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Clean Food in a Dirty City, with Lily Kunin

Lily Kunin is the captivating mind, body + soul behind your favorite foodie Instagram account: Clean Food Dirty City. Cyberspace star, as well as full time health coach and leading hand in Parsley Health, Lily practices a genuine, integrated healing approach to everything under the Sun. She began Clean Food Dirty City as a means to keep track of her simple -- yet powerfully nutritious -- recipes, and motivate herself to find peace and healing through food in such a dirty city (not to mention, modern world). She has symmetrically motivated, and inspired many of us with her fascinating food along the way. Dig in...

How did Clean Food Dirty City come to be?

It officially began when I moved to New York City, but it started many years before that. Starting in high school, I had suffered from chronic migraines for many years, maybe one a month, and then over the course of four years, they progressed to almost every single day. By that time I was in college and I would wake up in the morning feeling fine, but by midday, I would be getting migraines and pretty severe vertigo. I would go to the dining hall with all my friends and have lunch, and then go to my room and turn all the lights off to just lay in bed for a few hours until I could recover enough to do some work, or meet friends at the library.

Over the course of those four years, I had been doing everything you possibly could do to get to the bottom of why I was having migraines — I was visiting a neurologist all the time, doing acupuncture, a chiropractor, literally everything…anything conventional and non-conventional. This was 10 years ago, before there was a mainstream conversation about food and how it makes you feel. I was on really strong medications that sometimes helped, but then I would get severe side effects and go off of them. Basically, I got to this point of desperation. I was doing so much research online, and my grandfather had recently been diagnosed with Celiac — in his late seventies! — which I found really weird because I didn’t know what gluten was. No one really did.

When I started researching it, I came across some message boards that said people were getting headaches or migraines from gluten, and I was like, ‘I literally have zero to lose, so I'm just going to give it up and see what happens.’ So I gave it up right there, and the next day, I literally felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Even though I was a "healthy" eater in college, I would still have things like eggs and toast for breakfast, a whole wheat tortilla wrap for lunch and maybe pasta for dinner. It was a lot, and once I gave it up over the course of two weeks, I just kept feeling better and better and there was such a dramatic difference. Which I realize isn't for everyone, but for me, it was so dramatic. It sparked the whole connection of food and and how it makes you feel for me. I started exploring and reading labels to see what was really in my food.

I went to Connecticut College, and started working really closely with my dining hall— we created a great program for like, ten of us, that were gluten-free. We had our own separate station and I worked with them to get healthier, more sustainable options in the dining hall. I was also in an environmental program there.

I also grew up around a lot of food. I have some chefs in my family, so I was coming at this from two different angles: the love and joy for food, and then this health aspect which I don’t believe has to be mutually exclusive, which is what Sakara is all about as well. It’s both.

Then when I got to the city, I was so busy all the time, and socializing, and tired, and had to carry groceries home and up a six-story walk up…there’s a lot of barriers here. You might not even have a kitchen! It was like, ‘How do I make this lifestyle work in a city that has it’s own unique set of challenges?’ So Clean Food Dirty City began as kind of poking fun at that idea.

Why did you decide to start CFDC on Instagram?

I didn’t have any plans for it…I was just cooking a lot. I was living this lifestyle with really simple recipes that were always about whatever I picked up form at the farmer’s market or grocery store and brought home. I was experimenting and making anything from whatever was in my fridge. I wanted to remember what I was making because they were all such random things that turned out well. So I was taking pictures and posting them to my Instagram, and it just grew from there. I didn’t even tell friends — I found this whole world that I didn’t know existed…like hashtags! I had no idea.

I wanted to go back to nutrition school or get my health coaching certification, so as Clean Food Dirty City began to grow, I wanted to put more and more energy into it. This was like, 2012 or 2013. I wasn't taking it any more seriously, but was just thinking, ‘Wow, this is something I can do full time…’ So it was all totally unexpected and people ask me all the time, ‘How did you start,?’ Or they ask, ‘How can I start!?’ My best advice is to kind of just put one thing out there at a time. You don't need to have the whole blueprint or plan, or a goal for five years from now. It's great if you do, but you don't need to. You can start by posting one picture or one blog post, or whatever it is. Create a mood board for your project. Just get started. 

