Eating Clean, what does it mean?

Clean eating is a lifestyle choice that means consuming whole, natural foods, avoiding processed foods with added preservatives and being more conscientious in sourcing food that is sustainably grown.

Clean Eating 101 starts with the tried and true advice of shopping around the edges of the supermarket where you can find fresh, unpackaged produce. When the food comes in a package, chances are other things in the bag might not be so great.

nce you are eating the right types of food, you then have to consider the quality of the food. Was it sourced locally? Was it grown organically, free from pesticides or genetically modified ingredients?

Eating habits don’t exist in isolation from other as aspects of your life. The way you eat is influenced by your family, your culture, your financial status, and other lifestyle factors like lack of time and convenience.

The decision to eat clean often runs in conflict with these other factors that impact your life. It can feel overwhelming to get started, especially if you already struggle to find time to prepare yourself a decent meal.

Is there a way to eat clean on the go?  

Eating Clean-ish

When I was little, we had a garden in the backyard. The only thing that I remember growing there was collards. My grandmother would harvest these fresh garden greens, thoroughly wash them in the sink, boil them down in a huge pot, add a ton of salt, some pork fat, simmer them down, and season them up some more.

The good news is that we were eating local: the greens were as local as you could get. All of our pork products were from Nahunta Pork Center, right in the same county. The bad news was a large portion of the nutritional goodness of grandma’s collards ended up in the pot liquor–the leftover liquid that ended up getting tossed out at the edge of the yard next to the field. The food was always delicious, and it was real food even if our understanding of nutrition still had a ways to go.

Another bit of news that some may put in the category of “bad” is the time and effort of making the portion of greens that sat next to a healthy serving of chopped pork BBQ and some fried cornbread. We had meals like this every weekend, and three people would have to devote a significant portion of their day to make it happen.

It can be great for a family to spend hours preparing and enjoying a meal together, but I recognize that not everyone has a lifestyle that can accommodate this type of gathering. The pace of life has picked up considerably over the decades since I was a chubby barefoot country boy.

How Convenient

I slimmed down during my teenage years, but that was just a consequence of shedding baby fat and playing sports. I don’t think I was any healthier.

The backyard garden was no more. My grandmother, who had always held part-time cleaning jobs and did seasonal farm work now had a full-time factory job like all the other adults in the home. The plan was to save up to buy land and a new home, one with all the modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, and central heat.

During our last years in the old country house where I grew up, we got a hot water heater and a microwave.  These devices saved both time and labor. Life was more comfortable in many ways. While we would still have those big meals now, more often than not, the vegetables were canned rather than fresh, and more packaged foods crept into our family’s cupboard.

We got the new home, and I lived there only a short while before I graduated and moved out into my early attempts at adulthood. By the time I left, the biscuits were still made from scratch every day but many of the other old-fashioned, time and labor intensive ways of preparing food were left behind.

Everybody was on the go.

Lean and Mean

I joined the Army a few years after graduation. My slim frame would be transformed into a “lean-mean” fighting machine. I was a cook in the Army and will admit that the food was not always spectacular. But it was prepared with the intention of providing balanced nutrition. There was still fresh, locally sourced produce available no matter where I was in the world. My level of physical activity was so high during those years that it is hard to really measure what impact my diet was having on my health, but I worked and played hard during those years.

It is not uncommon for soldiers to put on a few pounds once they leave the regimented lifestyle of the military. When I finished active duty, I moved back to Germany where I started my military career. I settled into the local way of living and eating.

I ate fresh bread from the bakery, meats from the butcher. I also ate rich, creamy sauces, cheeses and butter. I drank wine from the vineyards that surrounded the small town where I lived. My experience with food could almost be described as decadent.

I ate plenty, I was not nearly as active physically, yet, I actually lost weight during my first few months living as a civilian in Germany.  Even though I was not consciously restricting anything from my diet, the food that I was eating was natural, fresh and free of preservatives. It usually didn’t come from a package. Just by following along with the culture of the people around me, I was eating clean.

The Tradeoff

Can you eat clean on the go? Maybe. There is often a trade-off between doing things wellness-oriented and doing things the convenient way. Getting food into your body is one of only a handful of non-negotiable activities to ensure your survival. And the quality of that food and the experience you have around the preparation and consumption of that food has a significant impact on your quality of life.

So the real question may not be “can you eat clean on the go?” A better question may be, “where are you going?” What else are you doing that is so important that can’t be bothered to keep yourself alive?

Enough scolding…

5 Tips for Eating Clean on the Go

You may have a legitimate answer to those questions so here are 5 tips to help you maintain a clean eating lifestyle, even if you are super busy.

  • Skip prep time by eating raw vegetables.  Choose organic whenever you can.
  • Prepare large batches of your favorite clean, healthy meals in advance so that you will always have options available when you are tempted to just order a pizza.
  • Drink plenty of water. The brain is screwy. Sometimes dehydration can feel a lot like hunger. Stay hydrated, and you may be less tempted to hit the vending machine for that greasy bag of chips
  • Keep healthy snacks handy. If you are trapped in a meeting and are going to get home late, your stash of fruit, veggies, or nuts may be able to keep you away from the Twinkies.
  • When you finally have time to sit down and enjoy a meal, be mindful, take your time and savor every bite. Think about how your life would be if you could enjoy most of your meals this way