A Crisper Solution
I personally find fruit and vegetables to be not only healthy, but also delicious. I enjoy cooking and preparing them, and try to eat them often. Sometimes I wind up spending egregious amounts of money getting the freshest local organic produce. Still, even when I empty my wallet at the farmer’s market, some of my fruit and veggies inevitably end up wilting or rotting in the fridge, leaving a fairly unpleasant sludge. A number of things could contribute to this waste – but I’d like to point out a few simple design flaws that I think we can fix.
1) I suspect that one of the main culprits is the produce drawer in the refrigerator. Most refrigerators have a special drawer designed to hold produce, usually located at the bottom of the fridge. The drawer is often just barely opaque and for some reason difficult to open. Because of these “features,” when you open the fridge door, you look straight ahead, to the leftover lasagna or apple pie (and their convenient position) come to mind, leaving the carrots and nectarines hidden and forgotten in the vegetable drawer. If the design of the produce drawer is one of the barriers for eating the fruit and vegetables we have already purchased, what can we do about it? For one, instead of using the crisper to store fruit and vegetables, we could put them on a higher shelf so that they are more inviting when that door is opened. We’ll smile and say to ourselves: “oh, right, I now remember I have blueberries and I want to eat some of them.”
2) Another obstacle that keeps us from eating our vegetables before they’ve gone rancid is the sense of immediacy and gnawing hunger that compels us to open the fridge in the first place. We usually go to the fridge when we are already hungry, and are looking for something to pop in our mouths right away. Because there are usually a few steps between raw vegetables and ready to eat food, we shy away from them in favor of something faster and more convenient. One way to solve this would be to wash, cut or cook them in advance so that they are already prepared at the pivotal moment of hunger.
3) In addition, these perishables don’t come with any indication of an expiration date. Until we discover the point-of-no-return, it is hard to tell how far the produce are from the end of their useful lives. We know that when we buy fish, we should eat it within the next couple of days. With milk, there is a date stamped right on the container, undisputable and in plain sight. Because we are averse to losing money (even money already spent), these expiration dates compel us to make sure that we use that pound of Mahi Mahi, eat that yogurt, and finish the milk. By leaving the produce’s expiration date ambiguous, it is hard for us to plan when to eat our produce, and we often discover that we have missed the expiration date after it’s too late. If we were to make our own expiration dates and stick them on our celery sticks, we would be more likely to use them before they’ve turned into a mushy mess.
This type of waste worries me because I think that it also prevents us from future purchases of fruit and vegetables. Imagine this scenario: You buy a bag of grapes for $7.50, throw them in the crisper drawer, and forget about them. A couple weeks later, you open the crisper on a whim and are alarmed to find that the former bag of grapes has now turned into a moldy pile of muck. You feel awful, not only because you have to clean up the mess, but because you paid seven dollars and fifty cents for this. You grumpily go for the sponge and think to yourself, “Well, I’ll never do that again.”
My general point is this: There are all kinds of reasons why we eat badly, but some are more fixable than others if we only look at our behavior and undercover the nuanced forces guiding our actions. Instead of throwing the bag of grapes into the dark drawer in the bottom of the fridge, we can save that drawer for the cupcakes and instead put some grapes in a tray on the top shelf with some mixed greens and pecans, ready to grab and go. The rest of the grapes can be prewashed and stamped with a homemade expiration sticker. If we make plans to eat them within a few days and mark them as such, we are more likely to stick to our goals. This way, we can eat more fruit and veggies and avoid wasting money or creating a mess – benefits all around!
Monkeys like to mix it up
DUKE (US)—Given a choice between spending a token to get their absolute favorite food or spending it to have a choice from a buffet of options, capuchin monkeys will opt for variety.
In fact, they’ll even eat a less-preferred food from that buffet when the favorite food is on it. They choose variety for variety’s sake.
The choices made by these captive-bred monkeys in an Italian research facility seem to show some innate desire to seek variety, says Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.
