The number one excuse I hear for why someone can’t eat healthier is lack of time. Fast food is just so convenient, they argue. Cooking is so much work, they insist. Then there’s the shopping. Who has time for that?
Why can’t there just be healthy fast food?
Healthy fast food is the holy grail for some, but if you look more carefully you’ll see it is an illusion.
Lack of time is not the reason people don’t eat healthy. Poor time management isn’t even the reason. As most healthy eaters know, we don’t spend any more time feeding ourselves than most people.
Sure, there’s a fraction of the population (at every part of the health spectrum) that enjoys grocery shopping, cooking and being in the kitchen, and so intentionally spend more time doing it. And eating healthier will almost certainly be easier for these people, since they already have the skills. But spending extra time cooking is a choice, not a prerequisite for eating healthier food.
The reason we think fast food is faster is because of what I call the Convenience Illusion. It’s a psychological distortion that makes us believe that doing something new takes more time than something you’ve done repeatedly. In psychology this is known as the oddball effect. Cooking something healthier or finding a better lunch option seems to take longer, because doing anything new requires more mental effort. Basically, you are forced to pay more attention so it seems to take more time.
Conversely, the habits you do all the time seem easy, because they require almost no thought or attention at all. Ever clicked over to Facebook and realized you unintentionally spent 20 minutes watching videos of your friend’s cat? You hardly notice, so the amount of time habitual actions appear to take almost vanishes in your mind.
The combination of habits and oddballs makes you believe the drive-thru is faster than, for example, going home and cooking for yourself, but it isn’t necessarily true. One of my favorite episodes from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show was when he sent a dad out to pick up fast food while he and the man’s two sons made a healthy meal from scratch. The home cooked food was done by the time dad got home, and it even footed a lower price tag.
The truth is that eating better does take more effort, especially in the beginning. If you’re very new to cooking (and therefore slow), it may actually take longer on occasion––and it will definitely feel like it takes longer. But once healthy eating becomes your habit and is no longer the oddball, it will feel just as fast if not faster than going out.
Over time your skills will improve and the time it actually takes will shrink even more. You can also use some of the techniques I describe in Foodist, like cooking in large batches, building an arsenal of home court recipes, and having a well-stocked pantry, to boost your efficiency further.
If you have time to eat, you have time to eat healthier.
Are you a victim of the Convenience Illusion?
Originally published August 28, 2013.