Podcast 29: Why Elizabeth and I Lower the Bar, Use the Clean Slate to Change Habits, and Try to Stop Wasting Food.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin: Episode 29

jacketphotobuildingsUpdate: After many months, I realized that the buildings pictured on the cover of The Happiness Project are just a few blocks from the studio where we record this podcast. Fun!

Try This at Home: Lower the bar. In other words — cribbing from Voltaire — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Thanks to our producer Henry, for the hilariously appropriate musical accompaniment.)

Better Than Before Habit Strategy: The Strategy of the Clean Slate means that any transition is a great time to change a habit. It’s a powerful strategy, but one that’s not always available to us, so it plays to be on the watch for opportunities.

Listener Questioner: “Any tips for cultivating happiness when you have small children?”

We mention this little one-minute video I made, which, of everything I’ve written, probably resonates most with people: The days are long, but the years are short.

Gretchen’s Demerit: We waste food. Any suggestions?

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth’s writing partner Sarah lives in a neighborhood that had a neighborhood-wise garage sale.

I mention the delightful picture book by Cynthia Rylant, Poppleton in Spring. I love all the Poppleton books.

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HAPPIER listening!

  • Caroline V

    What is the episode # that you talk after the episode? (Like a hidden song in a cd) I couldnt find it!

  • Annie

    I want to chime in on the food waste topic because I have a very similar personality to Gretchen and I hate wasting food (I’m a die-hard finisher). Firstly, I had to accept that healthy eating makes me (anxiety-prone, type A person) feel my best. So that means that shopping will be done more frequently- although I really only go once, twice a week at most. Second, I almost always cook extra whenever I am in the kitchen to stretch the food even further. So my leftover dinner becomes the next day’s breakfast or lunch. Or my extra couple hours on Sunday are spent prepping and roasting vegetables to eat throughout the week. Basically, whenever I am in the kitchen cooking I am always asking myself – what else can I be prepping right now? Also, having a general plan of what you want to eat for the week before you do your shopping – i.e. what proteins do I want for the week? Lastly, rotating the same meals that you enjoy takes the work outta meal planning. Pretty simple tips but hope it helps! Thanks for all the great podcasts, I love listening!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks, great suggestions —

    • Mimi Gregor

      I, too, plan a week’s worth of meals at one time, make a list of what I need to buy — AND stick to the list — plus I also make more than I need because I plan for leftovers. These leftovers may be frozen so that I’ll have something tucked away for when I don’t have time to cook from scratch. If there is only a single serving left, my husband will take it to work so that he doesn’t have to buy a less than healthful option. If there is only a small dab left, I feed it to my parrots (Now that you have a dog, this could be an option for you, too.)

  • Chris

    Love the podcast! Can you post a link to the Japanese paper plates you mentioned?

  • Kristin

    You love the Poppleton books?!! As well as The Silver Crown? Two very obscure book obsessions that I share. Cynthia Rylant’s Lighthouse series is also wonderful and features characters with my kids’ names, which are also pretty uncommon, much to their chagrin.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll have to check out the Lighthouse series – somehow missed those!

  • Msconduct

    Re the food waste, I agree with the suggestions already made as I plan a week in advance as well. The tip I can add: despite all your best planning, vegetables can still be left over at the end of the week if they come in larger packages than you can use. I always turn these into a quickly made blended soup at the end of the week – if it’s blended it can be frozen, and makes a great lunch ingredient. If you’re at home it can be heated up, and for the office you can get thermoses now that keep soup hot for 12-16 hours, meaning you can prepare the thermos the night before if mornings are crazy . Not only does it cut back drastically on food waste, blended vegetable soup is both healthy and incredibly filling.

  • cruella

    Shop for groceries more often instead of only once a week, that makes you more flexible and you are more likely to eat what you have actually got from the shops = less leftovers. Don’t go shopping when hungry.

  • I’m wondering–and am sure you’ve gotten this question before–is the novel that Elizabeth is working on the one talked about in Happier at Home, about the time travelers/Eleusinian Mysteries? I hope so! It sounds so intriguing.

