Macaela Mackenzie

When it comes to helping your student develop healthier food habits, science says being mindful of our internal and external food cues—not dieting—is the key. In fact, research shows our food environment plays a major role in the nutritious choices we make.

“[You can] set up your environment so that it helps you eat better,” says Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and a leading researcher on how environmental cues affect our food choices. To help your student make more nutritious picks at mealtime, “change the convenience, the attractiveness, and how normal it is to eat the right foods,” says Dr. Wansink.

Here are six ways to make it happen:

1. Keep nutritious foods in plain sight.

“If you’re going to have food visible, make it [healthy] food,” says Dr. Wansink. Research shows we’re three times more likely to eat the first food we see in the cupboard than the fifth food we spot, according to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. Instead of displaying sugary picks on counters, put a fruit bowl in prominent view. When it comes to the fridge, bring fruits and veggies out of the drawers and give them prime shelf real estate, where they’ll most likely be seen by your student when they’re grazing for a study snack.

2. Hide the junk food.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t buy any junk food at all, but every family has its indulgences. To maximize healthy food choices, keep the not-so-nutritious stuff out of sight. Put any junk food in a harder-to-reach cupboard, where your student will have to work for it, or hide it behind the smarter picks in your snack drawer.

3. Practice portion control.

Family-size bags of food are convenient and cost-effective. They’re also detrimental for portion control. Research shows that something as simple as eating from a smaller package can make a difference in how much you consume overall—we’re talking 30–50 percent less than if you were to eat straight out of a large bag, according to research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. If you bring home a big bag of chips for the family, pre-portion them out into little plastic baggies or keep snack-size bowls handy so students will be more likely to pour themselves a proper portion rather than bulldozing through half the family-size stash in one sitting.

4. Downsize your dishes.

The size of the bowl or plate you use is important too—the smaller the bowl, the less you’re likely to eat, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. When two groups of students were instructed to serve themselves from either a large or small bowl of pasta, those using the large bowl ended up eating double a normal portion size. If you can, buy smaller dishes or try serving dinner on salad plates rather than on standard dinner plates to help with portion control.

5. Tidy up.

Messy spaces tend to stress us out, which could lead us to reach for more sweet snacks, suggests a 2016 study published in Environment and Behavior. In other words, enlist your student to help you clean the kitchen and keep it tidy. Keep your snack cupboard organized with plastic bins, and make sure rogue papers, bills, and notes are confined to a neatly stacked pile.

6. Choose the right container.

Behavior scientists at Google found that the simple act of placing candy in an opaque container versus a clear jar made a huge difference in how much employees consumed (they ate fewer M&M’s® over a seven-week period). Following the “keep healthy foods in sight and stash the junk” rule, put your candy stash in opaque containers and reserve glass jars for more nutritious snacks like dried fruit and nuts.