Has Eating Become the Only Time You Take Time for Yourself?

Is this instant gratification the best choice?

Posted Jan 03, 2020

“How was your vacation?” I asked a neighbor a few days after Christmas. She had told me she was taking some vacation days over the earlier part of the week because her extended family was coming to visit.

“Vacation?” she replied. “The only time I got to sit down was when I finally got all the food on the table, and I could eat with everyone else. “

She is not alone in experiencing life through a to-do list. Many of us move through the day, mentally checking off the tasks that we need to do in addition to our day job. Some of these tasks are so routine we tend to do them almost automatically: carpooling, emptying out the litter box, paying bills, or putting away clean laundry. Our days off are spent catching up with the obligations we did not have time to do during the workweek, and just when we feel we've stretched time as far as it can go to accomplish everything on the to-do list, along come more things to do: the holidays, visitors, car trouble, the flu, snow on the driveway, a birthday party to plan, etc. And, of course, our electronic devices snatch time away from us even when we don’t realize it. Constantly responding to communications from others uses up time that we could have reserved for ourselves.

Taking time out from constantly moving from one set of obligations to the next may affect our food intake and ability to lose weight. Although it is commonplace to see people eating with one hand and tapping out messages on their phones with the other, eating does give us the excuse to put the phones away and to be attentive only to ourselves and those with whom we may be eating. If, however, eating gives us permission to take a timeout, we may find ourselves prolonging the eating in order to prolong the time before the mental 'To-Do' list is hauled out again.

A weight-loss client could not understand why she always ate so much at lunch during the workweek. “I have no trouble controlling what I eat at home, including lunch on weekends. But during the week, I often go to a nearby restaurant that offers a lunch buffet so I can eat large amounts of food. I am not even that hungry, but I eat until I am too stuffed to eat anymore.”

Eventually, she supplied the answer to her noontime overeating. “My job is boring and lonely and I dread returning to it after lunch. I guess I give myself permission to take a long lunch hour by telling myself that I need the time to eat.“

Long lists of activities one could do during a timeout period are available: practice a musical instrument, go for a walk or to the gym, call a friend or do something on social media, read a book, listen to music, give yourself a manicure, practice tying flies for fishing, or putter in the garden. But for many, these activities fall into the category of self-indulgence, to be savored only when there are no more obligations left. Also, others may feel that these activities are interruptible; the intruder needs may be more important than the needs of the person engaging in time for himself or herself.

“I can’t tell you how many times my husband interrupts my memorizing lines for the amateur playgroup I am in by telling me he can’t find something in the refrigerator, or that he has trouble with his computer,” complained one of my friends. “But if I am eating, say, having a snack or late dinner after a rehearsal, he would never ask me to stop eating to help him. He will always say, ‘Finish what you are eating. I can wait.’”

And that seems to be the key as to why so many of us turn to food to justify time out for ourselves. We don’t feel guilty doing so, and others might feel guilty if they stop us from eating so we can attend to their needs. Even children pick up on this; claiming hunger is a potent excuse for not doing homework. What mother would make her “starving” child finish homework, rather than feeding him or her first?

It is hard to change this tight association between taking time from working or meeting some obligation and eating. After all, traditionally, laborers stop working only to eat a meal or, in some cultures, a late morning or late afternoon tea break. Recess in schools used to be a time when children could play, but many school days have shortened this time, and it is often now used by students and teachers as a time to snack. My library has a café selling beverages and light meals, and students go there when they want to take a break from studying. A television advertisement shows a woman eating some delicious chocolate confection, and the voiceover tells us that she is taking some time for herself—by eating.   

How do we change the perception that, other than going to sleep, the most reliable way to take time for ourselves is to stop what we are doing and eating? We cannot hang "Do Not Disturb” signs around our necks, or create electronic invisible fences so we can read, listen to music, or nap in peace for a few minutes.

Workplaces could lead the way by making break rooms available where an employee could read, exercise, listen to music, or take a short nap. (Some companies already provide napping areas.) Homes could have a "Time Out" space that is closed to interruption by others. Putting a sign or a clock on the door to signal when the user of the space will reengage with the family should halt interruptions. But most helpful would be for all of us to be willing to say, “I need a break!” and then take it.