How to eat ‘slim by design’ (or not) when you work at home

photo-235I recently read Brian Wansink’s Slim by Design. Wansink wrote Mindless Eating a few years ago, based on his research finding people will eat giant vats of stale popcorn if they’re not paying attention. Subtly changing the layouts of kitchens and cafeterias can greatly increase the chances that people take healthy fare rather than the less healthy fare we often gravitate toward.

Slim by Design is the follow-up, offering suggestions on how to make over the places we buy food and eat. I appreciate his general approach. Many public health types seem to believe that institutions should make changes because they are the right thing to do. That’s fine, but Wansink notes that restaurants, cafeterias, and grocery stores all exist to make money. The magic happens when the changes that would make us healthier actually make them more money too. One obvious example: the all-you-can-eat buffet. The restaurant wants you to feel like you got a good deal, but if you eat less, that’s money straight to the bottom line. Subtle changes, like putting the plates around the back so people can scout out the buffet before eating, increase the chances that people take what they really want, and not what they don’t, just because they saw it first.

I’ve been considering his suggestions in light of my situation. I work from home. My office is perilously close to the kitchen. This is a situation that can lend itself to incessant snacking. After reading Slim by Design, I realize I’m doing a few things right:

*We have fruit on the counter: apples, oranges, bananas. All of these are great snack options. Wansink has found that people with fruit bowls weigh several pounds less than those who don’t have fruit readily available.

*I move some fruit out of the crisper onto the fridge shelves. When you open the fridge door, you want the first thing you see to be healthy stuff. My Greek yogurt is there, and if I’ve cut up melons or some such, I’ll put them on the shelves, rather than bury them.

*I have no soda handy. None is cold in the fridge. I don’t find soda to be a temptation, really, but this turns out to be a Very Healthy Habit that I’ve somewhat effortlessly adopted. We do usually have beer that’s cold in the fridge, but I tend not to consider this an option pre-5 p.m.

*I don’t have a TV in the kitchen.

*I put the candy out of sight. The bowl of leftover Halloween candy is in the pantry on a high shelf. I have to make a conscious choice to pull it down if I want a piece. When my husband brought home shortbread cookies from the UK recently, I moved them into the wine storage area, rather than leaving them on the kitchen counter.

*Perhaps most importantly: going out for lunch is a pain in the butt if you work from home. So I’m generally eating leftovers or Lean Cuisine type frozen meals. All of these are going to have fewer calories than the fast casual fare many people eat for lunch.

Of course, there are some things I could do better.

*I do have some snacky fare out and available: granola, pretzels, nuts. While these are likely better options than Halloween candy, I probably don’t need to have them on the counter.

*I sometimes eat in front of my computer. And yep, I pay zippo attention to my meals and snacks when I do.

*Working from home means you don’t get a lot of exercise unless you consciously choose to do so. Most days I run, but I’m writing this on a drizzly day. It’s 2 p.m. and my Fitbit says I’ve barely walked more than 0.6 miles. Come winter, it is very easy to hibernate.

*Even though the candy is hidden, it’s there, and I know it. A naturally slim person would have dumped it on November 1st. I’ve been known to eat 5-6 snack sized chocolate bars if it’s been that sort of day.
If you work from home, or in an office where there are free snacks lying about, how do you keep your snacking from getting out of hand?

Photo: Candy bin on high shelf — but I know it’s there.

25 thoughts on “How to eat ‘slim by design’ (or not) when you work at home

  1. When I worked in an office, there was always candy out and I ate it. Mindlessly. Also, the siren song of treats in the communal kitchen was incredibly difficult to resist. Now that I work from home, I start my day by walking my kids to school, then to a coffee shop about a mile away from my house. I get a latte, which isn’t super-virtuous, but I also get about 2 miles of exercise. Even if nothing else goes right the rest of the day, I feel like I’ve started on the right foot. Plus, sitting in the coffee shop means I can’t get up and do laundry/turn on the TV “for background noise” or otherwise sabotage my most productive hours.

    Oh wait, I can still read and comment on blogs …

    1. @Abby – it’s hard not to get distracted 🙂 But I agree that getting exercise in first, as a structured part of your day, is a good way to make sure it happens. And getting away from the snacks is good too. I’ve been working on building more library time into my workdays, and that’s part of the reason (also, my kids are showing up in my home office too much when we’re all home — I need to get away).

