You probably don’t think about the foodscape when you’re grocery shopping, snacking at home, dining out or ordering in.
But, in every place you interact with food, the foodscape is influencing your decisions—and steering you away from healthy options.
These influences are baked into the very environment of society. Restaurant signs, billboards and banners advertising new specials scream from the sides of the road as you drive through your town or city, offering cheap, fast food and drink in sizes ranging from “pretty big” to “gigantic”—all for just a few dollars.
As you walk down the grocery store aisles, colorful images entice you with promises of delicious treats and meals. Some of these foods make it home to your fridge and pantry, where they tempt you every time you open the door.
And don’t forget the workplace. From the donuts your coworker leaves in the break room to the overflowing buffet in the corporate cafeteria, there are endless opportunities to grab food without ever leaving the office.
It’s all part of the foodscape, which can affect what you choose to eat, how much you eat and whether you stay on track with your health goals. If you can’t remove yourself from its pull, what can you do to take back control of your food choices?
Many initiatives and ideas exist to make the modern foodscape more conducive to healthy outcomes. Because the human brain naturally gravitates toward calorically dense food instead of nutritious food, these initiatives seek to change fundamental elements of the foodscape by harnessing behavioral psychology.
Simple shifts in environment, presentation and language can have powerful impacts on the way you perceive food—and, as a result, point you toward choices that better support long-term health. There are also changes you can make to transform your own immediate foodscape from a labyrinth of tempting (but unhealthy) foods to an environment where healthy eating becomes second nature.
I recently got together on Clubhouse with a few of the most innovative and influential minds working on these problems to unpack the best ways to tackle current foodscape challenges and change institutions, brands, the marketplace and the home for the better.
Foodscape in the Home
Home is often where you face the biggest barriers to healthy eating—but it’s also where you have the most control. With more people choosing to continue to cook and eat at home even as COVID-19 restrictions are eased, crafting your “home foodscape” to encourage better food choices is more important than ever.
As a trained health coach, these are my recommendations for creating a healthier space for yourself and your family:
- List nutritious swaps you can make in your favorite dishes, such as replacing refined grains with whole. Do the same for your favorite snacks and prepared foods. If you’re not sure what substitutes are available, do some Google research!
- Do a pantry cleanout. Replace all tempting, triggering and addictive ultra-processed foods with healthier options like fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
- Pick a day or two during the week to prep fresh vegetables and fruits for meals and snacks. Wash and chop the foods you use the most, and store them in airtight containers in the fridge.
- While you’re prepping other foods, batch cook whole grains and dry beans in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot.
- Make your own healthy snacks. Hummus, trail mix and energy bars or bites are all convenient options.
- Remove barriers that prevent you from making healthy choices. Store nutritious snacks and prepped foods within easy reach, and keep whole foods like fruit in plain view to grab when you need something quick to eat.
- Plan your major meals in advance—not when you’re hungry or in a hurry. Cook large batches, portion the leftovers into containers and store them in the fridge or freezer to eat throughout the week.
To put these changes into practice, you might need to learn some new cooking skills. Check out community groups and kitchen supply stores in your local area for free or low-cost classes, or learn online!
Restaurant & Institutional Foodscapes
Outside the home, there are numerous places where you may order or be served a meal. Here, control over the foodscape extends only to making a selection from what’s readily available.
These areas of the foodscape include workplaces, educational institutions, hospitals and restaurants. In each case, you have to rely on someone else to offer healthier and/or more sustainable choices. Subtle differences like what a dish is named on a menu or where the vegetables appear in a buffet line can influence what ends up on your plate.
The World Resources Institute is working to make positive changes, particularly through their Cool Food initiative.
Cool Food looks at annual food procurement data and performs diagnostic surveys to identify interventions that workplaces, restaurants and institutions can implement to guide people toward plant-rich diets. These include:
- Blending plant-based foods into meat-heavy dishes
- Changing the language on the menus to emphasize the origin, flavor and texture of healthier options
- Highlighting healthier, more sustainable foods as special and/or exciting
- Offering table cards to display information about involvement in Cool Food
- Adding Cool Food Meals certification to dishes that help people reduce their carbon footprints
Participants in the Cool Food initiative also have access to a solution provider directory as part of the planning process for implementing behavioral changes. The directory includes startups offering a variety of plant-based products, as well as organizations that provide training in climate-friendly eating and cooking for both chefs and staff members.
Because climate-friendly meals tend to be more plant-forward, following Cool Food guidelines can help participants create a foodscape that emphasizes the healthiest choices for both people and planet.
Foodscape Efforts from Brands
If you’ve started looking at food differently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Demand for healthier foods with plant-based and functional ingredients has increased—but with the world slowly opening back up and more people resuming their pre-pandemic routines, convenience is still a key factor.
As a result, brands have been shifting their strategies.
In-store demos disappeared during lockdown (for obvious reasons) and haven’t quite regained momentum. This gave rise to digital alternatives like Social Nature and Field Agent, where you can browse lists of products that align with your dietary preferences and choose the ones you want to try. Brands provide coupons for freebies via the platforms, which you can redeem at local stores.
It’s a great way to find new products to help you lead a healthier lifestyle—and for brands to get more visibility. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to enjoy new foods without stretching your grocery budget.
These digital demos are key for brands that want to succeed in the better-for-you category as competition heats up. But, to make a real impact on the foodscape, brands need to start putting more thought into fundamentals like ingredients and portion sizes. Ultra-processed treats that come in “mega” packs and “family sized” bags only serve to encourage overconsumption at the expense of nutrition.
