Ever notice yourself wandering into the kitchen, opening the pantry, and grabbing a handful of crackers or cereal—without even noticing what you're doing? Or do you ever catch yourself eating chocolate chips out of the bag when, really, you were going to the kitchen for a drink of water instead? This happens to all of us. The mindless eater in us can surface anywhere and at any time, but it most often rears its ugly head in our food headquarters—the kitchen.
The term "Mindless Eating" was coined by a Cornell University professor, Brian Wansink, author of the book, Mindless Eating. His book explains how food psychology and the food environment influence when, where, and how much people eat. There are countless environmental cues, such as a candy jar on an office desk, an open potato chip bag on the counter, or a McDonalds commercial on TV that can lead you to eat when you're not hungry.
We are all born mindful eaters. This is why our babies and small children have no problem leaving food on their plate or in their bowl. After about the age of 4 or 5, though, we shift from trusting only our internal cues to eat, to being influenced by external cues, as well. If you allow yourself to mindlessly eat often, unwanted weight can creep on and negative health issues can ensue. Some of these cues you cannot control, in which case you need to learn how to control your actions and tune into your natural hunger cues instead. But to make it easier to eat mindfully (instead of mindlessly), it's best to start by controlling your surroundings, such as your house, your desk, or your car. By removing mindless eating cues wherever possible, you're cutting out unneeded calories without realizing it and learning to trust your natural hunger cues more.
A great place to start is your kitchen. Here are five quick and easy ways to transform your kitchen into a healthy haven instead of a mindless eating trap:
Take the muffins, cookies, chocolate, and whatever else you have lying on your counter and put them in freezer bags and pop them into your freezer. If you enter the kitchen and see something tasty, you will most likely eat it—regardless if you're hungry or not. I call this the see-food syndrome.
Instead of lazily putting your cereal and cracker boxes back in the pantry without closing the tops, make sure to fold down the bags and close the boxes. This makes it much more unlikely that you'll open the pantry and reach in for a handful. It's amazing that going this extra step can prevent a mindless eating moment. It may sound silly, but make sure to close milk cartons and juice containers in the fridge, as well—this will stop you from taking a swig when you open the fridge to get something else. Similarly, make sure that bags of trail mix, chocolate chips, and any other tempting foods are always secured with a tie or tied in a knot when you put them back in the pantry or cupboard. If you find yourself going for any food in particular regularly, go an extra step and put them up top where you can't see them.
Store your large plate and bowls in the basement or at the back of your cupboard and reserve them for fancy dinners or when you have company over. Buy some smaller dinnerware that you use on most nights and keep these at the front of your cupboard. Having smaller plates, bowls, and cups will give the illusion that you're eating more food (because it appears more plentiful on a smaller surface area), yet you will likely be serving yourself less food. We've become accustomed to filling our mammoth platter-like dinner plates with food, which makes it more likely that we'll overeat. Over time, this contributes to unhealthy weight gain.
If you find yourself munching on frozen cookies or banana bread every time you enter the kitchen, do yourself a favour and move these foods down to your deep freeze where they aren't as easily accessible. This way, you won't see it every time you open the kitchen freezer, which will limit the times that you see the tempting treats (if you see treats, you'll likely fall victim to the "see-food syndrome"). If you're really craving a treat, you know that you can always go down and grab it, but removing it from your immediate surroundings makes you work a bit harder to get it and may dissuade you from indulging.
Removing mindless eating cues can also work the opposite way, too. When you intentionally place healthier foods at the front of your fridge or on your counter top and make them more convenient—such as having veggies ready-to-eat in your fridge—you will likely eat more of them. I make a point to rinse and chop my veggies as soon as I get home from the grocery store, and store them in clear containers at the front of my fridge so that they are visible. If you have a hard time drinking enough water, try keeping a clear glass jug of lemon or cucumber water in the fridge (at the front), as well. I also always have fresh fruit in a basket on my counter. This encourages me, my husband, and even my preschooler to choose healthier options when hunger strikes.
Want to read more about how to become a more mindful eater? Here is Why Babies and Toddlers Can Teach Us a Thing or Two About Mindful Eating, and here is an article about how to stop mindless snacking.