“Clean eating” is a term we’ve all heard. But, what does it really mean and what does clean eating for kids really look like?
When I was young, “eating clean” meant avoiding fat. But, we’ve since learned that healthy fats are vital to our wellbeing, so a clean approach to food has taken on a new definition.
In this article we will get to the bottom of the clean eating mystery, I’ll share tips for eating clean with your kids, and provide some of our family favorite recipes to get you started.
What is clean eating?
Clean eating is all about choosing real foods, whole foods, and foods found in nature.
Clean foods are those that haven’t been overly processed, or altered from their natural state. Clean foods can be grown or raised in your own backyard, at the farm down the road, or foraged for in the wild.
Clean foods are not man-made, factory produced, or made up of a long ingredient list with words you can’t pronounce.
Clean eating is a lifestyle
Clean eating is certainly not a diet, but rather a lifestyle. It’s a way of thinking — food is seen as nourishment and support for the body, mind, and spirit.
When you prepare meals with fresh ingredients the whole family benefits from more energy, better mood, and improved brain function.
With greater wellness comes an interest in other healthy habits, such as increased activity, quality sleep, and connection to nature.
Clean eating foods to focus on
What are clean foods?
- Veggies & fruits — a rainbow of colorful, organic, non-GMO, ideally in-season, produce.
- Meats — a variety of grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught animals and seafood (don’t forget the organs).
- Healthy fats — raw nuts and seeds, avocado, coconut, olives, fatty fish, and non-industrialized oils (olive, avocado, coconut, sesame).
- Legumes & whole grains — if you choose to include, opt for organic, whole, and traditional preparation methods of lentils, beans, quinoa, rice, oats, and ancient grains.
Foods to avoid for a clean-eating lifestyle
Clean eating may sound simple and straightforward, but the hard part is saying “no” to all the pre-packaged, convenience foods that we are surrounded by.
They are hyper-palatable and addicting.
The “dirty” offenders:
- Overly processed foods
- Foods with chemical preservatives
- Chemical additives and artificial ingredients
- Sweeteners, sugars, and artificial sweeteners
- Trans fats
- Industrialized seed oils (canola, vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil, safflower and sunflower oil)
- Antibiotics and hormones
- Pesticides and GMOs
Tips for eating clean with kids
The good news is that eating clean with kids is possible, and it doesn’t need to be overwhelming.
Here are four tips I use with my own kids, to encourage healthier choices and excitement over fresh ingredients:
- Make it yourself
- Keep a clean inventory
- Set a positive example
- Engage inquisitive minds.
Cook from scratch
Cooking at home with simple, clean ingredients is a great step on your clean eating journey with kids.
When you make meals, snacks, and even treats yourself, you eliminate so many junkie ingredients found in packaged store-bought foods.
It’s that simple, and the challenge of a “do it yourself” dish can be a fun activity for the whole family.
When your kids ask for the next best processed goodie, get your kids in the kitchen! Put your heads together, investigate some recipes, and see what you can make in your own kitchen as a healthier alternative.
Check out my homeschool cooking curriculum post for books and resources you can use to start teaching your kids to cook healthy meals.
A pantry and fridge stocked with clean ingredients helps kids see what whole foods look like, and how these foods come together to make a nourishing meal.
When processed junk foods are kept out of the house, kids (and grown-ups) can’t easily reach for the convenience that’s so tempting.
Clean staples may include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Canned tomatoes
- Canned coconut milk and coconut oil
- Canned sardines and tuna
- Olives and olive oil
- Vinegars and seasonings
- Whole grains and legumes
- Fresh and frozen fruit
- Fresh and frozen vegetables
- Fresh and frozen meat
- Plain whole yogurt
- Raw cheese
You can use these staples to create a variety of meals. Check out my 7 Day Family Meal Plan for ideas.
Be a role model
Kids learn far more through observation and what they SEE than through what we tell them. Eating clean yourself is one of the best tips for helping your kids adopt healthy behaviors.
When you take a few extra minutes to prepare fresh meals for yourself and your family, your kids will see the value you place on clean ingredients.
Whenever possible, show the joy that such food brings you as well — the flavors, the colors, the textures, the aromas.
Involve your kids
Even more than through observation, kids learn through involvement. When they connect to real food by seeing where it comes from and helping to prepare it, they are much more likely to eat it.
Visit organic family farms and farmers’ markets, to help build a connection to healthy natural food. You can also start small homesteading projects, like gardening and canning to provide first-hand knowledge of where real food comes from.
Teaching your kids to cook is rewarding, gives them tools for self-sufficiency, and helps establish healthy relationships with food. Not to mention, cooking from scratch with your kids is quality time together — nothing beats that!
Kid-friendly clean eating meal plans
Now that we’ve defined “clean eating,” and covered a few tips for clean eating with kids, let’s take a look at a few strategies for kid-friendly meal plans. I promise — you can do this!
Keep it simple
Clean eating doesn’t have to be complicated, or fancy!
Keep it simple — this is often what kids prefer anyway! Once you remove highly palatable processed foods from your repertoire, the flavor of real food has the opportunity to shine, and kids will appreciate it over time.
Basic cooking techniques — roasting, baking, sauteing, and grilling — of whole foods, with healthy oils and a variety of herbs and spices, is all you really need. And don’t forget to mix in some raw fruits and veggies, too!
