Eating out can be challenging. If you’re like me, you’ve had this experience many times: You go to a familiar restaurant and order a favorite dish, or maybe something you haven’t had before. When it is delivered, you think, This is more food than I need. If you had a separate container, you could easily put half of it aside for later and have a satisfying meal on what remains.
But probably you didn’t bring such a container to the restaurant, and it may feel awkward to ask the server for a “doggy bag” when your meal has just arrived. It isn’t what most people do. And besides, the containers supplied in restaurants are often styrofoam or cheap plastic or aluminum with clear plastic lids. You may have a fleeting thought of leaky containers leaving a stain in the car or that using them will add more non-biodegradable bulk to your community’s landfill.
You begin eating the meal. At some point, perhaps, you notice that you’ve eaten the half that you guessed would be enough. Maybe you pause at this point. The food is tasty enough to eat more. If you’ve eaten quickly, your stomach may not have sent the “full” signal, that it’s time to consider stopping. You take another bite. You’re with a friend, maybe, and the conversation continues, or maybe you’re alone and reading a magazine or checking Facebook. A bite here, a bite there. Soon enough, you’re down to the last two or three bites, so you might as well finish it off. Why let good food go to waste?
And so it goes. A very large plate of food that could have served for two meals, and sometimes more than that, is gone. (I recall an Italian restaurant in Boston that was famous for servings large enough food for three or four adults.) How did this happen? Why does this so often seem to happen?
Now, this may not be a pattern you can relate to. You may be a “normal” eater who chews your food slowly, enjoys long stretches of conversation between bites, stops eating when sensing that your stomach has had enough, and says “yes, please” when the server eventually comes around to ask if you’d like the rest wrapped to go. If that’s you, great. I know people like you, though I have never been one of them. Until recently, through most of my adult life, I could have counted the number of times I followed this pattern on my fingers.
Old tapes, old behaviors
For many of us, when eating patterns are engaged, old tapes play in our heads. Don’t waste food. Don’t let good food go to waste. There are hungry people in your community, and starving people around the world, who would be grateful for a meal like this. It’s selfish to waste food. It’s wrong. Clean your plate. It’s the right thing to do.
Do any of these messages resonate for you?
Many of us learned these lessons from our parents or other caretakers, who may have been trying to coax us to eat our vegetables or to finish the main meal before asking for dessert. Those adults may have worked hard to put that food on the table, and they didn’t want to scrape half of what they served us into the garbage. If a child rejected a meal prepared by a parent or grandparent, it might mean an argument with hurtful words, silent anger or some other unpleasantness.
Parental pronouncements were often delivered with moral or religious authority. And the message stuck; it’s echoes reverberate in the subconscious mind many years later. You should clean your plate. It’s wrong not to.
As adults, we know that cleaning our plates–this often means overeating–will not relieve the suffering of hungry people around the world. But many of us clean our plates anyway. Evidently, it’s better to use our digestive tracts as a waste disposal system than to discard food that we do not need–or even want. Is it because, if we eat this extra food, we’re more virtuous than the person who “throws away” the food? Be good and eat it. Don’t be selfish and let it go to waste. For lifetime members of the Clean the Plate Club, it’s as if a parent is still whispering in our ears, reminding us that the old rules still apply.
For many people, these lessons, when carried into adulthood, are counterproductive. For compulsive overeaters or those with serious, eating-related health concerns, they may be at the root of painfully destructive eating patterns that have lasted decades.
It helps to see this ancient conditioning for what it is, more like the barnacles on a ship’s hull than useful dietary information or ethical guidance. If you become aware of it, you can let it go. Awareness is powerful.
Choices that serve us
Consider those images at the top of this post. Is there anything preventing you from carrying such a container (or more than one) to a restaurant and dividing up the portions as you see fit?
When this becomes part of one’s eating-out strategy, choices proliferate. At a Thai restaurant, for example, I can order a curry dish, a large portion cooked in coconut milk, served with rice, and also order an order of steamed vegetables. On my plate, I could spoon some of the rice, the curry and the steamed vegetables, mix them together (maybe with a spoonful or two of the curry sauce) and have a satisfying, flavorful meal. And of the ample portions remaining, I could put the rest in my container(s) and enjoy another meal at home, or parcel it out as a tasty side dish for multiple meals.
We can be pro-active and use the food we pay for in a way that works for us, rather than act as if, in this adult restaurant experience, we’re still eight-year-olds following a set of rules that no longer apply. In an era when eating out was a rare experience, this may not have been a major issue. For many of us today, it’s something we deal with often, possibly several times a week. Many workers eat out every day on their lunch hours. Through repetition, the impact of the decisions made when eating out keeps growing.
Often, we have freedom to choose, far more than we are aware of, throughout the day. We can make choices that serve us rather than follow patterns that undermine what we want for our health and well-being. These patterns can play a large role in determining how much suffering we experience, and how much happiness.
Some new questions can help to interrupt the old tapes: In this situation, what choices would serve me best? What can I do that is consistent with having the healthy body that I want? What options would help me enjoy this meal without regrets?