  • Brigitte

    This was the first podcast I listened to and it was great. I had a bar lowered for me yesterday when my daughter said she had been given so many beautiful hand-me-down baby sweaters that I shouldn’t make her baby one. I was struggling with getting that started because it was a stretch for my knitting skills. Nice break! About food, I recommend Tamar Alexander’s An Everlasting Meal. It’s much more than a cookbook, hard to describe. I am pretty sure it is she who recommends cooking your vegetables as soon as you get home. Cut them up and roast them right away. Then they are easy to use for future snacks and meals. She writes about evolving meals and using food in many ways after you first cook. That book is a revelation.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Dear Gretchen,

    I’m a great fan of your work, and the way you transitioned from the law into a career as a writer. I am doing the same thing, and look to you for inspiration.

    I’d like to engage you on the notion of how best to be happy, since it is the subject of many of your books and, indeed, an interest every human shares.

    Yesterday, I wrote this blog post about my take:

    I believe that the very act of trying to be happy in a way chases happiness away, and is a red herring.

    Thank you for the opportunity to share this discussion with you,

  • s_ifat

    loved the lower the bar idea! I will definitely think about it the next time my son does not feel like practicing the piano for an hour. I find it ironic that you speak about food waste and eating meat at the same breath. the water needed to pruduce a pound of beef,,, beef requires the most water, at 1,847 gal./lb. not to even mention the waste of animal lives. maybe this is not the place, but if anyone would like to educate themselves watch on youtube the multi-award winning documentary film named “Earthlings” narrated by Joaquin Phoenix

  • Emily Burns

    It’s actually amazing that this episode came up today, because I am on vacation this week and have been working on my to-do list in a practically manic state – twelve hours straight, just yesterday! Exhausted, I woke up this morning, went to my magnetic note board where the list was, and erased the whole thing. I replaced it with a few small must-dos and decided that aside from those small things, I was going to enjoy the rest of my vacation. Just a few hours ago, I lowered the bar – and while I got a lot done before, I am feeling so much happier now.

    • gretchenrubin


  • dazzlingbetty

    Food waste (particularly vegetables): post a list on the fridge to remind you what’s inside. I do this on the weekly menu planning pad that we use – it has space on the side for notes, so in black Sharpie, to make it unmissable, I write what’s in the fridge drawers. When “zucchini” and “eggplant” are staring you in the face at each and every turn toward the fridge, you can’t help but make ratatouille, or at least throw them on the grill. Hope it helps and thanks for a inspirational listen each week.

  • Karin Bjarnason

    Hi Gretchen and Elizabeth,
    I enjoyed the podcast and comments from other listeners. Thanks!

    A friend of mine has a little sign at her front door which sets the bar where she wants. It reads, ‘If you came to see me, come on in! If you came to see my house, call first.’

    Like you, wasted food bothers me more and more. I try to plan four to five meals and shop once for the ingredients (which I store out of sight in a basement fridge). As dull as it sounds, planning a weekly menu is worth the effort for the obvious reasons and for one reason that might surprise you. The big benefit I find is the peace which comes with having an answer to the killer-question, ‘Mom, what’s for dinner?’
    Thanks again for your work. It has me smiling here in Holland.

    • SK

      Ha! I love that sign. So funny and perfect!

  • Amanda Gronewold

    Debbie Meyer green bags for vegetables are great for extending their freshness and reducing waste! http://www.amazon.com/Debbie-Meyer-GreenBags-Freshness-Preserving-Storage/dp/B00I4V1U06

  • Cathryn

    Your discussion of lowering the bar was very opportune. It is our 45th wedding anniversary next week and I felt I wanted to have all the family over. However, we will be out of the house looking after grandchildren the day before so will have very little time for preparation. I have decided to go with jacket potatoes with different fillings and salads which should hopefully be an easier option, so that I can feel calmer and enjoy seeing everyone. I am also thinking of paper plates so everything can be just wrapped up and thrown away instead of having to wash plates up, especially as my best ones are not dishwasher proof. We have so many friends who are really clever at catering that I always feel I am falling short but it just isn’t my thing! I used to like it years ago but now it makes me stressed out. So I am giving myself permission to lower the bar.

