Here’s the key to developing any new habit: Make it easier to do the desired behavior and more difficult to do the undesired behavior. When your student’s desired behavior is eating healthfully, sharing these environmental and behavioral tweaks can help them succeed without requiring willpower or extra work.

At home:

We are three times more likely to eat the first food we see in the cupboard than we are to eat the fifth food we see.

  1. Keep less healthy foods out of sight and hard to reach. For example, move the cookies to a high-up cupboard and the ice cream to the back of the freezer.
  2. Buy more nutritious snacks. If you and your student are having a hard time avoiding unhealthy snacks in the house, consider not buying them in the first place. Instead, snack on fruits, veggies with hummus, low- or no-sugar yogurt, or wholegrain bread with nut butter.
  3. Make healthier options more accessible. For example, keep a bowl filled with colorful fruits in plain sight on the counter.
  4. Divide large snack items (e.g., a family-size bag of chips) into smaller serving-size packages. In a 2007 study, participants who were given snacks in large packages consumed 30–50 percent more than those who were given the same amount of food but in smaller packages.
  5. Use smaller plates and bowls and serve drinks in taller/slimmer glasses. Research shows we’ll consume less when using smaller dishes.
  6. Understand how visual cues affect our appetite: Let chicken bones and food wrappers stay on the table until the meal is over. One study found that participants ate fewer chicken wings when the bones were left on the table rather than cleared away.

At restaurants:

Two girls sitting in cafe drinking coffee

  1. Request a window seat: In studies, diners ordered healthier foods if they sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant. At a dark table or booth, they ordered heavier food, and more of it; close to a TV, they ordered more fried foods, writes Dr. Brian Wansink in Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (HarperCollins, 2014): “People sitting furthest from the front door ate the fewest salads and were 73 percent more likely to order dessert.”
  2. Skip the bread—or at least the butter. Ask for olive oil instead. In a study, people who were served bread with olive oil ate less bread overall. People who were served butter instead of olive oil ate far more bread, according to the International Journal of Obesity.
  3. In a fast food restaurant, it’s different: Find a dim corner. A 2012 study in Psychological Reports found that lowering the lighting and playing mellow music resulted in customers eating less.
  4. Eat slowly to encourage your student to slow down. When we eat with others, we pace ourselves according to how quickly or slowly they are eating, and we match our food consumption to theirs, writes Dr. Wansink in Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam Dell, 2006).

Read full article

Get help or find out more

How to take back your food environment

Beating your mindless eating habits!: Cornell University

Tested food apps and trackers: Wellocracy

Personalized food and exercise SuperTracker: US Dept. of Agriculture [USDA]

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think: Brian Wansink
Bantam Dell, 2006

Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life: Brian Wansink
HarperCollins, 2014


Article sources

Michael Moss, journalist and author, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House, 2013)

Sabine Haake, registered dietitian, private practice, San Francisco, California.

Alexa Schmidt, registered dietitian, Sodexo Campus Services, Binghamton University, New York

Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2002). When are stockpiled products consumed faster? A convenience-salience framework of postpurchase consumption incidence and quantity. Journal of Marketing Research, 39(3), 321–335.

Gardner, M. P., Wansink, B., Kim, J., & Park, S. B. (2014). Better moods for better eating? How mood influences food choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 320–335.

Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., Smith, L. E., & Wansink, B. (2012). Healthy convenience: Nudging students toward healthier choices in the lunchroom. Journal of Public Health.

Kang, C. (2013, September 1). Google crunches data on munching in the office. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/google-crunches-data-on-munching-in-office/2013/09/01/3902b444-0e83-11e3-85b6-d27422650fd5_story.html

Moss, M. (2013). Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. New York, NY: Random House.

Rubin, G. (2012). Back by popular demand: Are you an abstainer or a moderator? [Blog post.] Retrieved from https://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2012/10/back-by-popular-demand-are-you-an-abstainer-or-a-moderator/

Sacks, R., Stella, S. Y., & Nonas, C. (2015). Increasing access to fruits and vegetables: Perspectives from the New York City experience. American Journal of Public Health, 105(5).

Van Ittersum, K., & Wansink, B. (2012). Plate size and color suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s bias on serving and eating behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 215–228.

Van Kleef, E., Shimizu, M., & Wansink, B. (2012). Serving bowl selection biases the amount of food served. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 44(1), 66–70.

Van Kleef, E., Shimizu, M., & Wansink, B. (2013). Just a bite: Considerably smaller snack portions satisfy delayed hunger and craving. Food Quality and Preference, 27(1), 96–100.

Wansink, B., & Linder, L. R. (2003). Interactions between forms of fat consumption and restaurant bread consumption. International Journal of Obesity, 27(7), 866–868.

Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity Research, 13(1), 93–100.

Wansink, B., & Payne, C. R. (2007). Counting bones: Environmental cues that decrease food intake. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 104, 273–277.

Wansink, B., & Payne, C. R. (2008). Eating behavior and obesity at Chinese buffets. Obesity, 16(8), 1957–1960.

Wansink, B., Payne, C., & North, J. (2007). Fine as North Dakota wine: Sensory experiences and the intake of companion foods. Physiology and Behavior, 90(5), 712–716.

Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. (2005). Shape of glass and amount of alcohol poured: Comparative study effect of practice and concentration. British Medical Journal, 331(7531), 1512–1514.

Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. (2007). Portion size me: Downsizing our consumption norms. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(7), 1103–1106.

Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. (2012). Fast food restaurant lighting and music can reduce calorie intake and increase satisfaction. Psychological Bulletin, 111(1), 228–232.

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Chelsey Taylor works as an editor and content manager. She taught English in South Korea as a Fulbright Fellow and has a BA in anthropology from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

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Heather Boerner is a health journalist based in San Francisco. She writes a gratitude list every day and sends good thoughts to herself and people she loves for 10 minutes every morning.

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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.