MountainView Hospital - January 15, 2019
Hand reaching into cupboard to grab mason jar full of sugar

Trying to build a healthy lifestyle is difficult to say the least, but making small changes around your home can encourage new habits that last. One game changer can be switching up your kitchen design, as well as how you store food.

In fact, the surroundings where you eat (even outside the home) have paved the way for years of research by Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. “Becoming slim by design works better than trying to become slim by willpower,” he writes in his book. “It’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind.”

An empty refrigerator isn’t the answer

You might think emptying your fridge of everything except celery will force you to avoid temptation. But this common diet pitfall just sets you up for failure. According to Wansink, an empty kitchen can prompt you to overeat elsewhere or order in heavy meals, like pizza.

The no-food-in-the-house strategy is especially impractical if you have a family—hungry, active kids need after-school snacks and high-calorie fuel for sports, along with the standard three meals a day. A steady diet of take-out can make the whole family unhealthy and overweight.

Buy ready-made healthy snacks

Instead of an empty kitchen, a more realistic approach is to store a range of quick, healthy snacks. It’s even okay to have a treat like dark chocolate on hand, but keep it out of sight to avoid reaching for it first.

It’s common for people to reach for junk food because it’s an easy option that doesn’t require preparation. However, keeping healthy snacks around the house can have the same convenience. You are more likely to eat healthier options if they are readily available to you. Try pre-packaged low-fat cheese sticks, nuts, dried fruit, turkey slices or pre-cut vegetables.

Keep a running grocery list in the kitchen

To avoid scrambling for last minute recipes—and coming up empty handed, figure out what you’ll prepare each week in advance. Try making a list of healthy meals to keep up on the fridge. This makes it easy to shop for the healthier options during the week.

Just don’t stockpile

It’s tempting to buy in bulk because it usually means big savings. But wholesale shopping might be costly to your health in the long run. In one study led by Wansink, people ate half of everything they purchased within the first week of stocking their pantry with bargain buys.

You’ll probably indulge in supersize boxes as well. If wholesale shopping is a must for your budget, Wansink suggests re-packaging foods into single-serving Ziploc bags as soon as you get home to help with portion control.

Enjoying a treat? Use a bowl

When eating higher calorie snacks use a bowl instead of eating from the bag. This will help with portion control. If you are wanting more, portion it out and put the bag away again. Portioning out your snacks will stop you from mindless eating.

De-clutter your counters

Clear your counters of everything except a bowl of beautiful, fresh fruit, a cutting board and a blender. Even if your kitchen is tiny, find a way to shove any chips, cookies or cereal boxes into the pantry. Why? Women who stored potato chips on the counter weighed eight pounds more than neighbors who didn’t, according to Wansink’s research. And women who stored cereal on their counters weighed a grand total of 21 pounds more.

Try putting the healthier foods at the front of the cabinet, and other stuff in the back so it’s out of sight. In fact, you’re about three times more likely to eat the first food you see in a pantry than the fifth one you come across.

Make food prep easy and fun

Okay, you might not have the time or money for a home renovation right now. But there are a few small tweaks that can take your kitchen from mindless munching zone to healthy cooking hot spot:

  • Remove the TV, bar stools and comfy chairs; these encourage lounging and boredom snacking
  • Leave your cutting board on the counter; the storage cabinet might be two inches away, but not having to search for it makes chopping veggies that much simpler
  • Make sure your kitchen has good lighting and clean surfaces so that meal prep feels bright, cheery and hassle-free
  • Keep a radio or phone speakers in the kitchen to play music while you cook—and maybe even dance while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil.

Forget everything you know about fridge flow

Take produce out of your crisper and put it on the refrigerator shelf at eye-level. Move things that you’d like to eat less of—snacks, bread, cheese—into the drawers instead. Yes, the crisper keeps fruits and veggies fresh longer, but as Wansink puts it, “the goal is to eat them, not to compost them.” People who did this for one of Wansink’s experiments reported eating three times more fruits and veggies from one week to the next.

Eat at the table; leave serving plates in the kitchen

Having a set mealtime and eating at the table is a great way to portion control. You are less likely to graze if you establish a routine.

But instead of family-style dining—with platters and bowls placed in the middle of the table—try buffet style. Plate foods in the kitchen from cookware on the stove or serving bowls on the counter. People who did this ate 19 percent less than those who put serving trays directly on the table.

Separate leftovers before you eat

Go one step further and separate out leftover portions, storing them before you even sit down to the table. That creates steps between you and the food, as well as extra work. If you want more, you’ll have to unpack and reheat it.

Get shady

Wrap leftovers and unhealthy snacks in tin foil, or keep them in opaque containers. In another one of Wansink’s lab experiments, a party was staged. Half of the leftovers were stored in clear wrap or clear plastic containers, while the rest was wrapped in aluminum foil or dark containers. What happened? All of the easily visible foods were gone in two days. Foods wrapped in tin foil were still there ten days later.

If it’s something especially unhealthy like chocolate cake, wrap it in foil and store it in the freezer. You’ll have to search for it and defrost before eating—and that gives you a lot of time to reconsider.