    • Gillian.

      Congratulations on your 45th anniversary. Celebrating it with family is a natural urge. But, as you say, such entertaining can be hugely stressful – I certainly find it so. Keeping the meals simple is a partial solution. Sorry to say – paper plates are not. For starters, eating off a paper plate, no matter how nice, is just not the same as eating off a china plate. More importantly, I have to ask, “When you throw something away, where is away”? Do you really want to celebrate your special event by generate an excessive pile of waste and contributing to the damage we are doing to the planet?
      I would suggest that you could tell the people you are inviting, that this is a very special occasion for you and your husband and that you want to celebrate it but in a low-stress and low-waste way. Ask each person to bring one dish – a salad, dessert, whatever. Your job would be to provide the setting, set a pretty table with your good china, provide some good wine and perhaps one dish of food. Then you all enjoy. If your guests are mostly family members and you have been looking after your grandchildren, they should be happy to make this a special day for you.
      And leave the dishes until the next morning. In my book, nothing spoils the atmosphere of a special occasion more than a bunch of banging around in the kitchen doing cleanup – whether you do it yourself or your guests do it. You can do that in a leisurely way the following morning while indulging in the memory of a lovely celebration.

      • Cathryn

        Thanks for your congratulations and comments. I could ask people to bring a dish but I am trying to return hospitality where I have not had to do so, so I want to provide everything. I was ambivalent about paper plates as we will hopefully be able to go in the garden and I would not like a best plate to be broken. However, they are there to be used! It is also a question of space! There is not enough room for everyone to sit at a table, they will have to perch where they can or stand up. I agree about the washing up but again will have to find space to put the dirty dishes till the next day. Anyway, I am having a bit of a rethink. I normally am very anti waste. We eat up everything in the fridge and recycle everything we can.

        • Gillian

          Oh, dear! You do have a dilemma on your hands. If you are trying to repay hospitality, asking people to bring food won’t do it! And china plates in the garden can be risky – especially if there are children around. One other thought, depending on your budget and what’s available in your area, could be considering having the food catered. Caterers might even bring the china and cutlery and take away the dirty dishes. It would certainly reduce your stress and workload. I hope you can come up with a low-stress solution. If you are already waste-conscious, I’m sure you will keep it within reason. The most important thing is for you to have a joyful celebration with your family.

        • coconut

          Just putting a plug in for real plates and other utensils. I think they fall and break far less than people fear they will. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin


  • Jenn

    We used to waste a lot of food, then made a rule of “We don’t waste food in this house”. Its a small jokey thing that we say when eating left overs but it really works. I find that I shop much less and plan in advance with what is in the fridge now as I am very conscious of it.

  • Patricia

    This is regarding the issue about food waste. I started worm composting in a small plastic bucket about 6 months ago because I’m also concerned about food waste, especially the little scraps of food that no one eats anyway, like banana peels, apple cores, and the ends of carrots and cucumbers. It is super easy once you get it set up, doesn’t take up much space (I lived in a 450 sq ft apartment and just put it right outside my door), is good for the environment, and takes away the guilt of wasting food scraps! You can also use the compost and worm tea to help your plants if you garden, or give to others who do.

  • Chava1997

    I, too, feel very very very badly when I waste food, and have been using the following strategies: 1) I keep a list on the fridge of what’s been purchased and when — including what’s in the freezer and pantry– and I review it often for meal planning. 2) I store everything I can in glass jars so that I can see it — in my fridge and in the pantry. For instance, If I have half a cucumber left — it goes in a glass jar. (I indulged for awhile in purchasing an expensive grassed yogurt from a local farmer to acquire my impressive collection of wide-mouthed jars. 3) I make greater use of frozen fruits and vegetables, which, I’v heard, are frozen at their freshest, preserving their nutrients. 4) I was glad to learn from America’s Test Kitchen that the safest way to defrost frozen proteins is in hot tap water. This makes me more inclined to freeze foods, knowing I can quickly defrost. It’s also helped me eat out less, knowing I can rely more on my freezer. 5) I have become more flexible in what I eat for a meal, so, for instance, if I have leftover chicken salad, but I’ll be traveling and won’t be able to eat chicken salad for lunch, I eat it for breakfast. 6) When I go out to eat, I have no hesitation in saying “Hold the fries. But I’ll take a side of vegetables.” When, despite my efforts, a stalk of celery goes limp, etc., I store these vegetables in a large freezer bag in the freezer, and when it’s full I make vegetable soup. Thanks for the great podcast and all your great research on habits and happiness.