Did you end up getting your health coaching certification? 

Yeah, I got my health coaching training degree with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and I have private clients now. My style, and what I'm really passionate about and what people tend to approach me about, is more about the cooking side of things. I do a lot of private cooking classes form a holistic health and nutrition angle. A lot of times, those are in conjunction with some type of three or six month program to discover food sensitivities, and work on stress and lifestyle management, because it is all integrated. I do a lot of hands-on work with my clients, whether it's in their house preparing meals or going to the grocery store, looking at ingredients together, and exploring those types of things.  

I also work at Parsley Health with Dr. Berzin. We have members and it's a really amazing model because it provides this incredible service to people at a really affordable cost. Our membership right now consists of five visits a year, sixty to ninety minutes with a doctor, and then unlimited health coaching. 


What is some of the first advice you give to a client trying to go plant-based?

One of the top questions clients first ask is, ‘What’s the first thing I should do?’ My response really is different for everyone. I really believe that there’s no one-size-fits-all blanket approach. Ultimately, I tell them to listen to their body, because they want to know things like, ‘Is broccoli good for me? Is Stevia bad?’ Those types of things. My answer is about a theory, or philosophy, that I’ve adapted about bio-individuality.

At Parsley, we talk a lot about the “n of 1” experiment — you’re your own experiment in a way, and it should be a fun experiment, not a punishment at all. It’s an experiment to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, and that might be very different than what works for the person next door, or your co-worker who just started eating Paleo and looks amazing, but when you go on that diet, you have no energy.

This is also a great reason why health coaching is so important — they can guide you through that process to figure out a new lifestyle, and figure out what diet and exercise can be right for you.


I also always say to just try to do things one little bit at a time rather than all at once. For some people, all at once works really well, so if we’re working on an elimination diet together to figure out food sensitivities, we’ll do a little more aggressive approach. But, if you generally feel pretty good and are just trying to incorporate some healthier foods into your diet, I recommend one little thing at a time. Also, forgive yourself, because if you’re just starting and think you “mess up”, don’t beat yourself up over it…just move on. If you are upset, that's feedback that maybe you didn't want to have something, and that then, you can make a different decision the next time. It’s a catalyst to change your thought patterns and decisions.

What are your grocery store staples when shopping with clients?

We usually focus on the perimeter of the grocery store, because that's where all the fresh produce is: dark leafy greens, some cruciferous vegetables, whatever vegetables they like, some fruit — I mostly do berries and lower sugar fruit, some frozen fruit, and then lots of spices. Having a great stocked spice cabinet, and some good oils like olive and coconut is key. Then the next step of what we explore is how to really use that pantry properly every week.

There’s always the pantry staples, which I usually tell people — unless they want to make a big investment at once — to get one or two of a week to keep in the pantry. That could be things like big bag of quinoa, or beans and lentils, which are super affordable. I have like, ten different types of beans and lentils in my cabinet, and a brown rice or wild rice. You can make really easy meals from those. I also say to get five or so vegetables a week.

Beans also have so much protein in them, and I think women in general need a ton of protein than most of us are getting. You can get it on a plant-based diet, but it’s harder because you have to eat a lot of it. If you start the day with a big dose of protein and you combine it with some healthy fats, it's a very balanced meal.

How do you feel about the great oil debate?

It is definitely a huge controversy and different people in the wellness space have different opinions. Personally, I don’t cook with olive oil. I cook with high heat oils like coconut oil, and there’s this new oil that I really like called Omega Oil. It’s an oil blend in a dark bottle that has a very high smoke point, so it’s safe to cook with. It doesn’t alter the flavor as much has coconut oil does. Some people don’t like cooking with coconut oil because it does impart such a unique flavor.

If you're going to use olive oil, use it for drizzling, finishing, etc. If you’re going to use it for cooking, you should get a more refined olive oil and not an extra virgin, and that’s the only time I’ll tell you to get something more refined, because the unrefined extra virgin olive oil is such a high quality fat that can become toxic faster because it’s not processed at all. For coconut oil, if the taste really bothers you, then it’s probably a high quality coconut oil. Again, if you buy one that’s a little more refined, it might not taste as much like coconut.

