The Third Obstacle to Sensible Eating: Time

Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Jan. 17 2011 1:22 AM

The Third Obstacle to Sensible Eating: Time

Although I now eat as though I were raised by hyenas, my parents actually set me on a pretty regular eating schedule. As a child, I ate breakfast before going to school and bought or brought lunch; family dinner was always at 6 or 6:30 p.m. Though my parents weren't strict about precisely what my sister and I ate (we had plenty of sugared breakfast cereals), they weren't gluttonous, so we weren't, either. We learned to take two cookies, not a handful; one bowl of ice cream, not a whole container. A bologna sandwich had two slices of deli meat, not a half-pound.

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Ellen Tarlin Ellen Tarlin

Ellen Tarlin is a former Slate copy chief and writer of the "Clean Plate" blog. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBrooklyn Bridge, Bark, and  the RISK storytelling podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

It was only when I reached adolescence that my eating schedule began to deteriorate. Junior high school started an hour before grammar school, and I'd never been a morning person, so I rarely managed to eat breakfast at home. Senior year, I ate a cafeteria-food breakfast during my morning free period. Then, of course, I wasn't hungry for lunch. I got home from school at about 2:45 p.m., stuffed my face with snacks and watched General Hospital , then passed out for a nap by quarter of 4, which of course ruined my appetite for dinner and made sleeping at night difficult, which made me late and tired the next morning, which started the cycle again. Once my sister and I got our first after-school jobs, family dinnertime became a less frequent occurrence.

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Though we've had " breakfast is the most important meal of the day " and "don't skip meals" drilled into us for decades, 44 percent of Americans still don't eat breakfast according to a 2009 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation. Before starting this project, I ate breakfast: sometimes at 11 a.m., sometimes at 3 p.m.—or anywhere in between. I never ate it at home during the week, never sat at a table, and always did other things while I ate. I still eat lunch at my desk at work, if at all. And I'm not alone: The lunch hour has disappeared for many workers. In fact, some employers are explicit about it, among them Conde Nast , which offers to pay for some employees' meals if the cost is less than $10 and they eat at their desks. As for dinner, my evenings after work are brief. If I spend a full day in the office, I get home at around 7:30, walk and feed the dog, make dinner (though I've got a prep-time crankiness threshold of about 20-30 minutes), eat it, practice guitar (which I haven't had time to do once since starting this project), decompress, maybe watch a little TV with my husband or read, then it's bedtime.

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My situation is not unusual. When I asked registered dietician Dana Angelo White to tell me her clients' biggest obstacles to eating well, she said, "Time is huge. People don't have time to do it. You need to prep a little bit. It's harder to make dinner than buy it."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average working hours for married couples have increased by about 20 percent since 1969. Our cities have sprawled , making our commutes longer, and our population has grown , making our roads and rails more congested. This gives us shorter evenings, less time to cook and eat, and less energy to do it. Women now make up about 47 percent of the work force, up from 40 percent in 1975. Mom isn't home all day to slave over the pot roast, and Dad doesn't always help, so the food industry has stepped in, offering more fast food, takeout, and premade foods and planting them along our routes home from work.

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Still, the truth is, "I don't have time" often really means, "It isn't a priority," and I plead guilty to this. Eating healthy has not been my priority.

Pressed for time, many busy people steal from their sleeping hours. This is considered admirable. We often hear about how few hours successful people sleep : Bill Clinton and Oprah sleep only five hours a night! Da Vinci only slept in short bursts! I've always wanted to be able to survive on a small amount of sleep, but I can't live in a sustained sleep-deprived state. (Yes, parents of small children, I hear you laughing.)

And, let's fess up, there's a new category of activity we waste a lot of time on that previous generations did not have. We e-mail, we Facebook, we tweet, we shop online, we text, we IM. We eat up hours of the day and then wonder where the time went.

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It's hard to make cooking and eating a priority when that means giving up other activities. In addition to working, commuting, and sleeping, which take up the bulk of my days, I have a dog to walk and a husband I want to spend time with. We have a social life, not to mention regular chores and errands.

People often suggest doing advance cooking and prep work on weekends. I used to chastise myself for failing to do this until I realized my weekends are often busier than my weekdays. I know: I could choose not to learn guitar or have a dog or husband, not to watch movies or read, but at what point does your life diverge too much from the life you want? That I have other priorities doesn't mean I don't want to eat better: I just don't want to have to spend all my free time planning, shopping, and cooking.

On the other hand, if I keel over from a berry-pie-induced heart attack at age 45, it won't matter much how many bar chords I can play. Without my health, I wouldn't be able to tend to other priorities. This is the Catch-22.

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The truth is, the time I spend eating, particularly only eating, has dwindled to just about zero—I seem to have adopted the belief that devoting almost no time to eating is the best way to find extra minutes in my days, but I'm ready to re-examine that belief. While there's an abundance of advice on how to save time in the kitchen and a plethora of books, magazines, and Web sites offering quick and easy recipes, I'm going the other way. This week I'm slowing down, taking time to eat, and making the act of eating my top priority.

Experiment No. 3: Mindful Eating

This week's rules:

I must eat breakfast before leaving the house in the morning.

I must take a lunch break, use it to eat lunch, and eat away from my desk.

I can have snacks, but no more all-day grazing at my desk.

I must chew slowly and thoroughly.

I must sit upright when eating.

There will be no multitasking while I eat: no TV, no iPod, no computer, no reading. I gotta be honest: I'm not sure how I'm going to get my husband to give up TV at dinner for a week. I may end up eating in the bedroom.

The real catch is, I have to do "eating meditation" every time I eat (or, if this drives me crazy, which I'm sure it will, then at least at one meal a day). Eating meditation is a slow, mindful, thoughtful way of eating, in which you eat each bite consciously, paying full attention. The purpose is basically the same as for mindfulness meditation: to become aware of each moment in your life and learn to live in it fully.

The good part is, I get to eat whatever I want, as long as I observe these rules while doing it.

This is the week I've been most looking forward to and most dreading, but I expect everything is going to taste very good and that I'll feel fuller faster and become aware of it sooner. I suspect that if I were to change only one thing about my eating habits, this would be the one to change. But I'm concerned I won't have time to eat this way. Eating mindfully can take a very long time.

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If you'd like to try eating meditation, here is one guide and here is another .

This week's questions:

How much time do you spend per week planning, shopping, cooking, eating?

How much time do you think it takes to eat healthfully?

Freshness is an issue. How often do I need to buy food? More than once a week?

If you work outside the home: Do you eat breakfast at home? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you feel pressure not to take a lunch break? Do you eat dinner in front of the television? Do you let your kids eat in front of the television?

How do you deal with eating at work? Is there a kitchen? A place to store food, prepare it, sit and eat it? How do you deal with portability? Is it better to buy food at work and throw out the packaging or to bring lunch and rewash the food-storage ware? Do you have vending machines at work?

Come back to the blog during the week to see how it's going, offer me guidance, and see what naughty foods I'm eating. (Maybe it's time to defrost those chocolates my parents sent me during Week 1.)

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