    • gretchenrubin

      So many great suggestions – thanks!

  • Chava1997

    Regarding lowering the bar, I used this strategy when I was in college to prepare to hold a piano recital as part of my senior study. For many years, I had struggled with finding the motivation to practice consistently, and had a pattern of enthusiastic practicing, following by diminishing enthusiasm, followed by avoidance and guilt until the whole cycle started over. To pull off this recital, I knew that I had to feel like I had given it my best, which I interpreted to mean practicing consistently. But I knew myself well enough by then to know that I could not force myself to be enthusiastic every time I practiced. So I made a rule that I had to go to the practice room every evening after dinner and at the bare minimum”tag” the seat and the keys. I almost always did a little more, even if only playing through my pieces with great lethargy. But I was at peace that I had done MY best and was able to perform 4 pieces for family and friends.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great example – I wish I’d had this illustration when I was writing Better Than Before — it’s a great example of several habit points!

  • Jenna Van Sickle

    I love the podcast, and I have two comments, one about the clean slate and one about food waste.

    Clean slate: my family just moved to a new city with new jobs, so we got a completely clean slate. Being a big fan of yours, I thought a lot about what new habits I wanted to form, and I mentioned it to my husband, too. One of his new habits related to our kids and I was surprised at how well it worked. He wanted to make sure the kids (7, 5, and 2) don’t start eating dinner until we say grace. It took some work at the beginning, but it was quite a bit easier than I expected. About 2 weeks after moving, our 7yo said, “Wait, we started eating before grace in our old house,” and we just said, “Well, not at this house,” and he accepted it without an argument, which is very rare. Additionally, when we moved we got a cleaning service, and we have tried to keep the house picked up better, which I guess is an example of giving ourselves more but expecting more from ourselves.

    Food waste: I also eat very healthy (no processed food) but hate food waste. My rule is, don’t go shopping until the fridge is empty. That is, when you get to the point where you’re getting low on food, wait a day or two and try to eat those last few things. It reduces food waste, and also puts off shopping, which I despise. Also, regarding food I can’t eat, but I want my family to eat, I move it to the front of the eye level shelf, which reminds them it is there and makes it easy to grab.

    • gretchenrubin

      Two great illustrations –

      Especially love the example of giving more to yourself/asking more of yourself. Gain in both directions!

  • My last blog post was about food waste. With 7 kids we spend a ton on food. What works for me: shop more frequently and buy less (the way Europeans do). This way, the fridge is never full so I can see what is inside easily. I also intentionally plan ” bits and pieces”, random leftovers artfully served 😉 I find that almost any leftover vegetable and cheese combo can go into an omelette or quiche beautifully. I also put meat in the freezer as someone else mentioned, so it never rots in the fridge due to my procrastinating.

    • SK

      I love your idea of shopping more frequently and buying less! It’s always when the fridge is stuffed that things get lost and go bad.

  • Teresa

    Four kids for me. I was told to finish the food on my plate as a kid because the kids in Ethiopia were starving. When our family first went to East Africa a few years ago, I was pretty much convinced all the African kids would be finishing their food. Turns out, the moms told me their kids were fussy sometimes too. Besides heading to Africa to realize what we have and why it seems a little greedy to waste, I simply repurpose food as much as possible. IE baked fish one night becomes fish cakes or fish tacos the next night. I do this with pretty much anything left over.

