How to make balanced food choices at dinners or parties, according to a nutrition psychologist

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It’s that time between Diwali and Christmas. For years on end, for me, it was the time to atone for past sins and get my body ready to wrangle into star-spangled dresses at year-end soiree. I never believed in feeling guilty while eating my favourite dishes but tended to compensate the next day with a low calorie diet. This changed when I signed up for a nutrition counselling with a behavioural psychologist, Dr Neha Deshpande Kamat, who has 15 years of experience in psychology and has been affiliated with organisations like UNICEF and the TATA Institute of Social Sciences.

Kamat has recently started a nutrition counselling practice and draws up plans for her clients based on their lifestyle, habits and preferences. She speaks about which behaviours become the downfall of a healthy lifestyle and is full of tips and tricks on how to overcome and preempt these patterns and triggers. I spoke with her about how to eat well even (and especially) during festive season and she revealed the following psychological tips to help people eat nutritious and balanced meals:

1. Take the time to prep

It’s common knowledge how meal planning makes healthy eating possible but Dr Kamat takes it a step further. The day after a party you’ll likely be sleep deprived, low on energy or even hungover and this is not the best time to find the motivation to shop for or prepare a healthy snack. “The week that you plan to be attending dinners or parties, stock your fridge with your top three favourite snacks that take less than three minutes to prepare. If you have a sweet tooth, try pear and almond butter with a drizzle of honey and if you love savoury snacks top a bowl of hummus with jalapeños and garlic-sautéed veggies, for example.” It’ll help you get back on the healthy eating bandwagon a lot quicker.

According to Kamat, right after you’ve had a big satiating meal is the perfect time to plan your next one (as opposed to an hour before when you’re already peckish). You’re much more likely to make better choices after you’ve eaten something that has satisfied a craving. Do follow through later though.

2. Balance your daily diet

Kamat doesn’t believe in deprivation and warns against tasteless, low calorie foods that tend to make you binge later. Instead she recommends you eat one well-balanced meal and fulfil your water and vegetable quota for the day before you leave home. “If you have a loaded omelette or a green smoothie with banana in the evening, you’ll be less likely to attack the appetisers with a vengeance at the party.” It also ensures you don’t drink on an empty stomach and thus are eating mindfully.

3. Take a second look at the buffet

Kamat has a whole plan for buffets whether in five star hotels or a friend’s home. She asks clients to first survey the buffet so they can plan their meal mentally. When filling your plate with food, choose protein first (paneer, mushrooms, seafood or meat) and fill it to 30 per cent of your desired portion size. The next 40 per cent is vegetables and fruits with high water content such as cucumbers, spinach, melons or citrus. These break down all the heavy eating by releasing the right acids alongside. You can add flavoursome sauces and in the end, grain-based carbs like garlic naan or fried rice. However, when you sit down to eat, first consume the greens or fruits with high water content (they fill you up with the least amount of calories), then attack your proteins and save your carbs for the end because they’re the most satisfying.

If you’re attending a potluck, opt to bring your favourite healthy snack or salad as your share. This way you can be rest assured that there will be some healthy eating options you can count on and thus have control over your food. 

4. Keep your plating in mind

If you’re hosting, give your dishes fancy names which makes them sound hearty. You are less likely to binge on the “Ultimate Mezze Platter” than hummus and olives with lavash. Even when ingredients don’t change, people usually choose healthier food options when they come with fancier names. This is especially relevant in the case of kids who love even simple food presented to them in a conceptualised manner.

Kamat also gives importance to how food is served and plated. Always serve foods like potato chips in a transparent bowl. “We eat what we see and if we see ourselves visibly emptying an entire bowl of fried snacks, we’re likely to cut down than refill.” On the other hand, she asks clients to serve soft drinks in tall slender glasses. “It’s a well-known theory that drinking in tall slim glasses creates a perception of enough and you’re less likely to go for seconds.” 

Also read:

How to make healthier food choices during the festive season

Can your favourite foods actually make you happier?

A celebrity nutritionist on how to teach children to make healthier food choices

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