  2. My trick for avoiding treats is the freezer. A high shelf isn’t enough for me! I like to bake, so I stash my baked goods in the freezer and remove just one or two at a time. Defrosting makes the process much more mindful and premeditated. It’s even better if I store them in my garage freezer- sometimes I forget they’re there!

      1. I think that little trick helped me keep off a lot of weight! It also preserves the freshness of cookies, etc. Certain candies are also even better when frozen. I don’t keep a lot of candy in the house, but there’s always a bag of York peppermint patties in the freezer.

  3. I am a mindless snacker, for sure, so two things happen at our house:

    1. All food, even healthy snacks, are in the fridge or pantry – behind closed doors.

    2. Halloween candy is also in the pantry for us, but after a week we threw it all away.

    3. I generally don’t buy junk food. Hubby is not snacky and the kids are too little to expect it 😉 So we almost never have sweets around, and the salty snacks are things like those Terra chips from Trader Joe’s.

    4. My office is relatively far from the kitchen so if I want to eat, it’s an intentional choice to get up. I don’t usually bring food into my office because it’s also my craft room.

  4. The ONLY THING that has ever worked for me is this: I simply do not buy stuff that I like to eat that is not healthy. If it is a bad day, and I need chips, I can get them from the vending machine at work (but it only takes cash, which I rarely carry with me, which is a further deterrent). Most of the time, if I have to make the effort to go out to “get something” – it’s not worth it.

    1. @jacqueline – I have a few foods I do this with. Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered caramels, for instance. If I buy them, it’s a problem. But I actually haven’t seen them the last few times I’ve been there. So that’s one approach.

  5. I think if you have to throw out your Halloween candy, then you’re not naturally slim. If you keep your Halloween candy but just forget it’s there until it goes bad in 2017, then you are naturally slim 🙂

    (We threw ours out on day 2. It wasn’t as good as I remembered anyway and tasted too sweet after all of the super dark chocolate I usually eat!)

    1. I felt the same way this year. I’ve been mostly eating 85% dark chocolate since this past spring (um, for dessert, not for my main food. Ha.), and now I’ve discovered I don’t even really like Crunch bars and the like.

      I used to think 85% chocolate bars were not sweet enough, so I guess I’ve adjusted!

      1. @The Frugal Girl – I’ve been nibbling on the Hershey special dark, which are sweeter dark bars. Maybe it’s like a gateway drug…

    2. @sarah – probably true. Wansink quoted an old article about naturally slim people noting that they sometimes get so caught up in a weekend project that they forget to eat. This does not happen to me.

      1. I happen to be one of those “naturally slim” people — only it’s not just when I’m working on a weekend project that I forget to eat: I do it almost every day! 😉 My wife calls that “a special kind of stupid” 😛 but I’m OK with that. I have what I want whenever I want… The clincher is that I don’t “want” much — or more specifically, I don’t “want” that often.

        I can down a half bag of chips (the family size bags) in one sitting, but then I don’t eat anything else for a couple of hours and I only do that maybe a couple times a month.

        Most times, when my wife and I go out to eat, I’ll be coming home with half of the meal I ordered. But take me to a good rib place and you’ll want to check to see if I have a hollow leg, ‘cuz I’ll finish a full rack of ribs and all the sides by myself. 😉

        I don’t do “diet” anything. It’s full sugar, full fat, or it’s generally not worth [my] having. With that said, I’m not “against” healthy alternatives or healthy foods: I love fruits and veggies, though veggies generally require “something”, be it salt and/or butter (when cooked), or ranch dressing (when raw) or the like. But I don’t butter/salt without tasting first.

        The only real exception is low-fat yogurt, which I enjoy as a snack. But as yogurt is already low-fat, I skip the diet or no-fat varieties.

        Sorry, not very helpful on the “cut down on the snacks” front… I probably have to agree with @jacqueline, though: if it’s something I’m looking to cut down on, I just don’t buy it to begin with. I walk by vending machines multiple times a day, every day I work. (It’s virtually impossible to get from the front door to my office without passing by vending machines or the commissary which sells the same stuff.) I’ve found that the only times I’m really “drawn” to even think about wanting something from them is when I stop to take a look at what they have… Otherwise, if I just keep walking — without “browsing” — there’s no temptation to buy anything.

        But that coming from someone who’s “a special kind of stupid”, your mileage may vary. 😉

        1. @Eric J – I would agree that generally, vending machine fare isn’t all that great. I really like good stuff, so yes, sign me up for eating well at good restaurants, or if people have cooked me dinner. I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea of eating what I want…but less of it.

