Improve your family's diet with these healthy-body, whole-foods strategies.

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woman eating apple
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What is clean eating?

Nitrates in cured meats. GMOs. Artificial sweeteners. Hydrogenated oils. Sugar-packed snacks and drinks. Livestock raised with antibiotics. Hormones in our food. Today many parents are saying, "Enough already!" and choosing to "eat clean." But what does that mean, exactly? Think of it as getting back to basics and choosing foods that have been processed as little as possible, whether that means opting for whole grains instead of refined ones or buying chicken raised without antibiotics.

The benefits

Your family will feel better, your kids will be healthier, your pocketbook may be heavier, and you earn bonus points for helping the planet. To get started eating clean, check out these nine tips. But don't feel as though you have to take on all of these suggestions at once. When it comes to eating clean, even small steps can reap big rewards.

1. Enjoy a rainbow of whole fruits and vegetables

Brightly colored fruits and veggies don't just look gorgeous; they are nature's power foods. Eating a variety ensures that your family benefits from a wide range of nutrients, such as disease-fighting lycopene in red tomatoes and beta-carotene in sweet potatoes. As Tina Ruggiero, nutrition expert and author of The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook, points out, "Science has shown that these natural compounds may help prevent cancer, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes." Challenge your kids to eat a rainbow every day; the one who eats the most colors at each meal wins!

Assorted grains
Credit: Greg Scheidemann

2. Seek out true whole grains

The words whole grains and fiber on a box of crackers or a snack bar wrapper means the food is healthy, right? Not always. Your best bet is to avoid highly processed food whenever possible and prepare your own breakfast and snacks with intact whole grains, such as steel-cut or rolled oats, quinoa, and whole-wheat flour. When you do buy ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and breads, look for the word whole in the first ingredient, like whole-grain oats or whole-wheat flour.

3. Look for simple ingredient lists

Shortcut meals, including packaged foods, lurk around every corner, tempting even the best of us. Some of these can be acceptable in moderation, but it's important to read ingredient lists and verify that they contain whole foods, rather than a slew of artificial, highly processed ingredients. Especially avoid partially hydrogenated oil, artificial food coloring, and artificial sweeteners, and steer clear of foods containing large amounts of added sugar, salt, and fat.

Teriyaki Salmon With Broccoli Slaw
Credit: Antonis Achilleos

4. Get green, lean proteins

Although chicken breast and lean ground beef are healthy choices, to eat clean you should expand your family's protein horizons. Think catfish, tilapia, and wild salmon, all sustainable seafood choices. Work more meatless meals into your repertoire, and don't forget nuts and seeds as snacks. When it comes to packaged foods, nix the traditional frozen chicken nuggets that contain a laundry list of foreign-sounding ingredients. Instead, make your own or buy nuggets with short ingredient lists. And, because traditional lunch meats are high in sodium and nitrates, swap out cold cuts for other appealing lunch box options.

5. Healthy for us, healthy for the planet

What's the difference between a sweet, juicy local peach in July and one shipped from afar in January? Aside from having better taste and texture (which will make everyone—including picky eaters—happy), the local fruit is likely a healthier option. The longer fresh produce sits in a warehouse, truck, or your fridge, the more vitamins and minerals it loses. Foods grown nearby also require less fuel and have a smaller carbon footprint. And consider the difference between a fresh apple and packaged applesauce snack cups, or a bunch of broccoli and a microwaveable serving container of sauce-doused vegetables: The less packaging, the less toll on the environment, too.

6. Go virgin

The best cooking oil choices for your body and the environment use cold, mechanical means of extracting the oil, rather than chemicals and high temperatures. So what does this mean when you're in the grocery store? Choose extra-virgin olive oil and organic expeller-pressed canola oil. Expeller-pressed grape seed oil, peanut oil, and avocado oil also pass the clean-eating test. Virgin coconut oil is a good replacement for butter in many recipes; just use moderate amounts.

How to Be Label Savvy

7. Skip the Antibiotics

Whenever possible, buy products from animals (such as chicken or pigs) that haven't been treated with antibiotics. Why? By overusing certain antibiotics in animals we may make these antibiotics less effective in humans eventually. A surefire way to know that your meat isn't from an animal that has been treated with antibiotics is to go organic.

8. Cook

Pretty much anything you cook from scratch will be cleaner than something ordered at a restaurant or prepared from a package. To make it easier to cook at home, plan ahead and stock plenty of healthy foods that your family enjoys for quickly assembled breakfasts and streamlined lunches. Have plenty of nutritious grab-and-go snacks on hand so the lure of vending machines and drive-through windows don't threaten your commitment. For dinnertime, knowing you have everything needed to prepare a delicious homemade meal offers peace of mind and saves you from making pizza delivery or takeout more than a special-occasion indulgence.

Fully Stocked Fridge Healthy Foods
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Get more tips for improving your family's diet from Michelle Dudash, a registered nutritionist, a mom, and the author of Clean Eating for Busy Families