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Conscious Consumption: A Little Can Go A Long Way

Some may say that finer things in life should be used or consumed in moderation, even sparingly. Alas, “conscious consumption” is like that. The human mind thrives on the automatic and the routine. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman estimates that 95% of our thinking is fast and automatic. Only about 5% is slow, deliberative and conscious. With so little conscious thought available, we must use it sparingly and use it wisely. Fortunately, a little can go a long way.

The PBH State of the Plate: America’s Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Trends research shows that fruit and vegetable consumption in the U.S. continues to be flat, and for some groups and categories, declining. In fact, the research shows people, on average, eat vegetables just once each day – and fruit even less! With other data showing 9 out of 10 Americans don’t meet daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables, it’s clear we need help establishing new habits.

To establish new fruit- and vegetable-focused habits, a little more conscious consumption could help. But with just a limited amount of brainpower available for conscious consumption, we need to prioritize and establish a game plan to be successful.

As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, points out- “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” These systems are our automatic, unconscious consumption patterns – our habits. Goals, on the other hand, are part of our conscious system – but in many cases, they aren’t potent enough to overcome our dominant, automatic food and beverage habits. Conscious consumption is the David against the Goliath of automatic consumption habits. But David can win with good aim and good timing!

Here are a few ways that we can aim and time our conscious consumption effectively to boost new, lasting fruit and vegetable habits.

Start Small

Be conscious of your human limitations and set realistic expectations about the challenges you will face during your journey. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Set realistic goals for yourself and acknowledge that there likely won’t be a perfect road to accomplishing them.

When we set goals that are too aspirational, it is easy to lose motivation along the way. By starting small you can create manageable milestones that serve as opportunities for quick wins, which then serve as rewards to reinforce the repetition of the desired behavior.

Let’s say your goal is to eat fruits and vegetables with every meal. This is a great goal, but to make sure that you don’t start out strong and burn out, consider starting small. Aim to have a fruit and/or vegetable with every breakfast. Once you get into that routine you can get more ambitious and add in a fruit and/or vegetable with every lunch and then with every dinner.

Eat Fruits & Vegetables First

A small change that also has evidence of being very effective is eating fruits and vegetables first at any meal or snack occasion. This certainly takes some conscious effort to achieve, but the conscious effort promises to achieve a lot. Studies have shown that when fruits and vegetables are served first, they are more likely to be eaten.

There are many ways to add a little conscious effort at and around mealtime to get the fruits and vegetables in first. For example, don’t serve the rest of the food until the fruits and/or vegetables have been eaten, or at least started. If you have kids, you can give them some to snack on while you are preparing the rest of dinner and can make it an enjoyable experience by calling it something like a “pre-dinner power chomp” or by turning on music to help ritualize the event.

The great thing about having time-based conscious consumption (i.e., the beginning of mealtime) is that the conscious aspect may diminish over time. Automatic habits can form when the same behavior is repeated in the same context (time and place), so a little conscious consumption at the start of home meals (at least) can support habit development.

Make A Pre-Commitment

A little bit of consciousness can be used to plan out how to reach a goal. A pre-commitment is a good way to get the ball rolling immediately. Once you have your small steps planned, you can tell some people about it, and tell them when you are going to start. That conscious act can create some unconscious social pressure that you’ll feel if you don’t follow through. Also, the mere act of (consciously) committing to it will make you automatically think of the things that you’ll need to do to make it happen. If I think about eating fruits and vegetables at the start of my lunch tomorrow, my mind automatically starts thinking about whether I actually have some kind of fruit or vegetable in my fridge to pack (and if I don’t, if I still have time to get them).

Track Your Progress

Finally, use a little conscious thought to track your progress. Tracking gets to be a drag (because it’s conscious), but it does reinforce behavior. Just put a piece of paper on your fridge or tape it to a kitchen cabinet. Keep it simple. You don’t need to do it on your computer and print it. You don’t need to add an app to your phone. Even a piece of paper towel and a pen (two things available in most home kitchens) is enough to get your tracking effort started.

Fortunately, a little conscious consumption, consciously planned and consciously tracked, can go a long way to adding more fruits and vegetables for happier, healthier lifestyles.

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