Healthy eating made easier

Small switches in how and where you have your meals can help you make smarter food choices

Published: August 14, 2015 05:00 PM

You might attribute your failure to choose fruit over a doughnut or tofu over a burger to poor willpower. But relying on self-control is tough when unhealthy foods are heavily promoted. Fortunately, researchers have learned how simple changes in our environment and habits can help us to eat smarter without a great deal of extra effort.

Customize dishes and cups

The benefit: Control portion sizes. One trick to eating less is using smaller dishes. But if your goal is to eat more healthy food, go big. Research led by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, found that people eat more when food is served on bigger dishes—because portions appear smaller. So if you eat salad or veggies from a large plate, you're likely to serve yourself more and eat more. Use small plates for foods such as refined grains (white rice, pasta), red and processed meats, and, of course, dessert.

What tricks have you used to eat healthier?

Share your success stories below.

Color-code your meals

The benefit: Improve nutrition and tempt your palate. Eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables ensures that you get a good mix of healthy nutrients, and it also helps to bring your plate to life. For example, you can perk up your grilled fish or chicken by adding tomatoes and green Swiss chard.

Make healthy foods visible

The benefit: Eat more good-for-you foods. "You're likely to reach for what­ever you see first when you open the refrigerator or your cabinets," says Maxine Siegel, R.D., manager of food testing at Consumer Reports. One study found that people increased their fruit and vegetable consumption almost threefold by moving produce from the fridge's crisper drawer to the top shelf. Storing less healthy items in opaque containers helps, too.

Make it look nice

The benefit: Healthy foods with visual appeal taste better. A study conducted at the Culinary Institute of America found that diners who were served the same chicken dish two nights in a row liked it more when it was artfully arranged. And you don’t need the skills of a "Top Chef" contestant.

A simple stack of vegetables or whole grains on the bottom, a chicken breast in the middle, and a colorful garnish on top gives a meal height and dimension.

Play around with shapes, too, recommends chef and food stylist Khalil Hymore of New York City. "In a salad, I might shred the kale, julienne an apple, and halve the cherry tomatoes," he says. "If everything were the same size, it wouldn't be as interesting."

Eat only at the table

The benefit: You'll eat less and feel satisfied. According to one study, eating as a family at the dining room or kitchen table is linked with having a lower body mass index (BMI), possibly, researchers suggest, because it's easier to focus on the meal in that environment.

Eating with the TV on, however, is linked with a higher BMI, probably because it's distracting. A separate review of research found that when people are distracted, they consume about 10 percent more calories—and they also eat more at subsequent meals.

Your eat-smarter toolbox


Nonstick skillet: Sauté or pan-fry foods with less butter or oil so that you don’t add additional calories. Calphalon's Simply Nonstick 10" Omelette Pan ($40 to $60) is a Consumer Reports Best Buy.

Kitchen scale: Eyeballing portion sizes is hard and can lead to underestimating your calorie intake. Even if you don't use a scale every day, it's helpful to double-check portions every few months.

Blender: Whip up smoothies, healthy soups, vegetable purées, and dips. The Dash Chef Series Digital Blender ($230 to $260) was one of the top models in Consumer Reports' recent tests.

—Ian Landau

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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