The national eating day, Thanksgiving, is unusual in several respects. People who rarely cook spend hours in the kitchen transforming a rather ungainly raw bird into something beautifully edible and making artistic creations out of mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Stale bread that otherwise might be fed to the birds is turned into a complex dish that may or may not cook inside the turkey. The table is formally set, and many courses with numerous dishes are served. And the meal will take time.
Unless they have another Thanksgiving meal to go to, or feel compelled to Christmas bargain shop, guests are happy to dine leisurely. The meal may take considerably more than an hour, and rushing through is restricted to getting seconds on desserts before they are gone. In this respect, Thanksgiving and other major holiday dining differs significantly from the way many of us eat the rest of the year.
That we eat more on Thanksgiving than on other days is not disputable. Serving excessive amounts of food is appropriate, and we are expected to eat until we feel stuffed, and then eat some more. But would we eat so much if there were less time to do so? Would we eat less if, like so many other days of the year, late afternoon/early evening activities and obligations shorten supper to a grab-and-chew type meal, rather than a sit-down dinner? Would we change the amount of food we eat if we actually sat and ate breakfast and lunch, rather than standing in line for take-out and then quickly consuming it before going back to work? Is eating quickly a prescription for too much, or too little food intake?
A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a relative who works for a large law firm. She kept looking at her watch as we stood in line for our salads at a food court. “They don’t like us to take more than 30 minutes for lunch,” she told me. “I hope I have time to eat.”
She is not alone. For many of us, eating is something we fit into our busy schedules often while we are doing something else, e.g. sending messages on our cell phone, working at our desks, or driving.
Hypothetically, if we have very little time to eat, we should be eating very little. A muffin or bagel for breakfast and two slices of pizza or a tuna wrap for lunch feels like fewer calories than a traditional breakfast of eggs and toast… or a lunch of baked chicken, potato, vegetables, roll and dessert. However, often when we choose foods that can be eaten quickly, we don’t notice that they can be calorically dense. A muffin or bagel with cream cheese may contain 600 calories, and a tuna salad sub with mayonnaise and cheese delivers as many calories as the hot lunch.
When we do not have time to eat, we may do it so quickly that we dump more food than necessary in our stomachs, like someone competing in an “All the hot dogs you can eat!” contest. Sometimes when we gulp our food we don’t even notice how much we are eating. This is also true if we are multi-tasking while putting food in our mouths.
Sitting for a long time at a meal has its own perils. We may find it impossible to resist eating more than we intended to because we have the time and the food, especially the desserts, are there to tempt us. We are no longer hungry, yet the cookies or nuts or chocolate or pies are still on the table and it is hard, unless we are sitting on our hands, not to reach for them. A friend who often hosts long, leisurely meals told me that guests who resist eating dessert when she first serves it will often reach for the cake or cookies later on if they are all still sitting and chatting. Of course, meals that are interrupted by speeches between courses are a perfect prescription for overeating. The guest is a hostage to someone’s boring talk and eating seems to be the only way to endure it.
On the other hand, if we have the time to have an “appetizer” of carbohydrate, e.g., a roll, rice cakes, or crackers about 20 minutes before we start our meal, we may find ourselves eating less. The carbohydrate potentiates the production of the brain chemical serotonin, and that in turn will make us feel somewhat full before the meal begins. This helps control how much we eat subsequently (a critical aid for dieters), and causes us to stop eating before we clean our plates. But when time is limited, eating quickly and without the benefit of the satiating effects of serotonin, we could be eating more than we should.
Either too much or too little time can disrupt moderate and reasonable food intake. But certainly we should take the time to enjoy Thanksgiving for its own sake regardless of how much, or how long it takes to eat.