  • Lori McKee

    Re: waste. Hate it (grew up as an American family in a very poor country where many people did not have enough to eat, and a lot of our own food was difficult to get; required a lot of scratch cooking) I freeze everything. My stepchildren laugh at me. Oh well! I like the leftover veggies in a bag in the freezer idea. You could either purree or put them in a soup as is. I also freeze pesto and herbs (with varying success), lime and lemon juice, etc. I need to do better about regularly pitching the old stuff in there, though.

    I really hate wasting good (expensive) brewed coffee but when we have company and make a big pot, we often do end up with extra. I’ve started saving the leftovers in the fridge for iced coffee for myself later in the day. And I also tell myself, I’m helping the coffee growers in the 3rd World when I buy so much extra coffee. Haha.

    Love your show and all the good ideas here.

  • AZzzz

    My way to save food also links in with the lower the bar idea. As a rule, my mate and I try to eat very simply during the week, ie the same pot of stew for at least three nights in a row. At the same time, my lunches are very, very basic and yet balanced too. I joke and call my meals “prison meals.” I am fortunate in that my mate and I eat out a lot on weekends, both together and socializing with friends. So knowing that rich and delicious meals await certainly helps.

    Sometimes, I slack on the grocery shopping and end up with needing stuff for lunch. My personal rule is that “there is always something to eat.” I can most always scratch together some kind of protein and some fruit or vegetable. And if I’m lacking in one of those categories, I can quickly and cheaply grab a piece of fruit, a bag of nuts or something from a corner store to fill out what I do have.

    My workweek priority is health, and I like to do it as economically as I can (there’s so many great NYC restaurants I’d rather visit on the weekend!). Because I’m always trying to use up stuff, I end up with some weirdly composed lunches. But during the week, it’s about nourishment and on the weekends it’s about celebration.

  • Rachel C

    Loved your discussion around lowering the bar. Last weekend we hosted a birthday party for my daughters friends and due to work/sleep committments I had to make the cake the morning of the party. Leaving it so late is not my normal way of doing things and as fate would have it, the cake was so fresh that it more or less fell to pieces. I gamely wrapped it in a pretty border, stuck a ballerina and candles on top, and everybody was happy! Then on Sunday night I realised my son had a cake stall at school, so the more stable parts of the same cake were sliced into cup cake sizes and inserted into beautiful paper cupcakes. I think that if its going to be a blooper, it may as well be beautifully packaged!

  • Rachel C

    Worm farm for the food waste? Doesnt take much space, not too much work and highly satisfying results! Worm castings are great for pots on the patio/balcony if you live in the city.

  • Laura Craig

    My family has changed the way we buy, eat and view food in the past year with great results. To lower food waste try the FIFO method (first in, first out) which basically means the food that goes in the fridge first comes out of the fridge first so you end up eating your fresh perishable food items before they go bad. There is also the idea of trying to cook meals like the show Chopped, (instead of going and buying more food when you probably have food already you could put together with little effort) go pick 4 ingredients from the fridge and pantry and come up with a way to put them together. It can reduce how much you buy, how much you waste and encourage creative ways to use what you already have.

    • SK

      That’s a great idea! Some of our tastiest meals have come from nights when “there’s nothing in the fridge.”

  • SK

    I also hate wasting food! Luckily we have a yard so we can have a compost bin. It helps with the guilt if I know that wasted food is turning into soil to grow more plants in our garden. I do have a few methods that help us cut down on waste: Keep a gallon-size ziploc bag in the freezer and add carrot peels, onion skins, leek tops, mushroom stems, parsley stems, etc into the bag as you create the waste, then when the bag is full make some stock! Either a veggie stock or add bones and make a bone broth. Then you can freeze in small portions and be ready to make soup or even use it to cook grains/beans. We also try to have at least one veggie at every meal– even breakfast (our kids like zucchini or sweet potatoes best at breakfast), so this helps us keep that produce moving through the fridge. And I have to admit I haven’t done this, but setting aside a few hours on the day you go to the market, for processing all the produce would be a huge help to yourself! I get inspiration from this video by the awesome Tamar Adler: http://www.tamareadler.com/2011/10/06/how-to-stride-ahead-part-1-2/

