In most households, the decision of what to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks is determined by what foods the grocery shopper – the nutrition gatekeeper – purchases. Suppose a teenager wants to eat Pop-tarts, but there are not any in the house. The gatekeeper has de facto decided they won’t be on the menu. This poor Pop-tart hungry kid would have to make a special trip to the grocery store, or start a campaign to put them at the top of the next shopping list. The convenience rule suggests that most of them won’t bother.
On a steamy Manilla-like August day in Washington DC, I met with 800 dieticians and nurses at the American Associations of Diabetes Educators. These people are paid to know how people shouldeat and how they doeat. They deal with the power of dietary influences day in and day out. I asked them about the Nutritional Gatekeeper, the person who does most the shopping and cooking in a household (92% of the time this is the same person). I asked them to estimate what percentage of the food eaten by their family – snacks, meals, out-of-the-house meals, everything – did they control. Their answers surprised me.
They estimated that the Gatekeeper controlled an average of 71% of the food decisions of their children and spouse.[i] Not only did they buy everything that was eaten at home, they also made their children’s lunches or gave them enough money to afford whatever lunch or snack they wanted. They even nudged the family restaurant orders by what they recommended or ordered themselves.
We have asked over 2000 to estimate this percentage. Some are 10 points lower or 10 points higher, but its always in this range. One group, however, stood out because their estimates were so high. These were people who also rated themselves as good cooks. This makes some sense. It is in line with a study we did that showed that many veggie lovers[ii]claimed to either be a good cook, live with a good cook, or to have had a parent who was a good cook.[iii]
[i]Whereas the dieticians estimate 72%, people in the general population generally range from 60-70%. It is a high number. For the details see Wansink, Brian and Collin R. Payne 2006, “Mindless Eating and Estimations: Reported Food Decisions in the Household,” under review Psychological Reports.
For 30 years my Lab and I have focused on discovering secret answers to help people live better lives. Some of these relate to health and happiness (and often to food). Please share whatever you find useful.
This video of one of my post-docs gives a flavor of one type of research that we've done: