Mindless Wasting

I’ve been reading Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink’s fascinating book examining how and why many of our food decisions are subconscious ones. Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, studies the psychology of eating. I’d recommend perusing his past experiments at FoodPsychology.org. While his work focuses on getting people to eat less–a strategy I admire but don’t really practice–mine centers on wasting less. Nonetheless, our interests intersect.

To examine how a restaurant’s atmosphere affects eating habits, Wansink and his crew upscaled one section at a Hardee’s. He split participants between the regular fast-food atmosphere and this new room with white tablecloths, candles and smooth jazz. Those in the renovated room, who were told that Hardee’s was trying a new idea, had their food delivered to them. Not only did those in the fancier dining room stay an average of 11 minutes longer, they ordered more food from the servers who refilled drinks and asked if they wanted anything else. According to Wansink:

Although diners in the renovated room often ordered dessert, they compensated by eating less of their sandwiches and French fries, and drinking less of their beverages.

Another experiment linked mood to food waste. Wansink and two colleagues tracked popcorn eating at two movies. They found that filmgoers buckets averaged 29 percent less popcorn after a gloomy, “intellectual” film (Solaris) compared to a happy one (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). It’s the old ice cream sundae theory–we eat more when we’re bummed. But apparently we waste more at movies when we’re happy. Of course, the size of those buckets is another story (and one that Wansink discusses in the book).

Wansink also examined buying in bulk, which he found leads to the inevitable throwing out of what he calls “cabinet castaways.” This sentence rings true:

The great bargain of buying five pounds for $5 does not end up being so great if you eventually throw two pounds away. 

I’ve spoken with Wansink, who is as friendly as he is knowledgeable on all things food. He told me about his studies on leftovers and a few others that weren’t in the book. But for those, you’ll have to check for the next post. In the meantime, think about your food decisions–don’t be a mindless eater.

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