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Throughout my day, much of what I eat is not based on what my taste buds and body want.
I can’t remember if the milk is still good, so I’ll grab my morning latte on the way. I have to get to the office, so chopping fruit for a smoothie sounds like too much work. But that’s okay, because the bright packaging of an energy bar I don’t really want catches my eye, so I grab it before running out the door.
Even if you want to eat intuitively—basing your food choices on what your body needs rather than outside influences and dietary culture—it’s hard to do that if your life isn’t intuitively tuned.
“We feed our eyes in many ways, whether it’s marketers … putting eye-catching labels on things or whether we’re marketing our own cuisine in a way that we always have (certain foods) first,” said CNN Food Contributor and Meal Planning Coach Casey Barber.
How you set up your kitchen makes a big difference in how you use it, said Katrina Green, an ADHD organizing specialist based in Sacramento, California.
If you want to make it easy to eat what you want and need, not just what’s easiest to grab, and not have to buy expensive containers or label machines – you need to invest a little time and organization, said Natalie Mocari, a nutritionist based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
You don’t have to buy all the pretty matching jars for your pantry and fridge, but it can be helpful to think about what you see when you go to get food.
Food bags, for example, can easily create a mess of things like small carrots, green beans or rice, making them hard to find, Barber said.
“I have a vendetta against plastic bags that have resealable lids,” she said. “Even if you’re going to (store food in a bag), maybe close them up in something like a shoebox, which is an open container where you can at least sort them out like files if you really like your bags — because I don’t want them falling on you every time you open a drawer or cabinet.
What about pasta and crackers and other foods that come in boxes? Is it better to put them in clear containers? It depends on your needs, Green said. You may want to see clearly what food you have.
“I especially like working with neurodivergent people,” she said, and “a lot of times the commentary I hear (from them) is not seen by the mind.”
For some people, it may be more helpful to look at a shelf of clear jars and see exactly what’s available without all the fuss of packaging, she added.
“Some people need the peace and quiet of a streamlined neutral system,” Barber said. But for others, seeing the label can make the connection of what nutrition that food can do in their brain, she added.
“Jars can be useful if that’s what you’re into you’re more likely to reach for it, but don’t if opening something or putting it in something else makes you less likely to use it,” Green said.
What you see first often influences what you’re likely to reach for first, Green said.
“I really try to put those things that I know I’m going to come back to again and again on the shelves that are most accessible to me,” Barber said.
Green likes to think about what goes at eye level in the pantry and refrigerator and what can be placed in harder-to-reach places.
Food items that might appeal to her but don’t satisfy her go on the top shelf, while things that make up meals she likes and wants to eat go where she can see them right away, she said.
And just because the refrigerator drawers are labeled for fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean that’s where they have to go, Mocari said.
Drawers are often where good produce dies after being forgotten, so she likes to keep her produce on a shelf and use the drawers for things she won’t forget or don’t spoil quickly, like drinks and snacks, she said.
What you provide matters too.
Mokari has a three-tiered fruit stand, and while it contains fruit, there are also things like single-serve packets of nuts or muesli that she and her family can grab when they’re hungry without having to look too far for a bite to eat.
“When you’re setting it up, think ‘what are your goals with cooking? what are your preferences?’ Make sure they look the best and most prominent as you can make them for your kitchen space,” said Barber.
A little preparation time is also very important, Mokari said.
It might be worth taking a little extra time to wash and cut your produce, or to allocate which ingredients will go with which meal during the week so you’re not starting from scratch every time you go out to eat, she said.
It can also help to designate space in your pantry and refrigerator for a container of what needs to be used throughout the week — whether it’s for the meal plan or because it’s due, Green said.
While you don’t need to spend your entire paycheck on organizational tools, it might be worth investing in an attractive fruit and vegetable container if it makes you more inclined to take it straight from the fridge to the kitchen table, Barber said.
“There are specific instances where I want to splurge on your berry container … if that’s going to be the thing that really gets you to eat those berries, if you’re going to eat more berries because you have this, then by all means.” use your food dollars that way,” she said.
Finally, as you prepare your meals, it’s important to think about more than just what you want to include for your health goals, Mokari said.
“I think the most important thing is that balance of nutrients that hold their potency throughout the day, as well as something that you enjoy,” she said. “Even if you take it out and it’s something you don’t like, then you won’t eat it.”
It was very important for me to get out my blender and have the fruit separated into separate containers for the day so I could have a smoothie that fueled and excited me.
And yes, I seem to eat more fruits and vegetables when they are stored in pretty bowls and waiting to be placed on my counter as a ready snack.