OK, maybe with diligent effort we could make ourselves fat anyway. But scientists find that kitchen design strongly affects our eating habits. This is true even if we conscientiously try to eat healthy food. By kitchen design we mean both the physical arrangement of the space and how we choose to use it.
If we want to “eat healthy to be healthy” we can adjust our kitchen design to support that goal. Major changes – moving walls, cabinets, doorways – are probably not practical unless we’re planning to remodel anyway. Changes in furniture and activities in the space are easier to handle. Easiest yet are adjustments in where we put foods, dinnerware and tools for food preparation.
Let’s start with the hardest kitchen design stuff and move to the easier ones.
Architecture. Scientific understanding of how kitchen design affects eating comes from the field of environmental psychology. This relatively new interdisciplinary field was created when some psychologists wanted to tackle the real problems that people face in their interactions with others. Environmental psychologists wanted to get out of the lab, observe real-life situations and most importantly, implement practical solutions. Observations of how the behavior of children changed in different environments (home, school, playground, church) revealed that we automatically adjust our attitudes according to the space around us.
It was found that office workers could improve their performance by completely changing their environment during a break, for example by going outdoors, leading to the idea of “restorative environments.” Other studies defined the concept of “defensible space” and today public spaces are designed to encourage cooperative rather than aggressive behavior.
Within environmental psychology, kitchen design generally fits into architectural psychology – how to design artificial spaces to best meet human needs. And architectural psychologists have discovered that modern kitchen design and home design are encouraging overeating – essentially, making us fat. Here are some fat-producing factors that arise directly from the architecture of kitchen design:
– Kitchens are bigger. In the mid-1950s the average American kitchen was 80 square feet; today it’s more like 300 square feet. Does that explain why Americans are also bigger?
– Kitchens are leisure spaces. Kitchen design today promotes “family room kitchens”: photo spreads in House Beautiful and Southern Living show kitchens with a sofa and comfortable upholstered chairs that encourage lounging close to the source of food.
– Kitchens are integrated with family space. Kitchen design also opens the kitchen to other areas of the home, often merging the kitchen with an adjoining family room space. As one article says, kitchen design has changed in a way that “supports informal snacking.”
– Kitchens hold more food. Home buyers are asking for more pantry space – more room to store stuff to eat.
Color. The color of your kitchen can also promote eating. Some experts believe that reds, oranges and yellows excite us and promote eating; blue and green wall colors reduce appetite and incline us toward healthier choices. Blue is recommended to suppress your appetite: blue plates, a blue light in your fridge and even the use of food-safe food colors.
Furnishings and Activities. Kitchen design is more than the structure of the space: it also involves the furniture you provide and the activities you conduct in it.
You may not be ready to wall off your kitchen to get it out of sight, but each of us has flexibility to change the use of the kitchen. It’s great to have guests gathered around while preparing food, even though they may get in the way of the work. However, make sure your home has other inviting spaces in which to hang out, the more distant from the kitchen the better. The extra effort of getting up and going to another room to find food helps postpone the urge to snack.
Do you have a relaxation and conversation area in your kitchen? You are free to change that. Experts advise moving your comfortable chairs to some other room, far away. If you have kitchen chairs, they should be great for the duration of an informal meal, but not good for extended sitting or lounging. Some folks go so far as to have backless stools at their kitchen island, so that even if they eat a meal there they are not tempted to hang around long afterwards.
Your dinnerware is also a factor: experts advise serving food on smaller plates, which automatically brings some portion control.
Food Purchase and Storage. Each of us could easily compose a list of “food villains” – foods that attract us, but which we wish to limit for reasons of weight, health or personal values. One person’s food villains might include ice cream and candy; another’s, chips and dips; yet another’s, red meat.
The golden rule is “out of sight, out of mind.” The best principle for kitchen design is to banish the food villains from your home, but that’s farther than many folks wish to go. Failing that, put the food villains in the rear of the fridge or in a closed cabinet where you can’t see them, preferably on a top shelf. Conversely, “healthy food,” however you define that, should be easily visible at eye level.
What about quantity? By all means, pick up those appealing and economical humungous packages of food at Costco or Sam’s Club; but when you get home, divide them into meal-sized portions and freeze or store them away. Even bakery goods can be stored this way.
Food Prep. Some people apply the same principle when they cook, cooking multiple portions and fridging or freezing single-meal portions. Many dishes can be frozen after preparation but before part or all of the cooking process: thus the meal is not a “leftover” when you eat it: it’s freshly cooked. Soups, stews and casseroles may taste even better when eaten at a later date. You can also make the preparation of smoothies, pastas, soups and omelets easier by prepping and freezing baggies of add-in fruits and veggies.
Tools and Supplies. Some say that the right supplies can help weight control. An uncluttered kitchen can make cooking seem more inviting. Others recommend stocking up with small-sized containers to judge serving sizes during preparation and for right-sized storage.
Science Speculation: Unlike many in the world, readers of this blog probably have no problem finding enough to eat. Marketers have become skilled at bombarding us with reasons to buy, consume to excess and buy again. Nevertheless, there is much we can do toward having a healthy diet. Our own kitchen design and its use are among most important tools we have.
Are your kitchen design and use conducive to healthy eating? Are there easy ways to improve them?
Drawing Credit: Gerald_G, on openclipart.org