          1. I’m not sure that it’s “the secret to my success”, but I’m also a perennially slow eater. (My parents used to put me on a timer as a child — though I never understood the reasoning behind that. 😉 In any case, I never outgrew eating slowly.)
            Now in my defense, I’ve heard that the slower you eat, generally the less you eat. (There have also been studies that show you get more nutrients when you chew your food more — and that typically means it will take you longer to eat.)
            Like I said, I can’t say that it’s specifically what keeps me slim, but the more I’ve heard that, the more comfortable I’ve been with how fast (or rather, how slow) I eat. I don’t eat at a snail’s pace, but it’s roughly half as fast as most anyone else I’m at the table with… (For example, even though I generally take half of the meal home when eating out, I’m still usually the last person to “finish” eating.)

    3. “If you keep your Halloween candy but just forget it’s there until it goes bad in 2017, then you are naturally slim”
      Hah yeah that’s me. I hoard the candy and then forget to eat it. Then when I remember, it’s old and disgusting but I feel like i have to eat it anyway.

  6. This post was so well timed. I read it on Tuesday and thought about how I just read that book (and Mindless Eating) and patted myself on the back for how healthy my habits already are… then Wednesday I worked at home and remembered why I always gain 5 pounds in the summer (when I’m not teaching).

    My teaching/on campus days are so full and tiring that I train for them like an athlete, and don’t mind at all spending 30 minutes at 5:30 a.m. packing lunch, 2nd post-workout breakfast, healthy snacks, etc…

    But when I’m working at home (and on weekends), I get up, have a leisurely cocoa and toast– it’s homemade cocoa w/almond milk and ezekiel bread toast w/peanut butter, but still!– and then snack the rest of the day because I can’t be bothered to make something to eat. Worse yet, because I’m such a sugar addict, we don’t have anything good around, so yesterday, after eating at least 3 of my son’s halloween candies, I stopped at starbucks on my way to pick him up from preschool and got a cookie. And I wonder why I”m cranky, hungry, and tired on these work from home days?

    Anyhow, I think I have a Brian Wansink-like solution– what if I prep my lunch for the at home days just like I do for my work days? Get it all ready in the a.m., in the right containers, etc… Has anyone tried this? Will it make me sit down and eat something healthy? Thanks for making me think of this dilemma and possible solution.

    1. @liz – it couldn’t hurt to try “packing” your lunch for a work-from-home day. Some people swear by thinking through their meals ahead of time in any case. If you know what you’re going to eat and when, then maybe the snacking doesn’t become such an issue. Maybe!

  7. I’m more like Eric where I can be working literally feet away from a whole kitchen full of food and forget to feed myself all day – forget snacking!

    But I was hoping to find good suggestions for keeping my husband away from the snacks 🙂 He can open a new package of anything and hoover half of it or the whole thing before he realizes what happened! I keep telling him we can’t afford to feed his mindless snacking habit… !

    1. @Revanche, who buys the snacks: you or him? If it’s you, then don’t buy [junk-food] snacks! If it’s him, put him on a snack food budget — that is, he gets $X to spend on snacks for the month and once that’s gone, he doesn’t get any more snacks. It won’t initially stop the “mindless” part of his snacking, but depending on what he likes to snack on (and what’s left over once that’s gone), he may start to think twice… 😉
      But ultimately, it’s a question of whether or not HE wants to stop the mindless snacking habit… If he doesn’t — or doesn’t think it’s a problem — then that’s the hurdle you need to overcome. Changing his environment MAY curb SOME of the habit, but it won’t eliminate it. At that point, the best you can hope for is that when he snacks, at least it will be more healthy (like almonds, fruit, etc.). If it’s not bothering him — be it ignorance or stubbornness — then it’s not likely to change, regardless of what you do/try with the environment.
      The only other thing to try (in overcoming HIS desire for change) is to change your tack: instead of making this simply about the money (even if it is), make it about his health and your love for him [to be healthy]. You can do more things with him the healthier he is, etc..

      1. @Eric – yep, it’s pretty hard to control what goes in someone else’s mouth. What I think Wansink would say is that you can do a lot to change the environment so that the mindless part of snacking tilts in a healthy direction. A lot of the advice deals with kids, though it could apply to one’s partner as well. Things like having a fruit bowl out, or cut up fruit/veggies in a very easy accessible place, increases the chances that the person reaches for that rather than something else. Give the person a bowl of air-popped popcorn rather than a bag of chips in front of the TV. That sort of thing. And yes, not buying the worst offenders. If the other person does the shopping, however, then that’s out.

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