is the most common indulgence).

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Exceptions and Variations

  • Some people define clean eating as ONLY eating organic.
  • Some allow for whole grain breads, wraps, etc and others focus on only eating whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, rice, bulgar, etc. Sprouted grain breads and products are very popular for their low-glycemic properties.
  • “Processed” can be defined differently. Some people aim for a certain number of ingredients in a packaged products (7 or 5 is pretty typical), others want to recognize the name of every ingredient, and still others don’t mind more ingredients as long as they are all organic.
  • Clean eating for some involves a small amount of dairy–full fat, unprocessed cheese, yogurt, milk, and butter. Others seek to replace dairy with non-dairy substitutes like almond milk or coconut milk products.
  • Some clean eaters avoid all types of sugar, some avoid just “fake” sugars like high fructose corn syrup, and others are okay with natural sugars like honey, maple syrup, and stevia.
  • Meal timing varies among clean eaters. Some like to focus on three meals a day, others eat 5-6 mini meals, and others utilize intermittent fasting.

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Other Clean Eating Guidelines

  • Drinking lots of water!
  • Exercising regularly for your health in whatever way you enjoy. Clean eating doesn’t subscribe to a certain type of exercise like running, Crossfit, or Zumba. Whatever you love goes!
  • You may find clean eaters doing other “crunchy” things like using essential oils, natural cleaners, and growing their own produce. (If you’re interested in clean beauty check out the all natural hair products I’m obsessed with and this list of 5 Essential Natural Beauty Products for Oily Skin)
  • Clean eaters tend to seek out locally sourced ingredients when they are able.
  • Some may throw out a number as well as the “clean eating” label: “I eat clean 80/20”. This simply means that they eat by clean guidelines 80% of the time and 20% of the time make exceptions.

Clean Eating Resources

  • I initially learned about clean eating through the October Unprocessed Challenge on Eating Rules.
  • This led me to one of my favorite blogs and cookbooks, 100 Days of Real Food (the first half of the cookbook is basically a great explanation of clean eating for a family).
  • The Gracious Pantry has a number of awesome recipes and resources as well.

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My Personal Clean Eating Food List

  • Focus on eating half of my plate in fruits and vegetables, approximately 6+ a day. I get organic when our budget can afford it, but 70% of the time we eat conventional. Purchasing a veggie wash can cut down on loads of chemicals or make your own! Also, using the clean 15 and dirty dozen guidelines can help guide  your organic choices on a budget.
  • We eat mostly lean proteins: lean ground turkey, lean ground beef, and chicken breast. We occasionally eat fattier meats like steak, bacon, and ground sausage. My husband doesn’t love lean cuts of pork like pork loin or chops, so we don’t eat them as often, but they are a great choice. I try to get organic, grass-fed, cage-free etc as our budget allows.
  • We eat 100% whole grain bread. I go back and forth between buying sprouted grain bread and just buying “regular” 100% whole wheat bread. I also use whole wheat tortillas.
  • We eat other whole grain pastas, quinoa, rice, oats fairly frequently.
  • I drink almond milk due to lactose troubles. I don’t eat a ton of cheese or products heavy in dairy. I can have a little bit (less than a cup total a day) of dairy and it doesn’t seem to bother me.
  • I’m okay using small amounts of sugar in sweets and treats. I also use honey, stevia, and maple syrup as sweeteners, but I almost always reduce the amount of sugar if I can.
  • Right now I eat 3 meals a day and two snacks. When I’m not pregnant it is normally 3 meals and maybe one afternoon snack.
  • I drink a lot of almond milk and water. I don’t keep pop in the house, but I might have it once a week when we eat out. I drink a limited amount of alcohol, maybe one mixed drink a month or so when not pregnant or breastfeeding. I’m also obsessed with flavored sparkling water!
  • I would say normally I eat closer to an 80/20 ratio. I definitely have more focus if I am trying to lose weight and loosen up if I’m maintaining.
  • I normally work out 5 days a week.
  • Also, I don’t fix alternate meals for Nate or Layla. We all eat the same lunches and dinners, but I don’t force them to “eat clean” (not that you can force a toddler to eat anything). We have some “junk food” in the house which isn’t ideal, but it is real life.

Yes, there are basic principles for clean eating, but the implementation varies from person to person! You can make informed decisions based on what makes you feel amazing and is nutritious for your body. You can create your own clean eating food list that works for your tastes, budget, and lifestyle.

Keep refining the concept of “clean eating” in your life as you learn and grow on your healthy living journey. One size does not fit all. Clean eating in a nutshell: eat what makes you feel amazing and is nutritious for your body!!

Do you “eat clean”? How do you define it? 

P.S. Clean eating, although very good for you, is not necessarily geared for weight loss. You can’t eat unlimited amounts of clean foods and still lose weight, the amount of food you eat is key!

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