A recent study by Cornell University published in the journal Psychology and Marketing analyzed 112 studies that gathered information about healthy eating behaviors. Their findings? That people ate the healthiest when food provided in restaurants, home, and grocery stores followed the C.A.N. formula: Convenience, Attractiveness, Normalcy.
This study resonated with me because we often sabotage our own healthy choices without even realizing it: We don’t plan effectively and reach for faster but less nutritious options; we make a huge batch of something that tastes OK but is so unappealing we toss it in the trash after a few days; we fill our grocery carts with foods we think will be healthiest but are overwhelmed with flavors we don’t like or foods we’re not familiar with how to cook.
While the learnings in the study are primarily intended for corporate environments to encourage healthier choices through design (think restaurants, work break rooms, grocery stores), there’s no reason this can’t be applied to your home. I’ve come up with some ideas below.
Busy parents & families are at the mercy of how many minutes are in the day. In order to make healthier choices for your home, convenience cannot be ignored nor minimized. Some tips for your house
- Make healthy food options in your home convenient to see and access — put a fruit bowl on a counter or at eye level for your little ones, keep a pitcher of infused water on the counter. In other words, keep the most healthful foods in plain site to prevent fridge & pantry “scavenging” or forgetting you have healthy options right in front of you. Keep your pantry and fridge well organized and put age-appropriate items on shelves that are eye-level or within easy reach.
- Make healthy food options in your home convenient to consume. Meal prep is important. Every 2-3 days try to make sure you have enough pre-sliced veggies or fruits that are ready to be eaten raw or to reduce the amount of time it takes to make dinner. Make sure you have some “grab and go” options like string cheese, dried fruit or bottles of water on hand. I love making a egg, large tuna or chicken salad that can be added to a bed of spinach or into a whole grain sandwich without much effort.
When something looks appealing (fresh, beautiful), we’re more likely to not only eat it but have a positive perception of that food. That’s especially important for introducing foods to little ones who use all their senses to explore foods and make judgements about them. By making sure food is clearly presented and named, children can begin to manage their expectations about what food will taste like also. Here’s some ideas how to use attraction to help encourage healthier eating at home:
- Empty boxes or bags of foods (like dried pasta or dried fruit) into large mason jars or clear containers and display them so the unique shapes and colors of the foods are visible and showcased.
- Keep a pot of fresh herbs in your kitchen and snip some off to garnish any dish. It adds color and visual interest to the plate, while also decorating your kitchen.
- For little eaters, try only putting a few pieces of each food item on his tray so he can appreciate the size, texture and temperature of each item. Too much food can become messy and overwhelm/overstimulate young eaters because they use all of their senses to explore food (taste, touch, site, smell, hearing). Keeping the food as separate as possible allows him to explore each food in its own right. For older eaters (even adults), try keeping plate portions small and returning for seconds so you keep the temperature of the food ideal and don’t overeat.
- Name your meals. Sure, you can just make veggie lasagna, but try branding it Mom’s Marvelous Meatless Lasagna and see how your kids react. Or, turn an ordinary crock pot dinner into something more suave by describing special ingredients or cooking techniques: 10-hour braised chicken with creamy fresh corn & poblano pepper sauce. Children find this fun and it also helps them become familiar with unknown cooking terms or unfamiliar ingredients.
I have this recurring issue with dragon fruit: I really, really want to like it. But, every time I buy it, I end up not using it or barely eating any of it. It’s all mental. I actually really like its taste. But the unfamiliarity of the food (I’d never had it until we went to Thailand for our honeymoon). But, by the time it is chopped and ready, I can’t get past the way it looks or the texture. Weird, right? Maybe not.
If a food is highly unfamiliar (not normal), we are less likely to have a positive perception of the food (and thus, want to eat it). How many times have you bought something “new” to prepare only to either end up not making it (not sure how) or not eating it (not satisfied with the taste)? Here’s some ideas on how to use the idea of normalcy to encourage healthier food choices at home:
- A great tip on introducing new foods is to serve it alongside a familiar, well-liked dish or two. For example, if you are trying to serve coconut curry chicken for the first time, serve it alongside familiar rice and a favorite vegetable. Sometimes just seeing a new food in context of something familiar and liked is enough to help a child try it or have a positive perception of it. Chances are the ‘new’ item will appear a lot more ‘normal’ in context of a familiar dish.
- Children are sensory learners so it is important to regularly expose them to a diverse range of food. Since the beginning, I’ve made it a point to “serve the rainbow” to our daughter. Most meals try to have 3-4 colors on the plate (i.e., white tuna, red strawberries, green spinach, black beans) and I try to expand even more throughout the day and week. But it’s not just color. Temperature and texture is important; as is experimenting with different preparation techniques (think steaming vs. roasting a fish) and types of spices you use while cooking.
- Stop being sneaky. There’s a difference between coming up with clever ways to add more nutritional power to a meal (i.e., adding chia seeds into a smoothie or adding grated zucchini into a muffin for extra fiber) and of coming up with clever ways to trick your kids into eating vegetables or foods they don’t like. One of my least favorite tips for parents is how to “sneak” veggies into meals or desserts. One, it is a lot more work to have to grate, puree or mince food to the point it is unrecognizable and ‘eatable’. Two, it doesn’t allow a child the opportunity to become familiar with a food. We almost set it up so that they continue to only want to eat what appears normal to them — whether or not there’s some hidden ingredient they don’t know about.
- When your kids are old enough, invite them to help prepare food with an age-appropriate task. Sometimes being a part of the process can help make foods seem more ‘normal’ and also instills a great sense of pride. I often do meal prep when my daughter is in her high chair eating her snack so she can see me do things like chop, mix and bake on the stovetop. Or, at 15 months, I sat a big baking sheet on the ground with pre-cut sweet eggplant discs and showed her how to baste olive oil on each of the rounds. With a little help and a bit of floor clean up afterward, she was really excited to participate and eat her rewards.