Keep it fun
Kids are curious, and the kitchen is a great place to explore (with kitchen safety in mind) and have fun.
- Kids love to dip.
- Kids love to eat with their hands.
- Kids love to eat foods shaped like animals.
- Kids love to mix and match.
Incorporating these ideas into clean eating meals and snacks will bring excitement to their plate and help teach nutrition to kids along the way.
Keep it balanced
Creating a balanced plate can be accomplished with kid-friendly clean eats.
- Choose a quality protein (a 1 – 2 palm-sized portion).
- Cover half the plate with colorful veggies and fruit.
- Fill in the gaps with healthy starches (sweet potato, potato, root veggies, legumes, whole grains).
- Top it off with natural fats.
Clean eating recipes for kids
Here are a few clean eating recipes your kids will love for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack-time.
These ideas should help you get started on a path to healthier family meals.
There’s so much more to breakfast when you think outside of the cereal box! Here are three nutrient-rich breakfast recipes to start the day off right.
Apple Cinnamon Pancakes
These Apple Cinnamon Pancakes offer healthy fats, real fruit, and protein — especially if you pair them with some nitrate/nitrite free all-natural breakfast sausage. Have your kids help you mash the bananas, stir the batter, and choose their toppings!
Egg Muffins are a perfect clean eating kids meal. Whether you’re cooking with toddlers or teens, your kids can help you choose the veggies they want to add. You can even make these tasty morsels ahead of time for busy weekday mornings.
Raspberry Almond Chia pudding
Creamy, filling, and easy to make ahead, Raspberry Almond Chia Pudding is a great egg-free, dairy-free, grab-n-go breakfast. Real coconut milk, chia seeds, honey, fresh fruit, and raw nuts come together to please little palates.
For more suggestions, be sure to check out Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Kids.
A clean meal in the middle of the day is important for both kids and adults! Here are a few healthy kids’ lunch ideas that can be made in advance, or put together in a jiff for sustained energy, and rich nutrition.
Curious Cobb Jar Salad
Cobb Salad in a jar? Yes, please! The combination of veggies, hard-boiled eggs, and all-natural salami is so tasty with homemade balsamic dressing. My kids love how the ingredients above the dressing stay crisp until they are ready to eat.
Asian Turkey Wraps
Kids love to scoop and fill, even when it comes to food. The slightly sweet and salty filling in this Asian Turkey Lettuce Wrap recipe is fun for kids of all ages to spoon into lettuce cups and munch away. The filling can also be served over chopped romaine lettuce and rice (cauliflower or white).
Chicken & Veggie Collard Wraps with Sun Sauce
Using blanched collard greens is a perfect substitute for processed flour tortillas. They are nutrient-rich and full of flavorful — and yes, my kids enjoy them. This Collard Wrap recipe takes advantage of leftover or pre-cooked chicken. It includes a delicious homemade sun sauce that will keep anyone dipping.
For more ideas, check out Healthy Lunches Teens (and kids) Will Love.
The most common family meal, dinner, is a great opportunity to come together around whole foods to reflect on the day, connect, and set a clean eating example.
Salmon can be a strong taste for some palates, but the combination of ingredients in this Salmon Chowder recipe mellows the fish flavor making it a nice way to introduce this ultra nourishing fish to your kids.
Meatballs are a great opportunity for clean ingredients and messy hands! Once all the ingredients have been placed in a large bowl, your kids can use their clean hands to mix everything together and roll into balls. Serve Shannon’s Meatballs over zucchini noodles, rice noodles, or as a side dish with marinara for dipping!
Chicken Teriyaki Bowls
What kid doesn’t love a good rice bowl? This Chicken Teriyaki Rice Bowl recipe aims to take a crowd-pleaser and boost the nutrient density with extra veggies and clean-eating soy sauce alternative.
For more clean eating recipes, check out Healthy Dinner Ideas for Kids!
A clean eating snack is really just a smaller version of a healthy meal! Sure, it’s easier to pull a packaged snack pack out of the pantry, but the ideas shared here are worth a few minutes of effort to make an impact on your child’s interest in real food.
Healthy Banana Boats
Spread some nut butter and sail your Banana Boat toppings to a far-away land. This is a great time to experiment with new dried fruits, like goji berries, or unknown seeds, such as chia!
This Apple Dippers snack is so easy to put together, and kids LOVE the combination possibilities. It may be tempting to put sugar laden ingredients in these muffin cups, but with clean dips and toppings, kids will find the joy in purity.
Snack Time Skewers
A variety of bite-sized foods on a stick is a snack-time dream for kids young and old! Mixing veggies, fruits, and meats makes for nutritional balance, and clean eating!
Need more suggestions? Check out Healthy After School Snacks for Growing Kids and Teens for other fun ideas.
Clean eating in action
Now it’s time to take action! You have a clear picture of clean eating, strategies for clean eating with kids, and plenty of clean eating recipes to try this new lifestyle as a family.
Remember the basics:
- Choose wholesome, fresh, colorful, real food ingredients
- Cook at home with single ingredients
- Include your kids in the process, from shopping to cooking
- Keep it simple
- Keep it fun
- And, keep it balanced!
If these are unchartered waters for you and your family, and you are looking for more guidance on how to navigate the land of clean eating, make sure to check out the 4 Weeks of Real Food eBook as well!