The Clean Eating 80/20 Rule

The Clean Eating 80/20 Rule. We talk about it, and we mention it in reference to moderation and cheat/treat meals. But what does it actually mean? What do 80 and 20 percent look like in a day, a week, or even a month?

The working theory is this: When you eat clean, you have to allow for life to happen. That, in theory, should equal about 20% of your overall eating plan, max. So you eat 100% clean, 80% of the time, and allow for mistakes and special occasions the other 20% of the time.

A single yellow bell pepper sits on a wooden table in this post on The Clean Eating 80/20 Rule

I started thinking about that rule the other night and realized that while I talk about it a lot, I never really pictured what that would mean for my own meal plan. I always figured if I had 1 treat meal a week and a little something extra during the holidays, I was fine. And I was! But I still didn’t have a very strong image in my head of what that 20% would look like for me.

The general idea behind the 80/20 rule, is to ensure that you are not strictly “dieting”. Instead, it enables you to create a lifestyle with clean eating because you don’t have to be so rigid that you feel guilty after taking one bite of a milk chocolate bar. (That’s right, I said MILK chocolate. Not dark chocolate. Horrors!!)

If you intend to eat clean long term, you simply and absolutely must enjoy special occasions and not beat yourself up for every little “mistake”. Because the truth is, there are no mistakes where food is concerned. There are only decisions. The decision of what to put in your mouth. And if you decide to put something less-than-clean in that mouth of yours, you should enjoy it! Make sure it’s not happening all the time, of course, but enjoy the heck out of it! Mentally, it’s a much healthier approach to food and it also helps you remember that when you go home and make a chicken salad, you aren’t going to starve or never have pizza again. That, my friends, is a lifestyle instead of a diet. And that is the Clean Eating 80/20 rule.

An overhead shot looking down into this beautiful bowl of Clean Eating Grilled Garden Salad. The colors are like a grilled veggie rainbow!

Let’s Talk Clean Eating 80/20 Rule Numbers

If you are like me, you want an exact number. So here are the numbers in all their 80% and 20% glory!

3 Meals Per Day Eating Plan

3 meals per day = 21 meals per week
20% of 21 meals is a tad over 4 meals. Perhaps 4 meals and 1 snack.

6 Meals Per Day Eating Plan

6 meals per day = 42 meals per week
20% of 42 meals is almost 8 1/2 meals. So maybe 8 meals and 2 snacks.

Now some people may see these numbers and wonder how anybody could lose weight or get healthy with that much “cheating” while others will breathe a sigh of relief. Just keep in mind that those numbers are simply a range you can work within.

These days, because I’m eating low carb, I only eat 3 meals per day because I just don’t need that much food. But if I were to eat spaghetti and garlic bread at the Old Spaghetti Factory 4 nights a week… well…. that may not be such a great idea. At least not for me personally. It may be perfect for you and your lifestyle!

But what these numbers really do is allow life to happen. So if I’m eating 100% clean for those first 17 meals and then my son wants to have Baskin Robbins one night after dinner, guess what? We are probably going to head down to Baskin Robbins. Will this become a habit 4 nights a week? Of course not! But on the rare occasion we do something like that, it allows me to enjoy it without feeling guilty. Remember, An eating plan should work for you. Not against you.

Read More Clean Eating 101 Article Here!

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This article from the Gracious Pantry® archives, originally posted on 9/14/15.

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  1. Amber Be'cher says:

    Thank you – this was incredibly helpful ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Amber – Fantastic! My pleasure! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Erena DiGonis says:

    You explained this and broke it down so well. It’s great – thanks!

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Erena – Thank you! I’m happy you enjoyed it!

  3. I’m embarking on the clean eating journey and this was super helpful. I had had something similar in mind and this was great confirmation. Thank you for sharing!

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Melodie – My pleasure! I’m happy it helped! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. melissa schneider says:

    I like that you say 3 meals a day! So much always says 5-6 meals a day and I can’t do that with my schedule! This simplifies it down. Would you ever do a sample menu? Thank you!

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Melissa – I don’t have sample menu’s for 3 meals a day yet. But I’ll see if I can come up with something. Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. melissa schneider says:

    I would GREATLY appreciate that!!!

  6. Does eating clean help you to lose weight?

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Grace – It can, yes. You still have to watch your portion sizes, but it does help many people, yes.

  7. I always say, eat clean at home, and enjoy the occasional treats when you are out, but you can’t have it all! Stay within the boundaries, and you will reap the benefits.

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Sandra – Exactly! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. How strange, I did the calculations yesterday with my mother and came accross your article today on Pinterest! I agree with you, the 20% can seem huge if you previously aimed to eat clean almost all of the time. As of my next meal, I’ll be recording how that works for me in my planner and see if I see any difference. I’m not sure if I’m eating clean 80% of the time (probably not to be honest) so this will be an interesting experiment!
    Thank you for sharing, as always.

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Mariam – My pleasure! I’m glad it helped! ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Michelle D says:

    Wow- this was SO very helpful – and really puts things into a healthy (mentally) perspective!!
    Thanks so much for sharing it!

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Michelle D – Thank you! I’m so happy it helped! ๐Ÿ˜€

  10. Jessica Harris says:

    Can I practice 80/20 and still have a serving and a half of m and ms at bed time / over night? They help me sleep and I try to have a high protein low carb dinner with them and a light morning pre exercise snack.

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Jessica – That’s totally a personal choice. Does it feel right to you? You might also ask yourself why something like that (loaded with sugar) would help you sleep when it would give most people more energy, making it harder to sleep. Is it blood sugar related? Is there something else going on? But again, totally a personal choice. I’m not here to judge or tell you what’s right or wrong for you. If you are comfortable with doing that, than go for it!

  11. Tosha martinez says:

    Need this thanks

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Tosha – My pleasure!

  12. Finally, a clear and concise answer on how to do this. It made no sense to me before. Thanks much. I look forward to reading your blog.

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Jean – So happy I could help! ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Hi! I loved the article, thanks! I just started the 80/20 last week and was looking for some examples of how people use it. Specially what people consider as their 20%? I was confused because you mentioned what it wasnโ€™t for you (ex not 4 meals of spaghetti in a row), but your example of eating clean 17 days then one dessert of ice cream seems more like a 95/5 rule. Would you mind thinking back on your last week or a typical week and telling us what the 4 meals/snacks looks like for you? For example: one cinnamon roll for one breakfast, one ice cream for dessert, and 2 spaghetti dinners would be 4 meals for me. What are some 4 meal examples for you, please?

    1. Krissy – Sure! I mean, it’s all a personal choice. I have blood sugar issues, so I do follow closer to 95/5 these days to stay healthy. It will look slightly different for everyone. I also only eat 5 “meals” a day right now. For me personally, I will have something like the following:
      1 – turkey bacon and eggs
      2 – Apple
      3 – Salad or leftovers from dinner the night before.
      4 – Small bowl of beans
      5 – Turkey burgers in a lettuce wrap.
      6 – (Dessert – IF I eat it) – A small handful of dark chocolate chips or a homemade muffin.

      I don’t eat dessert often anymore. That being said, I’m human. I have my moments where I just want a bag of freaking chips. So I have it. And I don’t feel guilty about it because I eat so healthy the rest of the time. But again, you have to find what works for you and your life. It’s totally a personal thing. Don’t get so wrapped up in the numbers that you miss the forest for the trees. Just start, and find your natural balance. If you think hard, you already know exactly what makes you feel good and healthy, and what doesn’t. Follow to that. Your gut is rarely wrong.