For most households, dinner is the time when everybody stops running around and slows down. It’s expected to be a safe and satisfying moment, for the stomach as well as the soul. The last thing we want is kids complaining they don’t like vegetables. Or adults moaning that the food is not rich enough. Or the family cook exhausted from having slaved over hot stove all evening.
So I’ve come up with some easy-peasy clean eating dinner ideas to satisfy everybody’s taste buds and give the cook a breather. Eating clean just means eating whole food, with the least amount of processing. So let’s keep it whole, with the least amount of processing in the kitchen too.
How to prepare a clean dinner at home
Make it family-friendly
First of all, don’t reinvent the wheel. Take stock of your family’s favorites. Stick with what you usually eat and just tweak it to make it cleaner. Fancy recipes and new flavors can wait. If your children (or your other half) don’t entertain vegetables, don’t start loading their plates with the green stuff.
Most kids don’t like green vegetables, especially the leafy ones, but will tolerate sweeter ones, like carrots, sweet potatoes or pumpkin. Or “funky” ones, like peas, cherry tomatoes, or vegetables cut in chips, sticks or spaghetti. Roll with it. Pick their favorite (or least disliked) ones, and cook them.
Roasted vegetables are always a hit at home. Our current chill-beater is sweet potatoes, carrots, and onions cut into chunks. Sprinkled with Italian herbs and baked for around 1 hour with a little olive oil. And if you want a super easy meal, cover this with lamb chops, chicken pieces (preferably with the skin on, to avoid drying) or a piece of beef to roast. If preferring fish, you’ll need to add it 30 minutes in, so it doesn’t dry out too much.
If the texture is an issue, try mash or soups. My mum used to make funky mashes of various colors:
- yellow (potatoes with a hint of mustard),
- orange (carrots and nutmeg),
- green (broccoli and cheese)
- and even pink (cauliflower with tomato and paprika).
It’s a bit more processing, but still better than turning every dinner into a fight.
Easy-to-prepare works best
Salads are always easy, and they don’t have to be just “rabbit food” (my husband’s term). You can sneak in some raw food (perfect clean food, no processing involved, full nutrients guaranteed). Then load them up with more wholesome garnish. Some examples:
Start with a starchy base: potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole grains. Then add on:
- You can add spring greens, hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise for a classic potato salad.
- Tuna, hard-boiled eggs, tomato slices, pepper strips and olives for a French-style salad.
- Or even cooked chicken breast, carrots, petit pois, gherkins, and mayonnaise for a Russian twist.
- I recently found a Portuguese recipe involving roasted sweet potatoes and onions. Loaded, still warm, onto a plate of baby spinach, peppers, fresh cheese, and almonds, drizzled with orange juice. It is delish.
- Quinoa tabbouleh (with tomatoes, cucumbers, mint, and olive oil) is the ‘in’ thing for a hearty vegetarian salad. Just add chicken for meat eaters.
OK, enough with the salads (did I tell you I love salads?). If you need a warm cooked meal, pick a whole grain starch or a tuber, a source of protein and some vegetables to suit the family. Cook it all together or separately, but prefer products that are quick to prepare and to cook. If you need ideas or recipes, look out for Paleo or primal recipes out there, and add some whole grains.
When shopping for vegetables, whole grains, and protein, try and choose, by and far, the ones that need the least amount of preparation. If buying food that will take a little while to prepare, make sure that this is part of your weekend menu.
How to eat out, but still eat clean
You know, deep down, that preparing your food from scratch is the best way to know what you put inside your body. But there will be days where it will just feel like too much. Or nights where the fridge is looking too bare to bear. Or other celebratory nights. It’s fine, it’s part of life.
So here are a few pointers to eat as clean as possible when out and about or to pick the cleanest takeaway.
Focus on food that will be as unprocessed as can be. Forgo breaded or fried chicken, but opt for roast chicken or chicken breast. Fish fingers are out, but grilled (not fried) or steamed fish is in. A burger might not be on the cards, but a steak is.
Ask for vegetables instead of the usual starchy side. Even better, ask for a salad, so you know exactly what’s on your plate.
Most puddings will be loaded with sugar and refined starches. If you do have the willpower to resist the rest of the dessert menu, check it out. Aim for sorbets, smoothies (no added ice cream and sauces) or other fruit-based option. And if there’s nothing of the sort on that menu and you absolutely need something sweet to round up the meal, go for a cappuccino or flavored coffee.
