OK, so now you’re convinced of the benefits of clean eating, you have your list of new yummy recipes at hand and you really want to give this a go… but you’re not too sure what exactly is going to be left in your pantry? Let’s go through some easy clean eating grocery tips to guide you along.
We’re going to go through each category of foodstuff and show you:
the stuff to avoid like the plague (the Bad),
what is acceptable (the Good), and
the optimal choice (the Best).
Fruits and vegetables should be high on your shopping list…
- easy to find as natural as they get.
- cheap and nutrient-rich
- versatile, there’s bound to be at least one or two that the whole family enjoys
- increasingly grown organically and locally
- The foodstuff with the smaller water footprint.
Aim if possible for fruit and vegetables that are in season and locally produced. If you can afford it, buy organically-grown. The Dirty Dozen lists the ones that need to be bought organic as a priority.
Some produce is actually best kept out of the fridge until they’re fully ripe. Like avocados, tomatoes or tree fruits. You actually get to save on fridge space (and electricity), while eating them at their best. It’s a win-win situation.
Any processed fruit or vegetable, whether washed, cut, cooked or pre-packaged for convenience.
Imported fruits and vegetables, as those will have a high carbon footprint through conservation and transport.
Non-seasonal fruits and vegetables, as they will also have a higher carbon footprint through greenhouse cultivation and storage.
Fresh fruits and vegs, preferably in season and locally produced. To get the best of your fresh produce, aim at shopping for them every week if you can, so they’re as fresh as possible when you consume them.
The organic stuff. Find yourself either a local organic market or an organic box scheme, and religiously get your weekly fix of organic goodness.
Or start growing your own, even if only in pots on a windowsill or a balcony at first. It quickly becomes addictive and nothing beats the pride of eating the fresh produce “from the garden”.
[For help figuring out which fruits and vegetables *need* to be organic, and which ones will not hold on to much pesticides and other chemicals, check this post]
Starches should be whole grain…
…as those still contain all or part of the outer envelope of the grain (the bran), which contains nutrients and fibers, making them low GI,
…as they will have been less refined and less processed than their white, bleached counterpart,
…for their reduced carbon and water footprint (less processing = less electricity and water needed),
… for the health benefits of the extra fibers, proteins, and oils.
Refined carbohydrates: highly processed and stripped of their nutrients, the body transforms them into glucose, making them no better than sugar.
Those include normal pasta, white bread, white rice, and any white refined flour.
Most kiddies cereals contain 20 to 30% sugar, plus a whole host of additives. But they have added vitamins and minerals, I hear you say. Well, that just shows you that there wasn’t much of that in them to start with, methinks.
Anything puffed, fluffed, shaped, colored, flavored should go out of the window.
Wholegrain pasta and brown rice.
Whole wheat or crushed wheat bread, preferably with the smaller amount of additives.
Potatoes/sweet potatoes and other unprocessed starches.
Morning cereals that need some element of preparation is usually a sign that the product has not gone through too much processing. So you can’t beat plain porridge. Rolled oats or steel-cut oats have gone through the least amount of processing. Grits and oatmeal still have their place in a clean eating household, as long as they are not flavored, sugared or pre-processed to cut down on cooking time.
(I do admit to buying plain cornflakes and puffed rice as a weekend cereal for my kids, as long as they don’t contain more than 5% sugar)
Organic whole grain pasta and brown rice, as grains are conventionally grown with the help of much fertilizers and pesticides. Some of those agrochemicals will be found within the grain itself after harvest.
Artisanal bread, which contains far fewer additives and preservatives.
Organic, non-GM plain porridge.
Tidbits – Originally, baker’s bread does not contain much beyond grains, salt, yeast and water and does not keep more than a day (hence the traditional daily trips to the bakeries in France, for example).
To increase industrial bread’s shelf-life so it can be sold to convenience stores, many chemicals had to be added to make sure it doesn’t go stale or moldy within a day. As well as flavor-enhancing additives, like sugar, salt and fat, to make it more appetizing.
Meat, fish, and dairy should be in large chunk or whole
Any highly processed product: if the texture of the original product has completely disappeared, it is probably not very clean. Think salamis, hot dogs or fish fingers.
Any products where meat or fish is not first on the list of ingredients, or where that list contains many preservatives, flavorings, colorings and other additives.
Any dairy product containing more than three or four ingredients. That’s all it takes to make yogurt, cheese, cream etc. Any more than that, and you know this product is laden with additives.
Eggs from caged hens. Regardless of where you stand in terms of animal welfare, hens raised in those cramped conditions are given heavy doses of antibiotics to keep them laying regularly. Some of it will make it to their eggs, and therefore to your plate.
With regards to meat, aim for large cuts, rather than ground meat. For fish, for whole fish or fillets/steaks. They will not only have been less processed but will also keep for longer in your fridge or your freezer.
Prefer meat from smaller animals, as their water footprint, although high, is less than that of beef, for example.
For dairy products, try and aim for full fat, plain products. You can happily add your own (natural of course) flavorings or sweeteners afterward.
