Much has been written about our "obesogenic environment" – a constellation of external factors that contribute to increased likelihood of out-eating our energy needs and gaining excessive weight. They include: a more ubiquitous availability of food at all times in all places; restaurant portion-size distortion; communities built without sidewalks; sinister marketing tactics designed to make us crave salty, fatty foods or super-size our orders.
But we need not look beyond the four walls of our own homes – or frankly, the four walls of our own heads – for influences that predispose us to overeat. In my practice, I've picked up on one such influence – what I've termed a "fear of food waste" – that often undermines my patients' efforts to maintain a healthy weight.
This is how fear of food waste may manifest itself in terms of eating behaviors:
• You're a mom who often finds yourself standing over the sink, finishing off the leftovers from your kids' dinner plates rather than throwing them away. Once the kids are in bed, you sit down with your husband and proceed to eat your second dinner.
• A friend bakes you a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies – such a rare treat! Knowing that they'll probably stale within a few days and therefore go to waste unless they're finished, you find yourself at the half-dozen cookie mark within a few hours. (Finally, you decide that you'd be better off just finishing the whole box immediately to get them out of the house so they'll stop tempting you.)
[Read: How to Conquer Food Cravings.]
• Noticing there's just 1ounce of formula left in your infant's bottle after he stops eating, you keep urging the nipple back in his mouth, so he'll finish off that one last bit. Formula is so expensive, after all, and you know you're not supposed to re-refrigerate a bottle once it's been used.
• You are very satisfied and slightly north of comfortably full after a meal out at a restaurant you've been dying to try. Your food was so delicious, but the portion was big, and there's still plenty left on your plate. It was pricey – and heaven knows when you'll be back here again. How can you just leave all that food on the plate to wind up in the trash? So, you keep on eating and leave the restaurant stuffed to the gills.
• Passing by the farmer's market in August, the bounty is overwhelming. All those fruits look so delicious – and those mounds of gorgeous veggies inspire you for a brief moment to cook something from scratch tonight. But you wind up talking yourself out of buying anything since you live alone, and it would probably just go bad in your fridge before you got the chance to eat it all. You leave the market empty-handed and stock your pantry with snacks of the shelf-stable variety instead.
[Read: The Myth of Healthy Processed Food.]
Does anything look familiar? If so, it's possible that your fear of food waste may be contributing to eating habits that undermine your – or your children's – health. But a little bit of awareness, coupled with a bit of basic strategy, can nip this self-defeating behavior in the bud.
Here's what I advise my patients to do:
• Freeze it immediately: Remove the incentive to wolf down obscene quantities of perishable goodies – like Girl Scout cookies, New York bagels or holiday baked goods – by freezing them at the peak of freshness. Packed in freezer-safe bags, these items will last for months and defrost to excellent quality at an appropriate time and place of your choosing.
And lest you think that their presence in the freezer will still be too tempting, many of my patients are surprised to find that just knowing their treats are safely tucked away for whenever they want them alleviates a lot of the impulse to gobble them down immediately. Freezing can also work well for seasonal, fresh veggies bought in bulk, provided you're willing to blanch them first to preserve quality.
[Read: Stocking Your Pantry for Back- to-School .]
• Take a doggie bag: What's better than enjoying a delicious restaurant dinner in the evening? Enjoying it a second time for lunch tomorrow. When the food arrives and your waiter asks: "Can I get you anything else?" say, "Yes. A takeout container, please." Then proceed to pack up half of the meal before you even start eating it. Not only do you avoid overeating at dinner, but you also save money by bringing your lunch the next day. Food-waste crisis averted.
• Downsize your Tupperware: That second dinner is killer for weight-conscious moms, and I confess to being guilty of this behavior, too. One thing that helped me cut down on it was buying more teeny-sized food storage containers for storing that third of a chicken breast, handful of green beans or lone meatball. (After all, it seems a lot less ridiculous to save two tofu cubes in a 1-ounce container than in an 8-ounce one!)
These few-bite portions make an easy and healthy snack for me to grab during the week when hunger calls. Alternatively, I'll regularly use them to make a "kitchen-sink" fried rice for dinner – stir-frying cooked brown rice and some scrambled eggs with dribs and drabs of whatever veggies and/or cooked proteins are in the fridge. Odd as it sounds, this hodge-podge of ingredients is brought into flavorful harmony under the umbrella of soy sauce, sesame oil and Sriracha. For what it's worth, repurposing your leftovers in this manner is now called "upcycling," and it's very trendy.
[Watch: Top Chefs Talk Healthy Eating.]
• Know when to toss it: As much as it pains me to waste food – especially tasty and expensive food – sometimes throwing it away is the best decision. This is especially the case with unused infant formula. Researchers have suggested that urging a satisfied infant to keep eating so that no formula is wasted may override his or her innate ability to self-regulate intake according to appetite – a possible reason why bottle-fed infants have been shown to be more likely to become obese than breast-fed infants later in life.
Considering the bigger picture, tossing that ounce or two of formula isn't a loss so much as an investment in your child's longer-term health. I'd also err on the side of tossing for improperly stored leftovers whose safety is questionable – like that cooked chicken you accidentally left out on the counter all afternoon or those cold-cut sandwiches that made a round trip, uneaten, to and from a daylong picnic.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.