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Is free food really free?

Take treating yourself to a whole new level.

Updated 8/30/2021

Originally titled “The Hidden Cost of Free Food”

Think about the last time you encountered what you might call “unplanned food”. Pre-2020, it may have been a business meal, food samples at a conference or in a grocery store, or homemade baked goods from a coworker. These days, it could be a “reward” offered via ecommerce or store app to entice you to shop and/or try something new. As a matter of fact,  a yogurt I got for free as a reward from one of my favorite grocery stores inspired me to revisit this post for you!

Sometimes, like my yogurt, these foods are what we’d call “every day”, or nutrient-rich foods. Filled with all kinds of nutrition for each calorie and bite that we take. Other times, they are “sometimes foods”, or extras that just layer into the day on top of what we were already eating. That’s where this gets super interesting.

Food is much more than just the nutrition we need to perform well mentally and physically. It is used to celebrate, grieve, pass time, enjoy ourselves, and so on. Can we consider food choices differently? Can we enjoy unexpected foods that we didn’t plan? YES!!

Just consider this: Free food isn’t really free. 

Free food isn’t free from decision-making, use of natural resources to grow/raise it, or work to make and serve it. There is a cost to all the choices we make. That’s not bad, it just helps remind us of the big picture. These days, that big picture keeps getting bigger.

 We can – and want to – honor, enjoy, and benefit from foods that farmers, ranchers, fishermen/women, and growers dedicate their expertise and time to produce for us.

We can – and want to – acknowledge the sentiment and need at hand that each food choice represents. Does it make us happy? Is it helping us meet our goals? Is it full of nutrients we need? Does it taste good and fit our budget? 

So yes, you can enjoy foods from all five food groups – even the decadent options – when you decide you want them and plan for it. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s totally fine to say “no thank you” without feeling like we’re missing out on those occasions when we just don’t want it at that moment – whatever “it” is, and whatever your reason for skipping “it” is.

So now what, you ask? Try these three tips below to help you navigate the “freebies” while feeling both treated and informed.

  1. BYOC (bring your own calories). Planning your meals and snacks is a great way to ensure you aren’t just letting food happen to you.  Consider all five food groups and the variety within them. You need variety and balance each day. There is also room for choice each day. The latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has a snazzy tip to help you with this: 85% nutrient-rich and 15% what I call “wiggle room” (added sugars, fats, and that kind of thing fit in that 15). It’s not prescriptive or about perfection. It’s about progress and realistic choices.
  2. Ask yourself if you really want it. Are you eating it because it’s there, or because you chose it? Take a moment, consider the “unexpected food”, and think about it. Sometimes, like for me on Fat Tuesday, when offered a paczki, my answer is yes, please! Other times, we may be offered something that we may not really enjoy at that moment. No thank you.
  3. Reimagine “treats”. If it’s something that doesn’t make us feel good, is it really a treat? Every food does something for us, whether providing calories and/or nutrients. So each potential food encounter offers something. A cookie could be a treat. A really ripe, delicious bing cherry at the beginning of the season could be a treat. Clearly not the same level of nutrition, but both viable options when the rest of our choices that day are also considered. Some more food for thought: Think about other ways to show gratitude to yourself or others (that is still budget friendly and kind of universally appealing). Flowers, a walk together on a sunny day, a phone call or text message, a card.

We can have fun with our food choices while still meeting our health goals. These things can coexist. Make inspired, informed, and delicious choices each time you have a food encounter, whether you made it or someone else offers it unexpectedly.

How do you define “treat”? Start thinking about that today – you deserve it.

fruit cookies
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.