Make the HealthY Choice the Easy Choice
Authored by: Sarah VanEerden, RDN
Your environment, and how you move through it each day, ultimately impacts both your conscious and subconscious decisions, and overall wellbeing. From energy and immune response to inflammation and disease risk, each tiny choice will move you closer to your best self, or further away. Take a step back and consider how your surroundings could better support your goals.
Choice Architecture, a term coined by behavioral economists Thaler and Sunstein (2008), is a theory that concludes that your decisions are influenced by HOW choices are presented. Consider a cafeteria: In setting A, high fiber and freshly made options are in a closed case, tucked to the side behind the trays and silverware. In setting B, the fresh salads and grain bowls are in a well-lit open case, labeled and positioned in the center of the room. Research shows sales of fresh options will increase in setting B. You can apply this same concept to your life - in your kitchen, meal planning process, pantry, refrigerator, and office. Think about whether the foods you WANT to be eating daily are featured and easy to access.
Set up a successful future and engrain a sustainable healthy lifestyle by adjusting your built space to nudge you toward healthy choices. Designing your space to support healthy choices isn’t supposed to impose guilt when you enjoy a treat on the couch or stop for unplanned pizza from your favorite local stop, it’s meant to ease the struggle over unconscious and reactive decisions that impact wellbeing. Choice architecture is about making the process easier on yourself so you’re not setting a goal then feeling like you’re walking in sand the whole time. It’s about designing your environment to remind you of the action steps that will help you achieve your wellbeing vision.
There are many concepts to consider in Choice Architecture. Sticking to food and nutrition as the example, let’s review a few areas you might enjoy adjusting your space to highlight healthy choices.
Placement: When you open your pantry, what do you see first? Treats and packaged snacks, or nuts, trail mix, canned beans and dried grains? Arrange the most nutrient-dense choices at eye level, placing the “sometimes snacks” in a closed or opaque container. Clear bins for healthier choices in the fridge can work, too. Don’t hide the vegetables out of sight. Place them front and center, and cluster items for a single recipe as well. This might prompt you to cook that meal when you see it waiting and ready to be used.
Meal Planning Organization: Are you familiar with the brain fog around meal planning? Even dietitians get hung up sometimes, and a solid meal planning system will help you stay focused. Try a specific folder or magazine holder in your kitchen, something you enjoy the look of! Keep grocery list templates, favorite recipes and even a master meal “catalogue” to nudge your memory when you sit down to plan. As you make your list, note which meals you’re think of, and mark recipe pages when applicable. It’s helpful to treat your printed recipes like your closet: if you haven’t made the dish in a year, it’s time to recycle it.
Signage and Labeling: An interesting study showed that school-aged children were more likely to choose produce for a snack if they saw a familiar cartoon stickered on the fruit. Although you might not be influenced by Batman, you can use labels to your advantage. Try pantry labels for fiber-rich staples, or placing a recipe card near the needed items, stored together in the fridge. You can also employ inspirational labels in your car, office and even your bathroom to boost your motivation to care for yourself.
Electronic Prompts: Building in automatic reminders can help you keep the system flowing. One of the most difficult things about healthy eating is that the cycle needs to repeat week after week. Try a reminder to start your grocery lists on Wednesday evenings. Sometimes shifting WHEN you plan and shop can make a difference. If you gather your ideas and food before Saturday, that leaves more than a day for just prep, instead of trying to plan, shop and prep all on Sunday. You might also try subscribing intentionally to inspirational content, whether it’s an electronic newsletter, cooking blog or mental fitness challenge. Supportive wellbeing content delivered straight to your inbox might inject some new ideas, or at the very least be a reminder to check in on your own wellbeing.
4 Ways to Design Your Healthy Space
Take meal planning one step further and keep “Weeks that Work” outlined in your organized folder for easy planning. Try listing the meals for the week, as well as the pantry items and grocery items needed so you can execute a quick inventory, shop, and execute with little thought.
Designate sections in your fridge that fit your meal strategy. Experiment! Groups like snacks, leftovers for lunch, wrap ingredients, foods for a specific recipe or cooked meal components like diced proteins or cooked grains can work well. Food decisions are easier when you can assess your refrigerator quickly and with ease.
Stash “pantry meals” that can act as a backup plan, rather than resorting to an unintentional take-out meal. Try healthier frozen meals enhanced with beans and extra vegetables, a quick soup made with canned beans, canned tomatoes and readymade broth, or a stir-fry with frozen vegetables, frozen cooked shrimp and chickpeas. Healthy last-minute options make your plan more sustainable and adaptable.
At the office, keep nutrient-dense snacks on hand for that mid-morning or afternoon slump. Seeing whole wheat crackers, almond butter, apples, and trail mix might prompt you to refuel. Try clear containers with a lid, or baskets to keep it tidy!
On top of designing your own space, reflect on how other spaces influence your decisions as well. From the grocery aisles and local restaurant menus to the office snack bar and school sports event, you’re constantly being influenced every day by your environment. When you make over 200 food-related decisions each day, it’s important to stay conscious and intentional to support your optimal wellbeing.
This Make Your Move resources is brought to you by Acrisure Benefits Group.
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