How to stop picking at food whilst you’re cooking

It’s all too easy to “pick” whilst you’re preparing food. Maybe a piece of chopped red pepper or the bit of cheese that broke off when you’re grating the block. If this is the extent of your picking, it’s not going to cause a problem

But if like Carys your nibbling is on a much bigger scale, it may be hindering your weight loss. Carys identified what she called “eating around the edges” as one of her main Unhelpful Eating Habits when she came to see me for help with Appetite Retraining,

Carys’ nibbling whilst preparing food happened at lunchtimes. Evenings weren’t an issue because her husband was a keen cook and she wasn’t in the kitchen whilst dinner was being prepared. But Carys was usually on her own at home at lunchtime and her favourite lunch –  a sandwich made from freshly baked bread and her favourite fillings with some salad on the side – involved assembly of ingredients all of which she loved. Her nibbling habit had crept up on her and grown, as so often happens with unhelpful habits. By now, it included crusts off the bread, bits of cheese, cherry tomatoes and pickles.

Carys wanted to stop the nibbling and instead just make the sandwich and enjoy eating it, pure and simple. It didn’t seem too big a challenge, but she’d been doing it for ages, and her particular weakness was delicious freshly baked bread. So we began tackling this particular habit getting clear about what she was and wasn’t (unintentionally) getting from this particular unhelpful habit. She was sobered to realise that:

  • The combined nibbling added up to nearly 500 calories – that’s a whole extra sandwich!
  • The amount of pleasure she got from these calories was minimal – she didn’t really notice the food as her attention was on the sandwich she was intent on making
  • When she sat down with the intended-sandwich-lunch, she was, she confessed slightly sheepishly, not actually hungry

Like so many unhelpful eating habits, the problem on the surface looks simple, as does the answer: stop eating when you’re making your meal. But Carys knew this perfectly well, as we all so often do. But for reasons that eluded her, she couldn’t just stop doing it. So here we have a psychological question of how to change an established unhelpful eating habit that appears resistant to change.

Helping people change unhelpful eating habits that are resistant to change is, if you’ll excuse the pun, my bread and butter. It’s what Appetite Retraining is all about. Carys and I unpicked the elements of the habit so she could re-sequence it and stop “eating around the edges” and just eat the food she intended to. Here’s what we discovered and what she did:

  1. She realised that by the time she went to the kitchen to make her lunch, she was very hungry (more than -3 on the Appetite Pendulum)

The solution to this was to avoid being quite so hungry by the time she reached the bread bin, so that she could cut the loaf for the sandwich without tearing pieces off it to devour. To achieve this, she introduced a small mid-morning snack. She put a few nuts in one small Tupperware box and a few dried apricots in another as these were her very favourite snack foods. They were therefore ready and pre-portioned when elevenses came around and all she had to do was choose which she fancied that day. This meant that when it was lunchtime she was just getting to -3 (definitely but not overly hungry) on the Appetite Pendulum and it was much easier to assemble the sandwich without picking.

2.The whole exercise of making the sandwich was rather disappointing and she didn’t get much pleasure from the making or the eating. Because the making was overshadowed by a sense that she shouldn’t be nibbling “around the edges”, what she was consuming came with a side-order of guilt which spoilt the potential pleasure. And when she sat down to eat the “real” sandwich, she hadn’t much appetite left but polished it off anyway

Carys decided not to start eating anything at lunchtime whist she was still standing up. When she sat down to eat the sandwich with all her attention focused on it, instead of nibbling whilst standing without paying attention, she noticed that eating mindfully in this way gave her much more pleasure from eating the sandwich and the salad on the side. It made a huge difference to her enjoyment and sense of mini-occasion to sit down and focus on the food and of course her taste buds were at their most sensitive, because she was actually hungry.

Overall dropping the bits of eating “around the edges” meant dropping quite a number of calories which the additional snack mid-morning didn’t equal. We never added up the numbers – we didn’t need to – as Carys was really pleased to have discovered how to feel more in control. She was losing weight, and enjoying both her mid-morning snack and her fabulous sandwich. So this one habit change meant:

  • More pleasure from her daytime eating
  • Fewer calories from her daytime eating
  • Weight loss
  • Greater sense of flexible control of her eating, which led her to feel freer around food than she had previously

When you make a change as Carys did, where the outcome is more pleasurable than the old pattern, it is easy to stick to, as it is so inherently rewarding. Who’d go back to a less tasty way of eating?

If you want to tackle your own particular Unhelpful Eating Habits, have a look at my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite”. It is full of useful tips derived from the scientific studies carried out by academic researchers into eating and appetite, which I’ve translated into simple, use-able techniques.

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If you have a specific eating habit you can’t shift and which might be something other people struggle with too, drop me a line at I’ll write a blog about it if I can, and post it for you and others to read.




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