~By Sarah Pascarella
I am now in my thirties, and trying to learn to change my eating habits.
Not the actual meals on my plate or the food choices I make, mind you, those I think serve me just fine. No, I’m trying to change the actual way I eat, which one could describe as speedy, efficient, or plain old rushed. I eat fast, whether I’m pressed for time or not, and this is something that needs to improve. Nowadays, I’m trying to slow down and enjoy each bite, knowing that I have enough time to savor everything on my plate, whether it’s something as simple as a bowl of soup or as elaborate as a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. In short, I’m trying to undo many years of run-and-shovel, dine-and-dash habits.
My “speed wins” approach to eating may have started in elementary school, when the school district introduced a forty-five-minute lunch period. The first twenty minutes were reserved for lunch itself, with the final twenty-five dedicated to recess (running around outside in warmer months, or organized activities in the gym during winter). I usually was left with about ten minutes to wolf down my food–fifteen if I hustled–after the time-crunch of retrieving my bag lunch from my cubby or locker and getting to an open seat, or the endless waiting in line for a hot meal. It also didn’t help that for a few years, my “lunch” time was around 10:30 a.m. Who wants cafeteria mystery meat, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or last night’s leftover cold pizza that early in the morning–especially knowing I’d have to play capture the flag or puffball bombardment within minutes of eating? The alternative, foregoing lunch altogether or just choosing a simple snack, would inevitably lead to afternoon starvation and listlessness. And so, if one was going to eat so early, it had to be fast. Lunch became not so much of a dining experience as a quick inhalation.
There were also family habits to break. My mother grew up in a big brood, twelve children when all was said and done, with eight of the kids being hungry boys. With all the mouths to feed, if you weren’t fast, you didn’t eat. And to complicate the situation, sometimes (as she told us) there would be a platter of food that required extra speed and resourcefulness–seven pork chops for a then-family of nine; a pile of drumsticks to which the boys amply helped themselves, leaving only a meager few (or none) left as the plate made its way around the table. When we would all get together for holidays, I didn’t see all-out freneticism when it was time to eat, but could see the old family patterns re-emerge as we followed our parents, aunts, and uncles toward the buffet table: We moved swiftly, efficiently, and piled much more on our plate than our stomachs could handle. Subconsciously, I think eating quickly got passed down as a shared trait, as if it were in our DNA, now as familiar as the boxy nose my mother, sister, and I share, or the overabundance of redheads in our family population. We eat fast, we go for seconds, we get what we can–it’s in our nature.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Realistically, I understand that my plate is not going to be usurped by another; the leftovers are not going to be gobbled up by marauders in my kitchen. There’s no need to rush. It’s all about retraining my brain–move the fork slowly, chew, chew, and chew some more.
There is still much learning to be done: The other night, I had dinner by myself, and devoured a plate of dumplings, rice, and edamame while reading a magazine article. I turned the page, went for another bite, and discovered my plate was already empty. Whether it was my rush of old habits, the engrossing article topic, or a combo of both factors, I realized I had barely tasted what I had eaten. And even though there was more available in the kitchen, I paused and sat, looking down at my clean plate, resolving to take some more time with my meals.