Save the (Food) Environment, Part 1: The Home Front

Home Food EnvironmentWhy is it important to be master (or mistress) of your food environment? To begin with, most of us lead busy lives, with multiple demands on our time. If we get hungry, and healthy food isn’t easily accessible, but non-healthy food is, guess what we’re probably going to eat? That’s right, the non-healthy, easy-to-grab food.

Speaking of hunger, raise your hand if you only eat because you are hungry. I think I see one hand up…pretty much what I thought.

Why We Eat

Let’s face it, in an “ideal” world we would only eat when we are hungry (with a few mindful exceptions), but we don’t live in that world. In our real world, we also eat when we are bored or in need of emotional comfort. Or we eat because that pizza on TV looks really, really good. Or because those donuts your coworker brought are just so round and shiny and perfect and your hand reaches for one (all by itself!) and you’re taking a bite before you even knew the sugar-and-fat bug bit you. It’s not ideal to eat for those reasons, but we do. I’m not immune, you’re not immune. Some of us fall prey to those food cues more than others, but very, very few people never succumb.

All of that, that’s why one of my big overarching food guidelines is that I structure my “food environment” in a way that supports my nutrition and health goals. That comes down to two principles:

  1. One, I make sure I DO have healthy foods available when it’s time for a meal or snack.
  2. Two, I make sure I DON’T have unhealthy foods around. (If I’m planning a treat, I will make specific plans to have it…I don’t keep a general supply of “treat” foods close at hand.)

Food Environment x 5

I see five food environment areas that apply to most people:

  • Home
  • Work
  • Travel
  • Social events
  • Entertainment

Today, I’ll touch on the home environment. For most people, home is more than where the heart is, it’s the place that can make or break their nutrition and health goals. It’s the one food environment that rules them all. It’s the source of healthy breakfasts, dinners, snacks and brown bag lunches. It’s also the place where mindless eating can easily happen during those dangerous “arrived home from work hungry but dinner’s an hour away” times. And those “dinner’s done but I’m still feeling peckish” times.

Making Your Home Food Environment Work For You

If there’s a food that tends to trigger mindless eating or overeating, one solution is to simply not bring it into your home. I don’t bring non-nutritious snack foods into the house, because they would either go stale or I might eat more of them than I really need. (I also refrain from making large batches of cookies or full-size desserts on a regular basis.) I have tremendous willpower when I’m grocery shopping.

When I shop, there is absolutely zero danger of a bag of potato chips, a carton of ice cream, or cookies “baked” by elves falling into my cart. But once food is in the house, I can’t count on willpower to keep my hand out of that potato chip bag. I really prefer to have my chip-eating be a little salty treat at summer barbecues, and have my ice cream eating be an intentional, planned-for sweet treat. Here are three more tips for setting up a home food environment that supports you:

  1. If you lack willpower when shopping for food (note: this is not a defect, just a fact), part of creating a supportive food environment would be not shopping when you’re hungry or feeling the self-soothe with food (i.e., you’re sad, bored, angry, anxious, etc.). Another technique is to develop the habit of making a shopping list ahead of time and absolutely sticking to that list. Our decisions are more likely to be in line with our longer-term nutrition and health goals when we don’t make them on impulse.
  2. Keep healthy food more visible and accessible (fruit bowl on the table, clear containers of cut up veggies front and center in the fridge). If you have high-calorie food in the house (healthy or non-healthy) that you tend to eat more of than you need, keeping it where you can see it makes you vulnerable to mindless, impulsive eating.
  3. I have a few healthy foods (peanut butter and those darn tubs o’ mixed nuts from Costco) that can occasionally be trigger foods for overeating when I’m stressed or I’ve let myself get overly hungry (which I try not to do). I allow those foods in the house, because I do sometimes choose to enjoy them in moderation, but I keep them out of sight in a lower cupboard.

Next Monday: What to do when the workplace is filled with nutrition landmines.