How Do We Choose What to Eat?

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We make more than 250 decisions about food every single day. Every time you open the refrigerator, watch a TV commercial, eye a billboard, or observe a friend or co-worker eating—whether you’re aware of it or not—you’re making a decision to eat or not to eat. But what sways us to choose or not to choose? Is it taste or hunger? Cost or convenience? How or where we were raised? With so many factors that influence our food choices, it’s a wonder that we ever eat consistently at all.

For most of us, by the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve established a pretty basic inventory of foods that we eat day in and day out. Sure, you might arrange them differently into a variety of meals and snacks, or mix them up occasionally at a restaurant. I’ll bet if I asked you what you typically eat, you could probably give me a fairly good picture of your usual diet.

For most people, taste, cost and convenience are the ‘big three’ when it comes to food choice. Of course, we want food to taste good, we want value, and we don’t want to have to work very hard to get it. Any food ad on television will tell you that. But there are more subtle influences at work, too.

What Goes into Our Food Choices

Our backgrounds and upbringing dictate our choices to a large degree. Culture and religious influences are at work to tell us, for example, which foods are acceptable and which ones aren’t, or even what foods we should traditionally eat on holidays.

Your age and stage of life play a big role, too. Toddlers are notoriously picky, and teenagers often break with family tradition and blaze their own dietary trails. You’ve probably acquired a taste for things you wouldn’t touch as a child. And your food choices as an adult might be influenced by your finances or your state of health.

There are gender influences, too. Men eat differently than women: they tend to select foods based on taste, while women consider the health aspects of food more than men do. Their comfort foods differ, too. Men’s comfort foods tend to be main-dish items—pizza, soup and pasta—which make them feel nurtured and pampered. Women, on the other hand, associate main dish items with preparation and cleanup. That’s hardly comforting, so they go for the effortless quick fix of ice cream, cookies or candy.

Then there are social influences. Lots of us have both ‘eating buddies’ (close friends that we chow down with) and those around whom we’re much more cautious. What you choose to eat and drink at a business lunch with your boss is probably a far cry from what you consume while you’re watching the Super Bowl with your best friends.

Each of our daily food decisions is shaped by all the cultural, social, economic and biological influences that mold our eating habits into a form of self-expression. As the old saying goes, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” Every picky toddler, every quirky teenager, every vegan, every ‘meat and potatoes guy’—all use food and their food habits to tell the world a little bit about themselves.

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