Prefer free-range or cage-free eggs. Although this is no guarantee that the hens were not given antibiotics, they should need less of it to stay healthy.
Again, choose organic or grass-fed if you can afford it and if it’s available. You will spare yourself the antibiotics and other chemicals added to farmed chicken, cattle and fish. And you will also do your bit towards cleaning the farming industry. You will be encouraging a more extensive, slow, clean farming rather than intensive and chemical-laden one.
Oils, seeds, nuts, spices etc.
Anything highly refined. Vegetable oils such as canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower or corn oil are refined or purified through various treatments. Those can include heating, acid-treatment, bleached, neutralization, or deodorization. Doesn’t seem too natural, doesn’t it?
Seeds and nuts in any other form than their original one. Nut and seed butter with added sugar, emulsifier or any other additive.
For spices and condiments, educate yourself on their ingredients list. Those with unpronounceable names, additives, starch, or a majority of salt and sugar are best avoided. Avoid irradiated spices.
There aren’t that many oils that are produced with minimal treatment. Olive oil and coconut oil are good all-rounders for cooking, dressing etc.
Otherwise, try to stick with cold-pressed, unrefined oils, like avocado or flaxseed oils.
Butter is a good, natural source of fat. Previously blamed for a lot of heart-related issues, it is now recognized as having its place in a healthy, natural diet.
Nut and seed butter containing only one ingredient is fine.
Try and find spices and sauces that have a minimal list of ingredients made up of natural products.
Buying organic products will ensure the source of oil or fat was grown or raised without the use of pesticides and chemicals, traces of which are usually found in conventionally-grown products.
Blend your own seed and nut butter if you can. The ready-made ones can be costly, so if you have the right equipment, this will save you a buck.
Look out for non-radiated spices.
Make your own sauces from scratch. Mix your own spices. Make extra and freeze for later or give some to your friends and family.
Snacks, treats, and sweeteners, because we can
Those, along with convenience food, will be where the bulk of the processing and additives hide. The manufacturers know that those little daily extras will keep you coming back for more, so they put all their weapons into them. Nothing will be spared. Extra coloring, flavoring, additive, heavy processing, usually associated with either a comforting image or a healthy one. They will also be heavily aimed at kids, which are a soft target.
Read those labels, sift through the marketing. Figure out for yourself whether that product is genuinely good for you, or merely a gimmick to get you hooked on them.
Tip – Sugar should not be the main ingredient, and should be quite far down the line, as it is highly addictive.
White refined sugar, as well as most low-calorie sweeteners.
Sweets, chocolate treats, flavored chips, any.
Dark chocolate. Or, at a push, good quality milk chocolate, although milk chocolate contains so much sugar that it does make harder to stop at just a few squares…
Roasted nuts and seeds.
Plain chips, if possible that include the least amount of salt and the maximum amount of fibers or extra goodness. I do buy vegetable chips and plain maize chips because it’s yummy with dips and they are usually fairly low in salt and with limited additives.
Lovely fresh, ripe fruits. You might not think of fruits as a treat, but they hit the spot in terms of sweetness. If apples just cannot be considered a treat, then indulge in a fruit that you haven’t had for a long time, or that is a little bit more expensive, once in a while. My kids enjoy a “twisty apple”, which is a plain apple run through a little corer-peeling-twisty contraption. I usually have to stop them at the fourth apple…
Least-refined sugar, such as muscovado or molasse. Honey. All other “natural” sweeteners will have undergone some level of refining and purifying.
Dark chocolate with over 80% cocoa. It’s so rich and contains so little sugar that just a couple of square is actually very satisfying.
Plain seeds and nuts. You can then add a bit of honey or roast them yourself. There are also tons of seed and nut treats and snack recipes on the Web, so try some. Some of them are super easy and delicious.
Organic lovely, fresh, ripe fruits…
Raw non-radiated honey, preferably from a local source, so you can enjoy its benefits with regards to allergies.
I can hear you say: what about baked goods? Industrial baked goods are by definition heavily processed. They will require additives to keep from the moment they’re produced to the moment you’ll consume them. Home-baked products are best, although not ideal, as they usually involve refined products like flours, sugar and a few additives. But there are ways to bake with whole grain flours and with limited ingredients.
Any heavily processed drink or with anything added. Soft drink, reconstituted juices, instant drinks like coffee or drinking chocolate, that kind of “on-the-go” drinks.
100% fruit juices, without preservatives.
Coffee and tea made from coffee beans or actual tea.
Hot chocolate made from cocoa.
Water, of course.
Home-made juices, preferably in a slow juicer, made from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Water, by far. Any other drink will use a vast amount of water to be produced. Water, besides being the only drink essential to us, is also the one with the smallest water footprint.
Are you ready to go shopping for clean food?
The above pointers should send you in the right direction with regards to what is actually out of bounds in a clean eating kitchen. For a more specific list, check my clean food list here. Feel free to ask if I’ve missed anything or if you’re not sure about particular foodstuff, I’ll do my best to help you along.
Want to read more about clean eating? Start here.