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Veteran’s Guide to the 30-minute Meal

I had just finished breakfast with my father-in-law and 2 ½-year old daughter and was driving home. My wife’s parents were staying with us on an extended trip to help us out around the impending birth of my son. Because he was two weeks late, their 2-week trip had ballooned into a five-week trip. We were all a little strained.

I enjoy a good relationship with my father-in-law. So, I was a little taken aback when I could sense that there was some sort of tension or judgment coming from him. I couldn’t think of anything that would have upset him. He had seemed in good spirits throughout the meal.

My wife’s family doesn’t talk a lot about things that bother them in general. I once watched the entire family all defer to each other in deciding where to eat, finally settling on pizza. Each person had indicated some preference for something else. More than half of them had said that they didn’t want pizza.

I knew that I would have to break the ice and figure out what the problem was. So, being the sensitive and well-adjusted veteran I am, I broke the topic in the way that I thought was most respectful.

“Hey man, I can tell you’re irritated with me. So what’s your problem?” There might have been another swear word or two in there.

He startled a bit and told he didn’t have any problem. After a moment ,he added, “You know, if I’m being totally honest, I’m concerned with the way you’re eating. You take such huge bites and barely even chew it, and you just eat so much. Now your daughter is doing the same thing, and it’s kind of concerning.”

I don’t generally like anyone telling me how much I need to eat, and said so. I’m not gaining weight. I eat generally healthily, so the volume wasn’t something I was going to apologize for. And my toddler eats like a bird, so that’s not a concern to me either.

I took an honest look at my own behavior, though. I realized I do have a tendency to eat fast and with huge bites. I looked back and started thinking about when that started. As a kid, I ate fast to try to avoid my parents growing up. I grew up in a toxic household with a fair amount of abuse hurled around. I wasn’t about to just sit and wait to be somebody’s target. But that was nothing compared to my experience in the military.

In the military, there is an enormous emphasis on eating your food as fast as possible. In some courses, you were allowed five minutes; sometimes, you were allowed five bites.

There are important reasons for this. In dining facilities, space is limited. Soldiers can’t waste time having deep conversations about life, the universe, and everything. You have to get in and get out. If you’re out on a mission, eating is a distraction that could prevent you from noticing an ambush. The attention paid to eating could be a serious liability

Since I had gotten out, though, I hadn’t made any efforts to slow down my meals. I jumped right into a competitive graduate program, reinforcing the thought that eating “without purpose” was a waste of time. I remember being with a group of other veterans and remarking on how we had just finished the meal we’d sat down to in about 5 minutes. We had a chuckle, but none of us took even a moment to consider whether it was a good thing.

Now that I’m out of school and have my two kids, though, it’s worth considering whether I’m doing the right thing. On the surface, this seems like an overreaction. What’s the big deal? So what if I eat fast?

Here are 4 good reasons to try to slow down a meal:

  • It’s healthier.
  • Eating more slowly has at least 3 different benefits (lucky you, a list nested in a list). It improves digestion, may keep you from eating too much, and can help you lose weight, The data are clear: eating slowly will improve your health.
  • You can actually enjoy your food.
  • “I sure wish I had more opportunities to deny myself the simple pleasures in life,” said no one on their death bed.
  • Food is awesome! After years spent in the military barely tasting your food, isn’t it nice to just take your time and savor that steak, casserole, or pasta?
  • You can spend meaningful time with people you love.
  • This one is a big one for me. I am committed to my wife, a woman I love like no other. I have two small children who look to me for guidance and support. I want to spend time with them. Why would I want to rush through a daily opportunity to do so?
  • Families eating together can improve weight, diet, academic achievement, and psychological well-being in children. It may even discourage children from trying drugs.
  • You’re not in the military anymore.
  • I first titled this bullet “F#$% the Army” (in accordance with the finest military and veteran traditions) but I don’t mean it. The military provided me with an exceptional array of awesome opportunities. But this fact remains: as veterans, we aren’t in the military anymore. We should limit the influence it has on our day-to-day lives.
  • To me, it’s like high school. I had some definitive experiences in high school that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But I’m not going to be that guy that can’t stop talking about high school and how it was so great. Keeping the same habits you had in the military after you separate is like being this guy. Don’t be that guy.

First Experience with a 30-Minute Meal

The first time that I tried to slow down my eating was that night. I decided to make my meal last as long as possible. I employed some simple mindfulness exercises I’ll describe in a moment. The meal was delicious (Thanks, J!), but I also had some pretty unpleasant experiences.

