How to Break the "One More Thing" Habit So You Can Finish a Meal and Move On Easily

Jan 05, 2020

You sit down with what feels like a great meal. You thought about making it balanced and nutritious. You made it taste as good as your culinary abilities allowed. You paid attention to the serving sizes. This is no haphazard production, because you care a lot about your eating. 

But then once you finish your meal, you find yourself grabbing something else. A square of chocolate, or maybe a few dried apricots. Ok, "really done now", you tell yourself. But then there's another encore... you find yourself grabbing a handful of cereal or trail mix. Or a cookie. Or a piece of bread. 

You force yourself to walk out of the kitchen, but now you're annoyed with yourself. You're frustrated because you do this so often, grabbing things after the meal which you know add up to a considerable amount. Why plan such a deliberately portioned meal only to tack things randomly on at the end? 

Are you feeling like this describes you all too perfectly? I promise I haven't been secretly recording and watching your eating, so relax. It's just that common. 

It's frustrating to know you would be making progress if only you didn't add on extras. It's even more frustrating to spend hours fixating on what else you want to eat, like you couldn't just move on mentally after a meal. 

I help clients iron out this post-meal grazing frustration all the time, so I'm confident I can help you too. Here's what might be going on, and what steps you can take to help avoid unnecessary grazing after the meal.

Possibility #1: Your meals are too small for your body and energy needs

I made this mistake for years, as do many people trying to achieve a calorie deficit. Trying to stop before you're satisfied however, can lead to a tug of war where you want more food but are resisting because you want to minimize calorie intake. Instead of aiming to eating as little as possible, think about getting comfortable and stopping there. Include all the major macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbohydrates) for the best satisfaction response. Putting enough food on your plate to begin with may be the key step for you to feel satisfied and done when you finish eating at the table, and not cruising the cabinets after the meal is over looking for something else. 

Possibility #2: You're eating too quickly.

You've heard that it can take 20 minutes or more for the food you've eaten to be fully sensed by your brain. It's true, plus if your food is gone in moments you miss out on the enjoyable, relaxing process of enjoying it. Give yourself more time to eat and try not to hurry through cleaning your plate. You might find that taking 5 minutes longer to finish your plate makes the difference between it feeling like it's enough versus needing an addition. 

Possibility #3: You are still hunting for pleasure

It makes sense to want to linger in pleasant environments and extend the activities in our lives which feel good. After all, many of us spend so much time working or doing non-fun things that meal times can become one of few precious opportunities to have a window of time to just relax and enjoy something. If you find yourself in this situation, there are two things I recommend (in addition to slowing down as highlighted in #2, above.) 

First, speaking generally, don't shortchange yourself on joy in your day to day life. If you feel guilty over taking time for yourself or doing something purely for enjoyment, then you're likely to do it infrequently, and not embrace it fully when you do. Joy is an important part of a balanced life! Many of my clients have needed to dial up the joy in their lives to find more balanced feelings about eating.

Secondly and more specifically, immediately following a meal is a key time to purposely plan on doing something you enjoy. Rather than grabbing some snacks after dinner to extend the enjoyable time, uproot yourself from the kitchen and grab the book you set aside for enjoyment reading, or turn on the next show in a series you are loving. Invite yourself to extend the enjoyment without continued food consumption being the only option. If you are currently mixing eating time with television, reading or your smartphone, separating these behaviors can be helpful. Saving the entertainment for after mealtime means you have something to look forward to following the meal.

My last point on this topic is that if your main course wasn’t that tasty, it’s common to feel like you “need” dessert or chocolate to “make up for it”. If you’re eating food you find boring and bland (like boiled green beans, plain rice, and plain canned tuna), you can clean you plate and be physically satisfied but still be jonesing for something because your need for pleasure isn’t being met. Spice up your food, don’t eat the same thing after you got bored of it, and if you made a lousy batch of chili, just throw it out rather than force yourself to eat it (and then raid the freezer for ice cream). 

Possibility #4: You Want to Avoid Something

Lastly, you might be prone to grabbing more food to put off something which you would potentially be doing after dinner. Say, for example, that at 3 pm you think, "after dinner tonight, I'll clean the cat litter box and start my ridiculously complicated and stressful taxes."  

When you actually find yourself finishing dinner, sitting comfortably at the table with those tasks as the next thing, the odds are considerably in favor of stalling by grabbing another slice of bread or a cookie. 

Of course the less-fun tasks in life have to get done, so how can we work with this reality? One tip I have is to not put stressful tasks immediately after a meal. As mentioned in #3 above, planning something pleasant to do, even something that takes 5 minutes or less, can help you move on from eating. Awareness of what you are doing is also helpful. Once you notice, “okay I’m just stalling on doing the litter box and my taxes” you can deal with what is really going on and not think, my God, why do I still want more chocolate? What’s wrong with me? You can switch your thinking to the options and outcomes:

“Do I want to just get it done, so I can feel better sooner and cross it off my list, or do I want to keep stalling? If I do want to keep stalling, do I want to eat or get out of the kitchen and stall with something that is at least noncaloric, like Instagram or reading?”

In summary, many people go through periods when they find themselves grazing at the end of meals, especially dinner. If this is bothersome to you, do some quick checks to see what feels like the reason behind it:

  • Are you physically not quite satisfied? If so, make sure your meals are adequately sized to fill you up. Boost the protein or fruits and veggie if you aren’t sure what to add.
  • Do you want something more satisfying as the experience? If so, make your meals more tasty and varied, slow down to enjoy them and pay attention to the sensory experience. If your day-to-day life feels like it short on non-food pleasures, work on including more of them so you don’t have such a big pent up joy-deficit that you expect food to fill. Because it IS just food, and while food can be highly pleasurable and meaningful, expecting it to provide all the joy and happiness in our day is asking a lot from a plate of sustenance. And that’s likely to leave us sorely disappointed with just “okay” meals.
  • If you think you might be grazing to avoid something, I encourage you to be brave and ask yourself what it is. Is it a task, or is it the feeling of boredom? Why do you want to escape it so much? We can learn a lot from the things that we fear, so it might be worthwhile to take a peek at why you’re avoiding the task. And as a reminder, you can always procrastinate or distract yourself without food if you want to reduce your food intake but aren’t ready to take the task on just yet.

Want more help with the nutrition issues in your life? At Nutrition Loft, we are pros at all types of food problem solving. Email me if you are ready to solve your food problems for good and we'll figure out the most effective approach for your life. 

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