The odds are against us: Our lives are too busy, the temptation too great and our willpower too weak to try to eat mindfully, says Brain Wansink, Ph.D., a Cornell University food psychologist and mastermind of the 100-calorie snack pack. Not only do we make more than 200 “nearly subconscious” food decisions a day, but “willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime,” he writes in his new book Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (2014, William Morrow).
But all is not lost. Based on his innovative research, Dr. Wansink reports that we can better control our eating by making small tweaks to our surroundings and our habits. In short, “It’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind,” he says.
Some of his easy-to-introduce tips for reigning in your appetite include:
1. Make the kitchen less “loungeable” so you’re less likely to spend time there. Take the TV and computer out, as well as the comfortable seats around the counter. This can lead to spending 18 fewer minutes in the kitchen, which in turn can lead to less mindless snacking, says Dr. Wansink.
2. *Rearrange your refrigerator and cabinets so that the first foods you see are the healthiest ones for you*—for instance, store carrot sticks and other healthy, low-calorie foods in see-through containers and place them in the front of the refrigerator or cabinet shelves. Conceal high-calorie foods (cake, cookies) in tin foil or opaque containers. Wansink has found that if you can’t clearly see food, you’re three times less likely to be tempted to eat it.
3. *Likewise, if you buy huge packages at wholesale stores, repackage the portions into single-serving sizes*—otherwise you’ll be tempted to make more, serve more and eat more, he says. And store the large packages out of sight in a distant cabinet or the basement.
4. Make your kitchen easier to prep food and cook in and retro-design recipes to be more healthful. “When you decide to follow a recipe,” he writes, “think 1937, not 2006.” He did a study that found goulash, apple pie, chili and other classic recipes have 44% more calories in them today than they did in the 1930s. Also, before you sit down to eat, divide the finished dish and store half of it in the refrigerator or freezer.
5. Start measuring your food. Seriously. In dozens of his experiments, Dr. Wansink has found that when people eyeball ingredients and portions, they eat 22% more food.
6. Plate appropriately portioned meals rather than allowing family members to serve themselves. Dr. Wansink’s studies show that will make you eat 19% less food.
7. Have strict rules for snacking to naturally cut down on how much you consume. Insist that you sit at the kitchen table and just eat a snack if you really want it. No reading or TV to distract you. “Since it’s pretty boring to snack if nothing else is going on, you’ll probably snack a lot less,” says Dr. Wansink.
8. If you do snack, take just one to three bites of the treat and then put it away and distract yourself for 15 minutes. Usually, you won’t want more. Also make up your own unique snack rules, such as only allowing yourself to snack after you’ve walked the dog. (Typically, most people snack less after a walk.)
Nancy Monson is a health coach and freelance writer whose articles have been published in many major national magazines. She is also the author of Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes.