Clean up your eating habits this year by cutting back on saturated fat, refined grains, processed foods, sugar and salt. It’s easy to pay close attention to what you're eating on the weekends when you’ve got tons of time on your hands to prepare delicious meals, but during the week when time is less available it's easy to feel the pull of convenience foods for their, well, convenience. Download a FREE Clean Eating Cookbook!
But you can eat clean on the weekdays if you keep a few tips (and some easy, healthy recipes) on hand. Here are seven tips and recipes to live by when all you have is 30 minutes to prepare a “clean” meal:
—Hilary Meyer, Associate Food Editor
Trying to eat clean means avoiding refined grains like white pasta, white bread and white rice in favor of whole grains. Unfortunately, a lot of whole grains take close to an hour to cook, which isn’t ideal when you’re in a rush. You have two options: a) cook a big batch of grains like barley, brown rice or wheat berries ahead to use throughout the week; or b) familiarize yourself with some quick-cooking varieties like quinoa, bulgur or farro. They’re all ready in less than 30 minutes.
Eating clean is easy when you cram as many vegetables as possible into your meal. But if you’re trying to eat a lot of vegetables, washing, cutting and cooking them can take a lot of time. On weeknights, focus on a few vegetables that cook quickly and that take very little time to prep. Snap peas, snow peas, asparagus, broccoli florets and cauliflower require little to no prep and all cook quickly (be sure to cut broccoli and cauliflower into small florets to speed up cooking). And they all taste good if they’re tender-crisp—a texture that’s achieved with only a few minutes of cooking time.
To make your food really flavorful when you cut back on salt, you need to rely on healthy flavor-packed ingredients, such as herbs and a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice. Fresh herbs are delicious and many are easy to prepare, while others are more time-consuming (think thyme with those tiny leaves you have to pluck). So on nights when you don't have much time, choose fresh herbs that are easy to work with, such as basil and chives. And when you’re really pressed for time, dried herbs are an easy solution. If your recipe calls for fresh herbs and you want to use dried, cut the amount by one-third.
Dinner isn’t a meal that typically harbors tons of sugar, but an after-meal treat certainly can. If you’re eating clean, you want to avoid foods with added sugars, so when it comes to dessert choose foods that are naturally sweet, such as fruit. Whirl up berries in a blender and stir together with nonfat plain yogurt and a splash of vanilla extract for a confectionary flavor.
The beauty of salads is that they offer plenty of vegetables and they’re quick to prepare if you keep them simple. But a virtuous salad can become not-so-healthy when it’s loaded with salty ingredients like croutons and bacon bits or it’s swimming in dressing. To keep your salad quick and “clean,” stick to fresh, whole foods, keep toppings to a minimum and make your own salad dressing. It sounds time-consuming, but DIY salad dressing needs only three components: vinegar, oil and a pinch of salt. Start with a recipe of 2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. If it’s too tart for you, don’t add more oil: try whisking in water to mellow the flavor.
Sometimes we have to rely on convenience products when we’re in a time crunch. And the good news is that not everything in a box or a can should be off limits if you’re trying to clean up your diet. Read ingredients and choose products with short lists. Check sodium numbers and choose products that have little or no added salt. Worried about BPA from cans? Beans and tomatoes can be found in aseptic packages and some brands have ditched BPA from their cans altogether. Check the labels or refer to websites for information pertaining to BPA in your favorite canned products.
Saturated fat is found in meat and full-fat dairy products. You don’t have to avoid it completely, but cutting back on saturated fat is easy. Opt for low-fat dairy products and cook with extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter. Replace some of the meat in your diet with seafood. Shrimp and wild salmon are both good choices for weeknights. They cook quickly and salmon offers omega-3s, which are good for your heart and may help improve your mood.