It’s well proven that when it comes to how we eat (and what we eat), we’re highly influenced by external cues. According to Brian Wansink and the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, dieters are even more susceptible to unconscious “nudges” than non-dieters!
This has important consequences for dinnertime: researchers have shown that eating a low calorie dinner is more effective for weight loss than eating a low calorie breakfast. Yet dinner is often the meal in which we (inadvertently) pack in the most calories.
To avoid mindless eating, sometimes the most powerful thing to do is trick ourselves in reverse. So here are five ways to set the subconscious stage – and the dinner table – for healthy habits.
Healthy Nudge #1: Use Smaller Plates and Bowls
It’s practically law: people will serve more and eat more from a big dish. In one of many studies, the Cornell Food Lab found that kids ate 44% more calories when using the bigger cereal bowl. In a similar study, college students with large bowls served themselves 146 calories more and ate 142 calories more party food than those with smaller bowls.
Downsize your dishware and beverage glasses and you’ll make moderate servings feel more proportionate to the non-conscious brain. And if you’re concerned about portion control for the little ones, especially for cereal and desserts, kid-size dishes are recommended.
Healthy Nudge #2: Go for Bigger Utensils
It may seem counterintuitive, especially given the previous tip, but smaller forks can actually cause us to eat more! A study from University of Utah found that while we take bigger bites with bigger utensils, we’re likely to eat less overall.
While you’re ditching the small salad forks, consider ditching the plasticware, too. Researchers at University of Oxford found that food is perceived as tastier when eaten with heavier cutlery. So if you’d love to boost everyone’s enjoyment of the grilled veggie platter, break out the fancy silverware! And while you’re at it…
Healthy Nudge #3: Make Food Look Fancy
Want to steer yourself and your table guests toward the healthy dishes? Presentation counts. The “halo effect” originally refers to the way we subconsciously judge people based on appearances, but there’s a food halo effect too. Garnishes, attractive serving dishes and artful arrangement on the plate have all been shown to influence our desire for certain food, as well as how tasty we rate it. Sure, it’s a superficial phenomenon, but why not take advantage of it – and have fun channeling your inner Julia Child or Bobby Flay in the process?
Healthy Nudge #4: Move Serving Dishes Off the Table
This is when the real gut-busting begins: when the table becomes a buffet. For some reason, no matter how full we are, scraps of remaining food just look like unfinished business, and our leave-no-food-unturned drive kicks in: “Must…Eat…Last…Steak…Strip.”
It seems fine to start out with serving dishes on the table, because this gives everyone a chance to purvey all the options before making a choice and to serve themselves according to hunger level. But to avoid mindless eating, move food off the table once dinner has been served. Ideally, move it out of sight – in a Cornell study of buffet patrons, people with high BMIs tended to be the ones who sat facing the food.
As a side note, while it’s usually good to let people serve themselves, extroverts are more susceptible to the influence of environmental cues than introverts. If you have extroverted children, they may benefit from having adults dish up.
Healthy Nudge #5: Turn the Lights Down and the TV Off
Scientists say we’re more likely to slow down and listen to our internal hunger cues (and that waistline-conscious angel on our right shoulder) in a relaxing dining atmosphere. “Fast food restaurants with their bright lights, stimulating colors and fast music cause people to eat faster,” the Cornell Food Lab reports.
The same is true at home, so trade that festive tablecloth for a white one. Turn on some mellow jazz or classical music and dim the lights. And definitely turn off the TV, which is probably the biggest frenzied food-shoveling trap of all. Numerous studies have documented increased food intake in television viewers, regardless of the program content.
So often, what we eat – and how much – comes down to convenience. So the absolute best thing you can do to avoid mindless eating at dinner is to put indulgences a little further out of reach, while making healthy food an easy grab.