The current “bigger is better” approach to portions has fueled the increase in obesity around the world. Brands have the opportunity to help reverse the trend by creating products that emphasize nutrient-dense ingredients like whole grains, beans and vegetables. These high-fiber foods make products more satisfying at smaller sizes while delivering more nutrients per calorie.
Brands can also take steps to make healthy eating more understandable and accessible, including:
- Forming partnerships and collaborations with high-profile celebrities and influencers who can publicly demonstrate the benefits of making healthier food choices
- Providing engaging, educational content centered around the importance of eating a diverse range of plant foods
- Making it as easy as possible for consumers to put more plant-forward foods in their carts—and on their plates
You can help brands out by participating in digital demos, sharing your favorite new finds on social media and asking local stores to start carrying more better-for-you, plant-forward products.
Choice Architecture in the Foodscape
“Choice architecture” is defined as “the practice of influencing choice by ‘organizing the context in which people make decisions‘.” This means the way food is presented, named or arranged can affect your food choices without you being conscious of the influence
Consider those candy bars and trashy magazines at the cash register in the grocery store. You don’t really want either of them, but you find yourself buying one (or more) anyway. When the menu at a local restaurant presents you with a huge picture of the “daily special” at a low price, you go for the burger with fries and a shake instead of the vegetable-rich dish you were planning to have. Even the order in which foods are offered at a buffet or in the company lunch line can send you walking away with a plate full of everything you know you shouldn’t be eating.
But all is not doom, gloom and dietary disasters. Changes can be made both by people who set up these environments and in our own minds. One involves rearranging food environments to make positive changes easier and more accessible. The other requires us to be more aware of hidden influences in our surroundings.
Changing Food Environments
There are several actionable steps that those working in foodservice, hospitality and corporate environments can take:
- Rework menus and buffet offerings to provide better choices by default
- Encourage selection of plant-based and climate-friendly foods by giving dishes interesting and exciting names
- Use positive, engaging messaging to reframe the conversation around food and healthy eating
- Find creative ways to transform innate biases and perceptions related to food and health
- Collaborate on solutions to spark collective movements that go beyond single organizations
You can encourage your school, employer and local businesses to start making these changes. Find out who’s in charge of making decisions about food, and let them know you’d like to see healthier options and smaller portions. It’s hard to guess what people want, so hearing from you gives businesses and organizations both insights and direction they can use to reframe their foodscapes.
Change on a personal level requires taking a step back and looking at your own perceptions. Pay attention the next time you’re shopping or eating out. Look for cues in your environment that may steer you away from making choices aligned with the changes you wish to see in your own health and in the world.
If building a mental framework to help yourself default to healthier choices seems overwhelming, don’t try to go it alone. Leverage communities and technology to connect with others on similar journeys and advance your own movements. Apps like We Don’t Have Time can help you band together with others seeking to make an impact and influence larger organizations to make positive changes.
Together, these individual and organizational efforts form a chain of tangible next steps toward improving the food system.
Combining Efforts At and Away From Home
The biggest foodscape changes may, in fact, begin with subtle shifts—both at home and in external food environments.
In his book, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices, author and speaker Jack Bobo reveals the role of consumer psychology in foodscapes. Choice architecture plays a big part, creating environments that nudge us toward or away from healthy, climate-friendly choices.
This in part explains why Americas obesity rates went from being the same as or lower than those in Europe to the current level of approximately 42% in the span of about 50 years. Despite having access to more healthy food—and more information about that food—than ever before, making healthy choices still evades a significant portion of society.
The trick is not to provide more information; time and experience has revealed that this doesn’t work. Instead, those responsible for crafting choice architecture within the foodscape can harness behavioral science to support better food choices across the board.
Small changes like re-designing store layouts to make healthy foods more prominent and appealing or changing unit sizes to emphasize quality over quantity can make a big impact when implemented collectively.
Consistency is key with any of these changes; the more often consumers interact with healthy food in reasonable portion sizes outside the home, the more likely they are to develop mental guidelines they’ll continue to follow at home.
Starting an Uncommon Movement
Some of these changes may seem counterintuitive to restaurants and brands. After all, society has conditioned the vast majority of consumers to equate size with value. This may explain why posting calorie counts on restaurant menus may actually cause people to order—and eat—more: More calories for less money creates the illusion of better value.
It’s possible consumers may feel gypped when presented with smaller portions. But by restructuring food landscapes—including how much food is provided in the context of a meal—it’s possible to create the expectancy of satisfaction from a lower volume of higher-quality food.
For change to actually happen, though, there needs to be a shift from talking about health, nutrition and sustainability to doing something about it. Individual influence can make an impact—meaning you have the power to facilitate such a shift on both a community and national level. It starts by telling organizations, institutions and brands that you want a better food environment with healthier options:
- Inform the people in charge of food at your workplace or school about options like WRI’s Cool Food initiative or the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine’s Universal Meals program.
- Use social media and website contact forms to ask your favorite brands to institute changes that make healthy, sustainable food more affordable and accessible.
- Enlist the help of others in your community—start a movement!
Bringing efforts together into a collective whole can prompt changes in the foodscape wherever people are consuming food. Over time, small adjustments can add up to make healthy food the easy—and preferable—choice.
Thanks to Foster members Katherine Canniff and Jeremiah Ajayi for their insights on and help with finishing this piece!