spring clean

Spring-Clean Your Diet

Boost the fresh factor in your meals with five easy ways to get more nutritious whole foods on your plate.

We all lead busy lives, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by the juggling of work, family, and friends. Food has to fit in there somewhere, and too often, we grab what’s convenient. That can sometimes mean a reliance on processed foods, making mealtimes easier—but at a cost to your taste buds and your health.

Processed foods tend to be high in salt and sweeteners, or they contain added fats, chemical preservatives, and artificial flavors and colorings. It’s not just about what’s added to these foods—it’s what’s taken away. Processing tends to remove many nutrients from whole foods. But whole foods are, well, whole, with the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients intact, no label necessary. Ready to clean up your diet? Try these five simple steps.

Choose whole grains

Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients than are refined and enriched grains, which lose nutrients during processing. Whole grains are also more flavorful, and their higher fiber content makes them more filling, says Mark Scarbrough, a coauthor of Grain Mains: 101 Surprising and Satisfying Whole Grain Recipes for Every Meal of the Day. To get more whole grain goodness, choose whole wheat bread for sandwiches and opt for brown rice instead of white. Other easy whole grain options include quinoa (which gets bonus points for being a complete protein), wheat berries, steel-cut oats, and whole grain pasta.

Taste your food

It sounds simple, but how often do we take time to actually taste the foods we eat? Savor the flavor of a ripe peach or a juicy orange as if you’re tasting it for the first time, and soon you’ll be loading up your shopping cart with a wide variety of fresh, wholesome foods.

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store

Grocery stores are generally set up to showcase processed foods in the center aisles, so if you stick to the outer edges of the store, you’ll be taking your cart on a whole-foods tour, with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, eggs, meat, and fish lining the perimeter. Fill your cart in these areas first and you’ll begin to see how many meals you can make without ever hitting the store’s center.

Rethink "Easy"

Don’t assume that processed foods are always the faster route to dinner. With a little planning and practice, you can beat the clock and cook wholesome, unprocessed meals in the same amount of time or less, Scarbrough says. In their book Real Food Has Curves, Scarbrough and his coauthor, Bruce Weinstein, compared the length of time required to make fish sticks out of a package versus homemade oven-fried fish with no processed ingredients. “Believe it or not, you can prepare the homemade version in less time—at a lower cost to boot,” Scarbrough says

Take Baby steps

Changing your entire diet in one go is too daunting. Instead, make small changes one at a time. For example, challenge yourself to cook a main dish from whole foods once or twice a week. Next, take a look at your fast-grab options. For example, if you usually reach for toaster pastries, try whole grain waffles for breakfast instead. Or swap out a flavored yogurt drink for plain yogurt topped with fresh fruit. In time, baby steps turn into full-fledged, and flavorful, habits.