Smart eating made simple

Restaurant reflexes to avoid

Granted, overeating can happen anywhere, but dining out comes with special hazards. Read on as Cornell University food psychologist Brian Wansink serves up surprising insights from his research.

Menu extras make us order more

Between the wine list, appetizers, entrees, side dishes, and desserts, a restaurant menu offers endless variety. Rein it in with Wansink's rule of two: Once you've picked your entree, limit yourself to two extras, such as an appetizer and a cocktail or a roll and a dessert. Otherwise, you might find yourself saying yes to something in every category.

Unnatural lighting lowers our defenses

In dimly lit restaurants, diners tend to linger, upping the odds they'll order an unplanned dessert or an extra glass of wine. Meanwhile, people in brightly lit eateries tend to gobble their food quickly, going overboard before they realize they're full. Wansink's advice: No matter what type of restaurant you're in, take a full 20 minutes to enjoy your meal -- that's how long the body needs to register fullness. Then assess whether you're really hungry for more.

We take after our tablemates

Dining with one other person can increase your calorie intake by 35 percent versus eating alone, says Wansink, citing research conducted by former Georgia State University psychologist John De Castro. Dine with a group of three, and that number jumps to 75 percent. Wansink partly attributes this to etiquette: We don't want to push away our plates before others at the table are finished. To avoid overeating, try to be the last person to dig in, and reserve a few bites on your plate in case you finish first and want to sustain a polite nibble.

A fancy plate enhances our pleasure

People consistently rate food as tasting better when it's presented on nice china versus a humble paper plate or napkin. So try not to get swept away by that "amazing" brownie at dessert. And bear in mind that people tend to eat at least 90 percent of what they have in front of them -- no matter how big the plate may be. Consider sharing an entree, ordering a half portion, or asking the server to pack up half to go.

A clean table confuses the stomach

In one study Wansink conducted, volunteers helped themselves to chicken wings at an all-you-can-eat buffet. As people ate, they discarded bones in empty bowls placed upon their tables. Here's the twist: Waiters were instructed to bus only some tables, while allowing bones to pile up on the others. In the end, volunteers whose tables were bussed ate 28 percent more because they lacked a visual reminder of what they had eaten. As your dishes are cleared between courses, do a quick mental tally so you don't lose track.

Continued on page 5:  The 4 principles of kitchen confidence