Many struggle and fail to maintain a healthy diet because of the common misconception that a healthy diet is solely achieved through willpower. Willpower requires constant focus and effort which is simply unsustainable, not to mention unenjoyable.
There is a better way. You wouldn’t try to swim across a rapidly flowing river if you knew there was a bridge just around the bend, would you?
The secret to maintaining a healthy diet is to be healthy by design, not by willpower. Many external factors such as environment, relationships and employment have an impact on what we eat and the decisions we make. However, simply acknowledging this fact doesn’t help us achieve our health and diet goals. We need to understand why these things impact our diet. That knowledge can then be used to strategically design a way to use these external factors to our advantage so their impact promotes a healthy lifestyle versus an unhealthy one.
Being healthy by design sets us up for success because the bulk of the effort is removed by intentionally and mindfully adjusting our environment to promote a healthy lifestyle and healthy decisions. The more external factors promote a healthy diet, the less effort and willpower are required to maintain it.
Impact of Environment On Healthy Decisions
Environment is one of the largest influences. A stressful environment has a detrimental impact on diet and is triggered by any variety of external stimuli. In other words the thousands of things constantly trying to grab your attention are causing you stress whether it be dozens of work emails, honking cars, social media notifications, dirty dishes or stacks of mail. Sounds like a pretty standard day, right?
The human body reacts to stress with the fight or flight response which is a human defense that enables the body to identify danger and react to it. However, modern technology and busy lifestyles trigger the flight or fight response in non-life threatening situations from over stimulation.
This has caused many to be chronically stressed from having too many things, too many tasks and too many distractions. The human body was not built to withstand this kind of long-term stress which results in exhaustion, overwhelm and poor decision making.
To put it simply, reduce stress within your environment to promote a healthy diet. This is easier said than done because we tend to attribute all of our stress to the largest and most apparent stressors such as big work projects, overloaded schedules and family problems while ignoring the thousands of small stressors within our environment that add up to a large amount of unnecessary stress.
A Stressful Kitchen Environment
Stress within the home environment, specifically the kitchen, has a huge impact on diet and food decisions but isn’t always easy to identify. This stress comes in the form of clutter and disorganization.
1. Cluttered Kitchen, Cluttered Mind: All the stuff cluttering the counter, cabinets and drawers is also cluttering your mind because every time you walk into a room, each item acts as either a distraction, an obstacle or a visual reminder of all the tasks that need to be completed. I call these pings because each thing is pinging your brain for attention. Too many pings over stimulate your senses and brain causing them to work in overdrive. This sends signals to your brain that make you feel as if you can’t catch up and will never get everything done.
Have you ever found yourself avoiding the mound of paperwork and mail that keeps getting shuffled around the counter? Ignoring a fridge door full of sticky condiment bottles you never use? Hating the feeling of overwhelming work when you look at a sink full of dishes? These are all the result of a cluttered and overwhelmed brain.
2. Never Enough Room: Counter space is prime real estate in the home and at some point everyone has wished they had more of it. It is frustrating to constantly push things aside in an attempt to make enough room to prep a meal only to accidently knock a stack of mail all over the floor in the process. Instead of more counter space, what if there was simply less stuff taking up space or the counter space was used more efficiently?
3. Challenge Finding Things: Have you ever spent time rummaging through a spice cabinet or the fridge trying to find the ingredient you need? Or taken 15 pieces of tupperware out of a drawer before finding a matching container and lid? We end up spending more time searching for things than actually prepping, cooking and cleaning up after our meals.
Does any of this sound familiar? Personally, these things have caused me to ditch a healthy meal and opt for leftover takeout on more than one occasion. As you can see, many of the things that encourage poor food decisions aren’t even related to actual food. They are things within the home environment that are disrupting the process of making good food decisions and preparing meals.
The issue? We have too much stuff.
This is easier said than done. Overconsumption is running rampant in modern day society. We are taught to believe we need things. This includes multiples of things and things we don’t need or won’t use. Low prices, good deals and shiny new products cause us to impulsively purchase more and more stuff with the belief that it will make us happier although it does quite the opposite.
The solution? Get rid of it.
Then we struggle to get rid of an item because we think that it “holds value” in the amount it was purchased for. However, in reality the moment money is exchanged for an item, is the moment the value of that money is lost. The value of the item purchased starts at zero. Once you own the item, the value of that item is not determined by the purchase price but rather how much you personally value it. Personal value comes from how much the item improves your life through use or how much true happiness the item brings you. If the item has been sitting in a closet for the past year, still has the tags on it, or simply doesn’t provide any true happiness the item holds zero value. It is not worth the money you bought it for. In order to make room in your brain (and home) for the the things that really matter, “zero value” items need to be removed from your life. For every “zero value” thing you get rid of, you gain a little more freedom from all the unnecessary distractions, reminders and obstacles.
Action Item 1: Reduce
The first step to creating an efficient and stress-free environment is to reduce the number of items we own by disposing, donating or selling what isn’t needed or used. Go through every drawer, cabinet, counter, fridge, nook and cranny in the kitchen. The goal is to simplify. Less is more.
1. Get rid of multiples and extras.
Although this step is pretty self-explanatory, here are a few specific tips to get started. Keep only one of every small appliance, kitchen gadget and utensil with the exception of cooking spoons and spatulas in which two of each should be kept. For plates and soup bowls, keep 2.5 times the size of your household (4 person household should keep 10 plates and bowls). For drinking glasses, keep 3 times the size of your household (4 person household should keep 12 drinking glasses). Keep only one of every type of cleaner or better yet keep one all-purpose cleaner. Throw away everything that is expired in the fridge and pantry. Click here for a full itemized checklist.
