The impact of the “food environment” is all the rage these days. Typically, the term is used discuss personal surroundings, physical infrastructure, food outlets, media, and social expectations around eating and food. One common conclusion is that our food environments are not conducive to healthy food choices. Today, I wanted to talk a little about adjusting your personal food environment. You can’t walk down the street and make the pizza place change to a whole grain crust overnight, but you can make changes in the environments you control.
Changes at home are the low-hanging fruit, while changes in the workplace and your neighborhood take a little more work. Shifting the food environment at home requires that you first honestly evaluate your current status, then decide what needs work, and finally enact your desired changes. Look around your computer, and see whether there is evidence of food and beverages. Are they meals that you ate alone, while distracted by a screen? Is it an apple core or granola bar wrapper? A glass of wine or a diet coke? Do you simply have a glass of water nearby?
Next, meander into your kitchen/pantry. Take a look at what food is easy to find: fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy/ faux dairy, beans, whole grains? What do you have in the freezer, and can you tell what it is? Can you easily see your healthy ingredients or is it easier to find a package of ramen noodles or a Nutrigrain bar? Are things organized, or do you have to thrash around to find what you’re looking for?
Look at your equipment. Are the pots stashed in wobbly towers, or can you easily pull out the one you need? Do the drawers open easily? Do you have knives and cutting boards in easy reach (for adults)? Have you replaced anything that is broken or damaged, or are you trying to limp along with potholders with holes in them? Can you find your herbs and spices easily, or are they hidden on a high bookshelf or behind an opaque door? Is the sink full of dirty dishes, or is it easy to go ahead and wash an apple or some carrots for a snack?
Equipment is a great place to start on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or some night when you can’t sleep. Pull it out of the cabinents, inspect, decide what to give away, and neatly arrange everything. Think about whether it would be more convinient to store the giant spoons by the stove or by the sink. What about a piece of corkboard with hooks in it? Make a list of what would make it more pleasant to work in the kitchen; another lamp, a radio, a rolling cart in the center, a cushy mat in front of the sink, or just plain washing the curtains.
Next, think about what changes would make it easier to select and cook healthy foods. The most basic step is to focus on buying the healthier food instead of less healthy foods. Don’t mistake “healthy” with “perishable.” There are healthy non-perishable items, too. You can also make sure that you keep the less healthy food out of sight. You’ll have to actively decide that you want potato chips to go dig them out from behind the onions in the far back of the corner cupboard.
Next, store your food somewhere that provokes you to cook and eat it. I’m fond of storing whole grains, lentils, and beans in glass jars across the back of one counter. Visibility increases the familiarity of the food, and brings it to the front of your mind when you walk into the kitchen. If you see the brown rice, you’re more likely to go ahead and pop it into the rice cooker rather than going to unearth the white rice. Similarly, consider keeping your vegetables on shelves in the fridge instead of in drawers. It’s hard to forget that you have to finish off the zucchini if it’s sitting there next to the milk you pour into your coffee in the morning. One bachelor gentleman suggests pouring your frozen vegetables into glass jars in the freezer, or mixing up your favorite vegetable blends in them. He could just pull out a jar, and he had an easy generous serving of vegetables with a little variety.
At work, or other locations where you control the food, do a similar evaluation. Maybe having a bowl and spoon at work make it easier to pull together a healthy breakfast. Try stashing your healthier snacks in an easier to reach location, or keeping your fruit out on your desk. Maybe you need to organize a fridge cleaning party so that you’re willing to use the work fridge for you lunches, or invest in a good thermos or insulated lunch bag.
Many small changes can make it easier to cook and eat healthy food in the spheres you control. You could make them all at once, or ease into them one at a time. What changes will make a difference for you? After you make them, do you notice a difference in your eating habits?