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  • Gemma

    With regards to food waste AND saving money AND healthy food AND saving time…. Meal planning! Every Sunday night I sit down and plan what to eat the next week whilst also writing a shopping list. I consider which kid will be in or not and whether I’m working to factor in time to prep/cook and amounts needed. I do an on line order to be delivered so I don’t ‘browse’ at the supermarket. It’s been life changing as I was always popping into the supermarket for this ms that. Plus if i ever run out of stuff for any reason( unless it’s toilet roll) I’ve adopted the attitude of making do and using up what I do have

  • Jessica Davis

    Hi ladies, I’ve been loving the podcast and this episode hit home with me. I’ve been a personal trainer for 8yrs so I loved hearing your thoughts and concerns about workouts and eating healthy. Gold stars for both of you for realizing if you overdo it you’ll be more likely to quit and taking specific action to prevent that from happening! Consistency does wonders for overall health and trying to be perfect and 100% sets most people up for quitting early so you’re not alone in that. As far as the meal planning goes, I love what @disqus_qKPvTHKMNc:disqus said below-those are great ideas! You can also aim a little low and maybe start with just planning a couple meals at first and then add more onto that later when you’re ready. Thanks for being a positive voice for me to listen to during my weekly cardio, I’m looking forward to more episodes!

  • Andrea

    I too agree with the other commentors, worm composting would be a great plan. And I too, keep a ziploc bag in the freezer for adding ends of onions, celery, etc that then get turned into crock pot chicken or veggie stock. I also do the same thing for a fruit bag in the freezer and them add to smoothies- browned bananas, squishy blueberries, etc. I try to freeze leftovers, and label them so there are quick lunches ready to go when there’s “no food.” And not that you eat many carbs, 🙂 but I save the bread ends in the freezer too and then either make a french toast casserole with them or toast them and then put them in the food processor to make bread crumbs.

  • Dayna

    About entertaining, Costco sells these wonderful lasagnas that are better than some of my homemade versions that feed 8-10 people.

    About food waste, I pay attention to when my family gets sick of a certain veggie and stop buying it for a while. That way when we are in the mood for salad we don’t mind going through all of it in one week because we haven’t had it in a while. Also, in the winter, I buy frozen veggies. It’s easy and they don’t go to waste while I get around to making them. There’s something about how they are picked at the peak of freshness and frozen, so they are fresher in the winter than stuff shipped a long way. That just makes me feel better about my decision, but not the reason why I choose it. I store onions and potatoes apart, one makes the other go bad quicker, I can’t remember what one is which. I keep the fruit bowl on the table where it is in every one’s face. I make pancakes when my milk is starting to get old. When I open a can of tomato paste or chilis in adobe sauce and have left overs, I use my small ice cream scoop to freeze balls of them on a wax paper sat on plate. When they are frozen I put them in a baggie. This is a bit fussy but I love having balls of tomato paste to throw in to a pot when I need it. I don’t even thaw them. All that said, I don’t catch everything and stuff does get thrown out… DOH!

  • AprilFP

    Love your podcast! My daughter recommended it to me, and I’m starting from the beginning! I’m a bit behind ; ) Thank you so much for all you are teaching my family! Also, I wanted to tell you about this product: to prevent food waste and naturally keep your fresh foods fresh for longer, check out Fresh Paper at http://www.fenugreen.com/#!home/mainPage. We love it!

  • Jessica Feldmann

    My clean slate idea is that when we bought new living room furniture we made a clean slate to not allow the dogs on the new furniture. They now know they can only sit on the furniture in the basement. It was much easier than trying to train them with the old furniture.

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  • Suzi

    We have dedicated an “eat now” shelf in our refrigerator where all the leftovers go. It has made a huge difference! We also took electrical tape and labeled areas in the fridge for certain kinds of food. That way the kids and parents know where everything goes. I love the show! I started at podcast #1 and am working my way towards the most recent podcast…slowly catching up!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific hack – and great to hear you’re enjoying the podcast!