Slow down and enjoy the food
Once we have an idea about what to eat, many writers, nutritionists and health advocates have suggested strategies for how to eat, which usually includes slowing down and savoring our meals. For example, Geneen Roth’s eating guidelines emphasize eating in a calm environment without distractions. Religious traditions have taught followers to pause for a prayer of thanks before beginning to eat. (As with having a sabbath or day of rest, one can appreciate the wisdom of this teaching, whether or not one adheres to any of those religions.) Many have noted the value of chewing food thoroughly, reducing it to liquid before swallowing, as an aid to digestion. Other techniques include such mechanical approaches as allowing at least 30 seconds between bites or setting down the fork while chewing between bites.
For many people, it can be difficult to slow down while eating. We may not have learned to do this when growing up. If we had parents who ate quickly, that may have been modeled for us from an early age. If we were raised in a large family and competed for what was provided in serving bowls, taking your time may have meant missing out. If we ate with television or other distractions, or heard firm commands to clean our plates, we may never have developed the ability to notice our body’s internal signals that we’ve eaten enough. Few patterns are more ingrained than those involving eating, and many of us never learned when to stop.
Workshop leaders often include a mindful eating exercise in which each participant gets the same item of food–for example: a raisin, an almond or a piece of chocolate. Participants may be invited to study the item, contemplate where it came from and those who participated in producing it; feel the texture, weight and shape of it; experience it with other senses, including smell; and finally to feel it in the mouth, taste it and chew it very slowly or let it melt until it becomes liquid.
A simple reminder can help to change an eating habit.
Doing this with the first bite of a meal is one way of pausing to bring more mindfulness to eating, to set the pace for the meal. At times, I have found it helpful to place an index card or piece of paper with a simple focus word (“SLOW”) where I can see it during a meal. Many find it helpful to take a few deep breaths or to sip a glass of water during a meal. Each of us can create his or her own list of strategies for slowing down while eating, a crucial but often forgotten piece of self-care.
There is a growing body of evidence of a biochemical link between eating too quickly and eating too much. As noted in this Harvard Medical School article:
Scientists have known for some time that a full stomach is only part of what causes someone to feel satisfied after a meal; the brain must also receive a series of signals from digestive hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract.
Stretch receptors in the stomach are activated as it fills with food or water; these signal the brain directly through the vagus nerve that connects gut and brainstem. Hormonal signals are released as partially digested food enters the small intestine. One example is cholecystokinin (CCK), released by the intestines in response to food consumed during a meal. Another hormone, leptin, produced by fat cells, is an adiposity signal that communicates with the brain about long-range needs and satiety, based on the body’s energy stores. Research suggests that leptin amplifies the CCK signals, to enhance the feeling of fullness. Other research suggests that leptin also interacts with the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain to produce a feeling of pleasure after eating. The theory is that, by eating too quickly, people may not give this intricate hormonal cross-talk system enough time to work.
Slowing down when eating out
Applying this knowledge can be both simpler and more difficult when eating in restaurants.
As noted in a previous post, many restaurants have created strategic distractions that can make conscious choosing harder to do. If there are multiple television screens with different sporting events and speakers with music that is just a little too loud and intrusive for diners to enjoy conversation, the meal is a different experience. Just as we can become distracted by a very large menu with many dozens of choices, your ability to make mindful choices can be diminished by the sound and chaos in the dining room. Fortunately, if we’re thinking about it, those restaurants can be spotted, and avoided, pretty easily.
Slowing down can be easier if you’re out with congenial friends and the focus is as much on the conversation as the food. Likewise, if the habit of chewing each bite, say, 30 times before swallowing–or pausing for a minute before taking the next bite–has become established, this way of eating may become as automatic as eating quickly is for so many others.
If this is a difficult new practice to follow, you might want to build in some assistance to get different results. Among the restaurants you know, choose those that are most conducive to having a leisurely meal. Eat with other slow eaters, or go out with a friend or accountability partner, who supports what you are trying to do. Include some techniques that you’ve chosen to help, such as putting down your fork between bites, or pausing to take 2-3 deep breaths before the next bite. Embrace imperfection, and examine your struggles with curiosity (avoiding self-criticism). Remember: As with any important pursuit, there will be resistance. Eating habits tend to be old ones that developed over time; they won’t likely be changed quickly or effortlessly.
New habit formation: A slow eating exercise
If we need some structure in order to slow down when eating, then it may help to consider a model like this one for a 30-day challenge. Consider these steps for forming a new habit:
- Identify the new habit and state why you want to adopt it (the benefits, what difference it will make in your life)
- Describe the actions you will take for 30 days to incorporate the new habit (details: what, when, how often)
- Journal about your experience each day, and the obstacles (resistance) that arise (hint: do not expect perfect compliance; deviations are part of the process)
- At the end of the 30 days, reflect on the results. You may decide you need more time to establish the new habit, and give it another 10, 20 or 30 days; or you may conclude that the habit is now established. If so, it may be time to focus on another new habit you would like to develop.
This is the second in a series of posts. For the first, click here.