In a series of experiments Ariely conducted with colleagues at the Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione in Rome, the eight monkeys first had to be taught that the abstract tokens, such as poker chips, plastic cylinders and metal nuts, represented different kinds of choice. With training, the tokens were associated with being able to buy one piece of the most-preferred food, or being able to buy one piece from an assortment of foods that included the most-preferred food.
Lead author Elsa Addessi has used this token method before with this troop of capuchins, who are on public display as well as being used in non-invasive cognitive experiments.
“Economically, the tokens should be equivalent, because they both give you the food you like,” Ariely says.
But once they had the hang of it, the monkeys as a group chose to use the variety tokens and not the “single-food-tokens.” Moreover, once they chose the variety tokens the monkeys also didn’t always take the most-preferred food when it was offered as part of the variety assortment. What this means is that they prefer variety for variety’s sake and are willing to eat food they like less to satisfy their desire for variety.
The work appears online in Behavioural Processes.
The implications of this simple experiment shed some light on consumer behavior, Ariely says. Earlier work on variety-seeking has found that people eat 43 percent more M&M candies when there are 10 colors in the bowl instead of just seven.
“People choose variety for variety’s sake,” Ariely says. “They often choose things they don’t even like as well just for the variety. We knew about this, so the interesting thing was to figure out how basic it is.”
The behavior of the capuchins, which are native to South America, “suggest that there’s some inherent basic strategy for variety,” Ariely explains. In the wild, variety seeking may help ensure a nutritionally varied diet. It is also possible, the authors suggest, that variety-seeking contributed to the rise of bartering and then abstract money in human society.
At the same time, Ariely is somewhat puzzled that humans can get stuck in a rut and not seek more variety. “Ask yourself: How many new things have you tried lately? Have you tried every cereal in the cereal aisle?” It may be that you’re enjoying a daily bowl of a cereal that you would rate as an 8, when just a few feet away on the shelf there is a cereal you’d rate as a 9, but you’ve never tried it.
Businesses can push variety on customers with assortment packs, Ariely suggests, and vicarious experiences like the Food Network can encourage exploration as well.
“How do we get ourselves to explore? Even monkeys do it—so maybe we should also try more variety.”
The research was supported by the Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione and Duke.
Late but maybe still useful
Here are a few suggestions I gave for eating less on thanksgiving:
1) “Move to chopsticks!” Or, barring that, smaller plates and utensils.
2) Place the food “far away,” so people have to work (i.e., walk to the kitchen) to get another serving.
3) Start with a soup course, and serve other foods that are filling but low in calories.
4) Limit the number of courses.
Variety stimulates appetite. As evidence, consider a study conducted on mice. A male mouse and a female mouse will soon tire of mating with each other. But put new partners into the cage, and it turns out they weren’t tired at all. They were just bored. So, too, with food. “Imagine you only had one dish,” he says. “How much could you eat?”
5) Make the food yourself. That way you know what’s in it.
6) “Wear a very tight shirt.”
Trying to diet and eating too much…
Can it be that adding food makes people believe they are eating less?
A recent study by Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon report that this can indeed be the case (this version of the study was done with John Tierney of the NYT)
Half of the people were shown pictures of a meal consisting of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi and they were asked to estimate the amount of calories in the entire meal. The other participants were shown the same salad and drink plus two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” The crackers added 100 calories to the meal, but given that they were “diet” how will their presence influence the estimated amount of calories in the entire meal?
The first group estimated that the meal contained 1,011 calories, which was a little high. The meal actually contained 934 calories — 714 from the salad and 220 from the drink. But, the second group estimated the total amount of calories to go down. Now the average estimate for the whole meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.
The original study was interpreted as a halo effect of items labeled as diet. I suspect that this is correct, but I think that it is also possible that people have a hard time computing totals and that instead they compute averages – which makes the estimation when the crackers are present to be lower.