2. Get rid of things that aren’t used.
Donate, toss or sell any item that hasn’t been used in one year (or 6 months if you are feeling aggressive). Avoid thinking about hypothetical situations (What if I decide to have a fondue party?!) as they only draw out the process. Things that tend to fall into this category are small appliances, fancy China, condiments, placemats, napkin rings, and that Easter themed serving platter Aunt Ginger gave you four years ago for Christmas. Her intentions were good but her execution was lacking.*Tip/Idea: Instead of storing sentimental items (such as dishware passed down from a grandparent) in the corner of the basement, you could use the sentimental items, give them to another family member or friend who will use them, or display them tastefully somewhere in your home as a keepsake.
3. Get rid of things that aren’t needed.
This is different than things that aren’t used. We may have things we use but don’t really need because they can be replaced by things we already have.
For example, I used to have a Keurig that I kept on my kitchen counter and used to make tea. I received it as a gift when Keurig’s were the new “must have” item. Although I used it almost daily, I hated how much counter space it took up and the “Add More Water” light always seemed to be blinking at me which I found particularly annoying for some reason. One day I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t like about something that gave me very little in return, being my tea. I could easily make tea in the microwave or on the stove with things I already had. I gave the Keurig away the very next day.
Things that tend to fall into this category are items with very specific purposes like rice cookers, pizza makers, apple slicers, garlic peelers, bread makers and giant countertop mixers. You should only consider keeping an unnecessary item if it brings you genuine happiness on a regular basis.This is the most challenging step as it requires you to dig deeper. Completely disassociate any amount of money spent to purchase the item or how much money you think the item is worth. Start at a zero value and ask yourself if you actually need an item or if the item brings you genuine happiness. A decision tree may help! Answer truthfully.
Action Item 2: Organize
After putting in the time and effort to reduce clutter, the next step is to organize what you do have in the most efficient and stress-free way possible. Below are my most beneficial, rewarding and liberating organizational strategies.
1. Clear the Counters
Other than soap next to the sink, select 2 things you wish to keep on the counters and remove everything else including small appliances, knife blocks, fruit bowls, cookbooks, salt and pepper shakers, paper towel holders, etc. Store frequently used small appliances in easily accessible cabinets. Put paper towels on an under cabinet paper towel holder. Store knives in a drawer or on a magnetic knife strip. Instead of storing produce on the kitchen counter, store it in a pantry, cabinet or in a decorative bowl on the kitchen table.
2. Spice & Seasoning Organization
Purchase matching spice jars (Amazon and dollar stores have very affordable options). Pour your existing spices into the matching spice jars, label the jars and organize them alphabetically. Store them in spice racks in a cabinet or in a drawer so all spices can be seen and accessed without moving other spices.
3. The Final Five
Most people only use a small portion of their kitchen possessions the vast majority of the time. Choose the top five kitchen items you use most and designate prime real estate in the kitchen specifically for those five items for quick and easy accessibility (example: Chef’s knife, cutting board, large mixing bowl, wooden spoon, and a large non-stick pan). Never stack other things on top of or in front of any of your Final Five items. Always wash and return your Final Five to their designated place as soon as they are done being used.
4. Designate a Place for Everything
Have a specific place outside of the kitchen for papers, mail, keys, backpacks, coats and any other miscellaneous items that find their way into the kitchen. A wall-mounted mail holder, key hooks, and coat racks are easy solutions. Challenge yourself and household not to leave anything on the kitchen counter that doesn’t belong there for one week. Small successes create good habits.
Action Item 3: Strategize
Strategically developing good habits is essential to maintaining a clutter-free kitchen and promoting healthy food decisions. The best way to guarantee success is to always start and end the cooking/eating process with a clean slate.
1. Dishwasher Check
Before preparing a meal, check if the dishwasher or dish rack is full of clean dishes. If it is, empty it before cooking anything. Don’t put it off, you will regret it. This is the most challenging habit to create but the most impactful. If the dishwasher is full of clean dishes, it cannot be filled with dirty dishes from cooking and eating. So, the dirty dishes end up in an overwhelming pile in the sink and the vicious cycle begins.
2. Practice Cycle Cooking
The cooking process is broken up into three major cycles; Prep, Clean, Cook/Clean. Each cycle must be completed before the next cycle can begin. This strategy allows you to focus on one task at a time and fully complete each task which is actually more efficient and effective than multi-tasking. This turns the cooking process from stressful, overwhelming, and messy to enjoyable, calm, and clean.
3. Use One and Only One
Use only one of each cooking tool throughout the cooking process; one cutting board, one knife, one bowl and so on. If a tool is needed for more than one task, rinse it and use it again. Do not use something once and toss it in the sink. This creates a mound of dishes and a lot of extra cleaning. Overtime this will become habit and the time spent cooking and cleaning will shrink drastically.
4. Do, Defer, Delete
Categorize each piece of mail the day it was received by Do, Defer or Delete. Do means you will do something immediately such as pay the water bill or immediately clip out a coupon and put it in your wallet.Defer is what you will act on in the near future. Deferred items should be kept in the designated place for papers and mail. Deleteis for things you will not act on, things you don’t need and junk mail. Those items go straight to the trash.
5. Eye for an Eye Principle
For every new item brought into the kitchen, an old item must be thrown away or donated. This helps us think through purchases and prevents clutter from sneaking up on us again. Donate or return gifts you won’t use or enjoy and don’t feel guilty about doing so.
Reducing, organizing and strategizing creates a calm and focused environment which is essential for promoting healthy food decisions because it makes the cooking, cleaning and eating processes much simpler and more enjoyable. All the energy, effort, time and attention that used to be consumed by unnecessary stressors can be redirected to important things that create health and happiness.