Ghee is also a great option! You can put it on your face, and under your eyes. But coconut oil is such a big one that everyone uses for moisturizer. I make masks with it — my favorite thing is a manuka honey face mask. It has totally changed my skin. I’ll do it with like two drops of tea tree oil and a little squeeze of lemon.

It also just depends on like how my skin's feeling. During the summer, I'll put straight honey with like a drop of tea tree in it, and in the winter, mix it with something more hydrating like coconut oil. If you have acne prone skin, like I do, coconut oil can actually tend to clog pores. I’m very careful about what I put on my face. I’m currently working on my book (stay tuned!) that has a bunch of natural beauty recipes in it.


What’s your favorite Clean Food Dirty City recipe you’ve made thus far?

I definitely didn't invent this, because this is so popular but whole grain bowls are my favorite. They’re so easy. On Sunday, you can just make a big pot of whatever grain and whatever bean, and then this goes back to like those five vegetables you get: steam a couple of them, roast some of them, and just combine it all throughout the week. You can make a couple different dressings. I'm obsessed with a miso tahini, so I always have a big thing of that on hand. In the winter I'll put turmeric in it, maybe ginger. Whatever I'm feeling like I need. Then in the summer, I do a pesto with it. I never get sick of bowls. They’re always so good.  

But my favorite thing within the last month is this lentil daal that I just put on my site — it’s got roasted sweet potatoes and some mint cilantro chutney. It’s just so fresh for winter, I love it. People have been making that a lot.

What is your idea of legacy? What would you like to leave behind?

Right now, I’m on such a journey. I’m so excited for what’s to come, because I didn't imagine I would even be here two years ago, but it's so exciting. Even just with recipes I’ve done in the last two weeks, like the sweet potato noodles and lentil daal, have been getting great feedback. I’m seeing pictures on Instagram of people making my dishes, and it never gets old. It’s always like, ‘Wow, that’s so amazing that they brought my food into their home and it made them feel this way.’ I guess my idea of legacy would really be just to inspire people to think about food and how it makes them feel in the most loving way possible, so it’s about providing love for themselves, whether they’re making it for themselves or not. And hopefully, they will also make them for their family and friends and for other people, because I really believe that food, beyond just being medicine, is love and its this primal thing. We need to be fed well and feel nourished to succeed in any aspect of life. 

What advice would you give to your college-self that you wish you’d known then?

There are so many things, but really, I would just say, ‘Chill out because it’s all going to be okay. You don’t need to plan everything, just go with the flow. Say yes to things and see how it all works out.’ I feel like in a couple years I’m going to look back on these years and say the same thing. So I’ve really been working on that.

Living in New York, we all have some level of anxiety. Just when you’re walking anywhere, there’s all these sirens and fire engines passing. We’re so on edge already because of the city’s unique stresses and stimulation. But really, that stimulation and anger and sadness can follow you wherever you go. Everyone has their own unique set of circumstances that they have to deal with, but I do think that if you live in New York, it can be particularly stressful on the human body. 

How do you deal with that stress?

Meditation is the gold standard, and it’s actually one of the hardest things for me to do. I went from saying I would meditate every day to just genuinely completely forgetting to. I’ve gotten to the place where now I don’t quite meditate every day, but I remember. It’s a conscious thing, so even in setting that intention, I’ve already seen shifts.

Also, again, it’s about forgiving yourself for things that just aren’t that big of a deal. Like if you forget one thing at the grocery store — know that you can live without scallions in your Mexican bowl that night. It’s going to be okay! At Parsley, we always say that unless a lion is chasing you, you can chill out. We all have this similar reaction — it’s a fight or flight that is constantly activated by our stress and anxiety over things that aren’t even real. And that’s what meditation helps us deal with. It helps us still maintain a calm state of mind when all this chaos and craziness is happening around us. It’s hard. So yeah, I’ll meditate today…


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