Making healthful food choices today is hard. We’re bombarded with less than optimal options at every turn, even in the unlikeliest of places – Snickers Bars at the supermarket check-out, a coworker’s leftover homemade cinnamon rolls in the staff kitchen, Doritos at FedEx Copy Centers (this last one really irks me – do they think we’ll waste away while xeroxing a couple sheets of paper?). It’s no surprise then that researchers estimate that we’re faced with more than 200 food decisions a day. And because willpower is a muscle of sorts, this type of repeated “use” wears us down. By the end of the day, choosing a Starbucks tea as opposed to a venti, extra-whip mocha can feel nearly impossible.
While we can’t control every environment, most of us can rule our own roosts. If you are charged with grocery shopping, you control what you bring into your home and how it’s stored. Also the cook? Then you control what is offered at the table and how it’s prepared. This means you can minimize the use of your willpower muscle at home so that it has plenty of strength left for the world outside your front door.
The benefits of this aren’t limited to you. If you buy and prepare food for your significant other, children or roommates, you’re what researchers have termed a “Nutritional Gatekeeper.” According to a 2006 report in the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, Gatekeepers influence more than 70% of the foods their housemates eat. To put it simply:
Now, maybe some of you are thinking, Well obviously! But do you take advantage of this fact? Is there an abundant supply of temptation foods in your kitchen that tax your or your housemates’ willpower muscles? If the answer is “yes,” why do you purchase them? How are they stored?
Below is a short list of suggestions for making your home environment more conducive to healthy eating so you can let your willpower muscle relax. These are strategies that every dietitian and nutritionist I know enlist in their own lives (e.g. when I find myself going through a jar every week or two, I know its time to banish peanut butter from my kitchen).
- Don’t buy it. Clearly the easiest way to resist temptation foods in your home is to not allow them entry in the first place. If you buy treats because you think your kids need them, consider going out for ice cream as opposed to having a ready supply in your freezer or allow your kids an occasional cookie at the local coffee shop instead of keeping less than stellar boxed cookies at home. Make dessert only when you know you’ll be feeding a crowd so there won’t be too many leftovers. If your significant other or roommates demand junk food, let them purchase it themselves.
- Store food wisely. Display healthy foods prominently on counter-tops or at eye level in your refrigerator and pantry. Always keep an attractive bowl brimming with fruit on the kitchen table and cut up vegetables ready for dipping in the refrigerator. Store nuts, whole grain crackers and dried fruit in clear containers in the pantry. On the flip side, if you decide to keep a few temptation foods at home, store them as out of sight as possible. Transfer chips, sugar cereals, candy, cookies, etc. to opaque containers and keep them tucked in the back of the pantry or high out of reach. If they go bad before you or your housemates eat them, that’s a good indication that you don’t need them there in the first place.
- Share meals. Research consistently shows that household members eat more of the good stuff (fruits, vegetables, fiber and vitamins) and less of the bad (fried food, soft drinks and saturated fat) when meals are prepared at home and shared at the dinner table. If you’re a novice cook, it doesn’t have to be fancy. A breakfast-for-dinner meal of scrambled eggs, toast and a steamer bag of frozen vegetables counts! If you currently eat out nightly, aim for one night in per week. We all have to start somewhere!
If you have other strategies, I’d love to hear about them and I bet other readers would too. Please, please, please leave them in the comments section!