After a few minutes, I started to feel a rising anxiety that I wasn’t moving fast enough. My thoughts raced to times in training when I only had a few minutes (or bites) to eat. I thought about instructors, leaders, or peers saying “hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!” I could sense the residual discomfort from taking too much time creeping up on me. The voice narrative in my mind bordered on overwhelming.

The experience made me curious. Why was I attacking myself over a meal? Why was it such a big deal to spend a few extra minutes with my wife and children, enjoying their company?

The answer was so surprising, it’s odd to try and explain.

We experience a lot of criticism from various sources as we grow up. Our minds create voice memories of that criticism in a process called introjection. That’s what those voices are: memories turned into parts of our personalities.

The critical, aggressive, undermining voice that narrates your life is just a memory of someone in your past. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce their influence.

This was an epiphany to me. My internal monologue often reflects my late father’s hostile attitude towards me. And classmates’ aggressive criticism (likely due to their own anxiety) haunted me for years.

I learned about how I could use mindfulness combined with voice therapy to reduce those influences. That’s why I decided to write this veteran’s guide to a 30-minute meal.

First, it’s useful to isolate a recurring behavior driven by these voices. For example, with a meal. It’s a simple military-driven behavior to change. Changing it is good practice for other parts of your life.

As you plan this meal, consider having three courses: an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Three courses will help you to practice because there will be extra time between each one.

When you sit down for your meal, take a moment to acknowledge thanks. First, thank the person who prepared the meal. Then, express gratitude for whatever circumstances allowed you to enjoy it with your family. Having a gratitude habit alone can improve your experience.

Drink a small amount of water (I recommend drinking only clear water with maybe a bit of ice for this exercise). Note the subtle taste of the water and the cool temperature of the water in your mouth and throat. As you swallow, take note of the water as it travels down your esophagus. When it hits your stomach, see if you can feel the sensation.

Assuming that the appetizer is a finger-food, take one piece and put it on your plate. Look at it and note the texture. I’ll use corn chips and salsa for this exercise. There is a rich and interesting experience to be had just by chewing crunchy things with dip on them. Or maybe it’s just that I like chips and salsa.

As you dip the chip in the salsa, watch for changes in color and texture. Does it get softer or fold up on itself? Does in break apart?

Chew 25 times

When you’ve noted how it changes, take a small bite, no wider than your mouth when it’s closed and relaxed. If you are holding a fork or knife, put them down on your plate and place your hands in your lap. Chew 25 times. Take care to pay close attention to how the flavors interact with each other. See how you experience different flavors around your mouth.

After at least 25 chews, swallow the food, noting its trip down the esophagus and ending at the stomach. Take a sip of water, again noting all the different parts of the experience.

After your bite, look at one of your family members sitting at the table with you and start a bit of conversation. Interact with them, giving them your full attention away from the food. Try to identify their emotions as they describe something that happened to them that day. Acknowledge the emotion. “You seem angry about that” or “You seem happy about that” is good enough. This process of acknowledging emotions in others helps build bonds between people. It also diffuses painful emotions.

Now return your attention to your food. Repeat this process for a full 30 minutes. As the meal progresses, pay close attention to the voices in your mind criticizing you or encouraging you to hurry up. If you don’t experience that interior monologue but have a lot of anxiety, say so.

This is the part where you can counteract those critical voices or anxiety. Talk to your family about it. Saying out loud “I can almost hear my platoon sergeant (or whoever) yelling at me. They are saying “Get up! You can taste it later!”. Saying the voice out loud separates it from your mind. Then you can say, “But I’m not in the military anymore, and I’m not in a dining facility. I’m here eating with my family, whom I love. I want to be here, not rushing on to the next thing.” It feels silly at first, but that act alone can release a lot of the anxiety.

This won’t change everything immediately. After a few times, though, it will reduce the pressure much faster than you think. I’ve made a point to experience as much of each meal as I can. Now I rarely ever feel the need to rush (unless, of course, there’s an actual need to rush. Life happens).

I like to use dessert as a small reward to myself for extending the meal and paying closer attention. It can be difficult to relearn how to take your time, and including some small rewards can help with the mindfulness experience. Just make sure you take your time with it.

Learning to take a full 30 minutes to enjoy a meal with my family has turned into one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I look forward to and savor that time with my family. It has helped improve my health, allowed me more quality time with my daughter and son, and allows me to better enjoy my food.

Have you had to relearn how to enjoy a meal? Feel free to discuss your experiences below.