Takeaways and other fast food
This is where it gets tricky, as most takeaways are full of refined, highly processed starch, fat, and sugar. In all cases, swap your fries for a salad on the side. Then, aim for real food, the one that looks as close to its natural state as possible. Let’s go through a few popular choices:
Look out for lettuce-wrapped options, like the one offered by In-N-Out. If no such option is available, have your burger without the bun. And check that the patties are 100% beef. Skip the bacon and the creamy sauce too.
This is a tough one as the base *is* made of refined wheat flour. Look out for Paleo options, which will use flaxseed and other lesser-processed ingredients. Otherwise, opt for the thinnest base possible, for a bit of damage limitation.
The toppings should be as unprocessed as possible. Meat pieces, rather than salami or bacon, loads of fresh vegetables and as little cheese and sauce as possible.
Again, the wraps, burritos, and fajitas will be highly processed, although the rest of the ingredients might not be. Beans, meat and fresh vegetables are all good to go. Forget about anything fried and/or crunchy and opt for a soft tortilla instead. And don’t go near any dip that isn’t salsa.
Anything fried, crumbed or otherwise reformed is off limits. But there might be a roast chicken or whole chicken pieces on the menu, so look out for those, with a salad on the side.
At the deli, start by choosing whole grain slices of bread. Then select food as unrefined as possible: salad vegetables, of course, chicken or beef slices, eggs, and other natural-looking ingredients. Avoid cold meat, which is loaded with added salt and preservatives, and stay away from creamy sauces, preferring olive oil and vinegar.
Entertaining with clean food
Between kiddies’ parties and friends get-togethers, it might be hard to stay away from convenience food when you have to cater for a larger crowd with probably not-so-healthy expectations. Although this might not be an evening thing, it still involves pleasing the crowds and can be a challenge. My personal strategy is to divide to conquer. I split the whole meal into several manageable and clean dishes.
Starting with… salads and raw vegetable finger food
Whether these end up as my starters, on the party buffet table, or as a make-your-own side salad option, they’re here. Think cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumber or baby marrows in sticks, baby corns, mange-tout, pepper strips, and even grapes and apple slices.
Team them with yummy clean dips, either home-made or shop-bought (if available). If chips *have* to be somewhere in the picture, aim for plain corn or potato chips.
Or go for a large Cobb salad in the middle of the table. Go easy on the bacon, though, and prefer clean jerky.
For kids parties, I usually offer one hearty, filling option, in case the critters haven’t been fed before coming to my house. I make one large batch of grain-free savory muffins or mini-quiches. Or enroll my kids in making mini- kebabs with cheese/pickled onions/tomato/chicken/grapes/etc.
For more grown-up or sit-down parties, one single dish with your vegetables and your protein is a good option. It can be prepared a couple of hours ahead of time and doesn’t need any further work. Depending on the number of guests (or your oven size), the starch component of your meal might have to be cooked and served separately.
- a pot roast (in a crock or in the oven),
- chili con carne,
- jambalaya (with brown rice),
- or even lasagna, replacing the pasta with strips of zucchini.
… or separates?
If you feel ready for a little bit more preparation (or, like me, you are limited by the size of your oven), you can separate your protein, vegetables, and starches. This takes usually a little longer, but it gives your guests more flexibility. They can then happily skip the vegetables without being rude, for example. Or avoid the meat or fish if they’re vegetarian.
It also gives you more leeway, as you can create a whole meal based on what you have at hand, instead of following a set recipe. To create some sense of unity, use similar flavors and spices. For example,
- lemon chicken in the oven,
- served with steamed veggies with a drizzle of olive oil and Italian herbs,
- and brown rice cooked with chopped tomatoes, thyme and bay leaf on the side.
Clean puddings to round it all up
I’m not much of a baker but over the years, I have gathered a few clean recipes that are easy to make, involve simple ingredients. Oh, and are always a big hit (meaning: I don’t have to find new recipes all the time). Such as coconut brownies, Portuguese almond cake or Italian orange cake. Or the old favorite, chocolate mousse.
But I’ve also found that after a rich meal, sometimes the simplest and the most welcome dessert is a colorful fruit salad, drenched in fresh juice.
And you? What’s your favorite clean dinner? Please give us your family’s go-to healthy meals in the Comments below.