The Clean Eating Secret Nobody Tells You

You’ve decided to start eating clean, to feed your family whole foods. But before you can say grass-fed you have a vision of the obstacles that lay ahead:

Mo-om! Everyone ELSE is drinking Coke!

Kale makes me gag.

I don’t have a 4-figure grocery budget.

Some snags are more easily untangled than others (there are a million veggies that are not kale), but at least you know what you’re up against (an unholy love for nacho cheese.)

There’s one thing about making the switch to healthy food that nobody warns you about when you’re a wide-eyed, Clean Eating newbie. It’s a secret that will make you doubt your ability — and sometimes grieve the loss of your sanity — because nobody else reveals their struggle. Kind of like people who act like their kids were born with manners and neglect to mention that their polite-in-public children yell Buttcrack! more often than they say Thank you at home.

This is the Clean Eating secret nobody tells you:

Clean Eating is a time suck.

The truth is, I’m worried that I’ll run out of time each day before I can prepare enough non-processed food to feed my family.

The Clean Eating Secret Nobody Tells You at All Day Mom
The Clean Eating Secret Nobody Tells You

The Clean Eating Time Suck Starts At the Grocery Store

I’ve fallen in with most of the sects of the cult of Clean Eating over the years, from Fat Flush to Whole30 to Paleo, but despite my apostasy — and much backsliding — I have faithfully forsaken these 4 evil ingredients:

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Soy
  • Food Dyes
  • MSG

That pretty much just leaves produce and meat.

At the grocery store I pick up a box, scan the list of ingredients, frown — or say something rude under my breath about the ingredients just as another customer puts the same item in her cart and now I’m a bitch — and put the box back.

Disclosure: When on vacation we eat pure crap. In fact, I’m sure that literally eating crap would be healthier than what we eat on vacation.

So I’m home from the grocery store boxless and bagless and canless and here’s where the fun begins.

Did I mention that I don’t use the microwave?

Clean Eating Prep Will Take Over Your Days

and give you an excuse to leave your kids outside to play happily and parentless for whole minutes at a time.

In front of my house, 4 mommies sit in camping chairs on the sidewalk — lined up and facing the action, not each other — to watch 7 kids play in the front yards and cul de sac.

That’s totally normal, right?

I repeatedly break ranks and leave my kids outside unattended (that is, I leave 3 moms to watch 7 kids) to rush inside and smash garlic, chop veggies, stir the pot, then rush back outside, feeling guilty that I left my kids for the other moms to guard and angry that these mothers sit 10 feet away from their kids to chaperone and umpire their play and have sucked me into their crazy.

I hear my neighbor praise her 9-year-old son for nuking his own dinosaur chicken nuggets after school. I’m thinking, “Good for you, Kid, you made your own dinner!” and I’m thinking, “No prep, no dishes!” and yes, I’m judging her a little, but the sour taste of recognition that my kids once ate Cocoa Puffs for breakfast for 12 days straight snuffs that bitchy moment out but fast. Packaged food that can be opened, heated, consumed, and cleaned up in 5 minutes gives this woman the time to sit outside for hours at a stretch. Fast and easy is seductive.

But when I try to balance fast, easy, cheap, and healthy, I realize I can’t have it all. Most of the time I can manage to pull off two at the same time; I get really excited when I hit three. A package of organic baby carrots is the only thing I can think of that covers all four, but my kids don’t like carrots. Or anything cheap, easy, or healthy, really. They’re big fans of fast, though.

The Advice

In the afternoon, my grandma calls me. I take my phone into the house, leaving the vigilant moms with my kids again. I complain to her that I feel rushed and busy even though over the past week I have only left the house to go grocery shopping (and to stand watch outside lest a kid get hit in the eye by a Nerf dart while fewer than 4 moms are on hand to shame the shooter and soothe the victim.)

Grandma asks the question that only a grandma can get away with asking: What do you do all day? I run through my daily routine with her and together we discover the reason I feel overwhelmingly busy: I spend more than 5 hours each day prepping and cooking food and cleaning it all up.

Grandma’s advice:

“It won’t kill you to open a jar of spaghetti sauce.”

The best advice is obvious to the adviser and a revelation to the advisee.

I take her advice literally and find an organic, jarred spaghetti sauce with no sugar or soybean oil. That baby step gives me several hours of my life back — and success gives me the motivation to find shortcuts where I can and to be more efficient when no shortcut is acceptable.

The spirit of Grandma’s advice seeps into my Clean Eating meal planning:

  • I perfect a recipe for no-knead pizza dough that makes a crust to rival Round Table [that’s thick, chewy, and awesome for you non-West Coast-ers.]
  • I find 20 new uses for my food processor.
  • I make menu plans and freezer plans.
  • I decide that when my healthy dinner plan goes down the drain in a slurping spiral of busy there is no shame in asking my husband to pick up Round Table on his way home. (OK, there is shame. 3 pieces of hot, gooey, preservative- and chemical-laden shame. Plus the kids’ crusts.)

Train, then delegate.

I am a Clean Eating machine — that means I’m down to 3 hours a day in the kitchen. That’s right: 3 hours. What’s my problem? I’m working alone even though I have 2 capable children on hand. [Facepalm.] I enlist the kids to smash garlic, chop veggies, stir the pot.

Teaching my kids any skill means I have to front-load time I don’t have. Training my little chefs will pay off in spades once they’ve mastered a modest cooking skill set, but when everybody is starving it’s hard to see the big picture and take the time to corral the kids, have them wash their hands, show one kid how to hold a knife and show the other how to stir a pot, make them wash their hands again because one wiped his nose and one did a cartwheel….

It really doesn’t take that long. What it does take is patience, because I notice that I repeat a lot of instructions that seem intuitive, like Don’t Taste With the Serving Spoon That Is So Gross, or No Fighting In the Kitchen — a rule I never even heard from my mother — isn’t it common sense to want to keep all of your fingers and to not want to drip boiling meat fat on your toes? or my toes? My kids like to scuffle while at least one of them is wielding a knife and I’m draining a pot. If you’re not ready for the hassle:

The fastest way to cut your time in the kitchen is to teach your kids how to clean it.

Heed this warning: Clean Eating is a time suck.

Knowing is half the battle. (The other half is getting everyone to eat, but you already know that.)

How do you get Clean Eating meals on the table fast?