Notes from New Zealand: When Salad is the Default

March 27, 2014

A side salad or a side of fries? Tara Kennon reports from New Zealand

By Tara Kennon

Tara Kennon served as HSC’s communications manager before moving about a year ago to New Zealand’s Coromandel peninsula, where she has focused on projects to promote travel in this region. Now, she’s reporting back to us on a few of her observations related to food, fitness and school health in this particular corner of the Southern Hemisphere.

In my work at HSC, we sometimes struggled to explain the type of system change we hoped to achieve — not requiring anyone to go for a walk or eat vegetables but making these health-promoting options a natural and appealing part of everyone’s routine. Then Rochelle came across an excellent way to explain it: we believe in making the healthy choice the easy choice.

I love this way of describing how systems shape our health in ways that become practically invisible to us. (It’s a phrase that’s been used by First Lady Michelle Obama, the Harvard School of Public Health and many others.) Without precluding other options, a system makes one choice so much easier than the others that we need to exert real intention and effort to do something different. Sometimes we don’t feel like expending the energy to overcome the default. Or we have a sense that the default is normal, and therefore is good or at least acceptable. The default is powerful.

When we talked about food systems in the U.S., I’d often think about the example of French fries. For a whole set of reasons, our system has made fried potatoes the default side dish in a lot of cases. I find that if I go to a casual cafe or restaurant in the U.S. and order a vegetable sandwich, for example, chances are it will come with fries. You might have the option to upgrade to sweet potato fries. If I ask for a salad instead of fries, I almost certainly succeed in getting a salad; it may cost an extra dollar, but it’s not like you don’t have the choice. I love salad and am not opposed to making a little effort to be healthier but still — I often go with the deep-fried default. They’re delicious and they’re the easy choice. It’s not like I’m going out of my way to be unhealthy, right?

Coming from this experience, it’s been interesting and fun for me to make the tiny observation that nearly everywhere I’ve eaten lunch in New Zealand, the default side has been a salad. When I go to a cafe and order my vegetable sandwich or a quiche for lunch, I almost always see two prices: with salad and without salad. I nearly always order with, and I love that the default salads I’ve had without exception have seemed bright and special, with dark mixed greens plus carrots or sprouts, sometimes nuts or slices of soft cheese. (Last weekend, my default salad even came with edible flowers!) I usually find a hint of vinagrette on the leaves. With these beautifully presented fresh vegetables, the healthy choice is easy and appealing.

This is a small thing. I’m not sure how many conclusions you can draw from a small note about default side dishes in countries with access to lots of food options. But these small things are fun and they make us think. In some parts of the world, a sandwich comes with fries. Somewhere else, it comes with a salad. Over a lifetime and in the context of the systems’ other defaults, how does this shape the decisions we make about eating, and about our health?

The world is full of different defaults. Which ones have stood out to you when you’re away from home?

Read all Notes from New Zealand posts here.