Lesson Five – Putting food in its place.

I want to preface this post by saying that we observe the Division of Responsibility in Blogging around these parts – which means, I offer information, and you decide what and how much of it you want. Not everything applies to all people – because People Vary, and because Reality is Complex.

As Ellyn Satter says, food is one of the great pleasures of life – but only one of them.

It is important, but it has its place – which is to say you should not have to be thinking constantly about it. And you want the thought and attention you do give to be of the useful and pleasurable sort, not of the fretting and obsessive variety.

In this lesson, I’m going to talk both literally and figuratively about putting food in its rightful place.

Let’s get the literal out of the way first, because it is astoundingly simple.

Put it away.

Yes, that’s right – put your food away. Be neat and tidy with it. Organize it a bit.

Don’t leave random stuff laying around on counters, coffee tables, desks, bookshelves. Don’t put food somewhere it will hover right in front of your face, especially if you are slightly food-preoccupied due to chaotic eating and lack of permission, a history of dieting, or just because you are a primate who is immediately attracted to tasty, tasty food, regardless of whether you actually want it at just that moment.

Because if any of these are true, having it constantly before you gives the food more power than it deserves. It interferes with genuine decision-making. It calls to you in that really annoying food-voice.

In a sense, the food begins to boss you around.

We don’t want that. You’re the one in charge here. You get to decide what you eat, what you like, and how much feels good.

You don’t want those important decision-making criteria pushed into the ditch by RANDOM COUNTER COOKIES!!!

Now, it’s one thing to think, “Yeah, some cookies would be awesome right now,” and then you go and get some cookies, and indeed they are awesome.

It’s another thing entirely if you pick cookies by default because they were there and you didn’t have any better ideas.

If they’re right in front of your face, you will probably never come up with tastier or more nourishing ideas, because you’ve got an easy out – something sweet, perennially tasty (even when you’re not particularly feeling cookies), and that requires no thought, effort, or preparation.

You’re human, which means you are an animal. Animals like to conserve effort wherever possible – including when it comes to acquiring food. So of course you’re going to take the easy way out.

However, a strong aside:

This is not a trick to get you to eat less.

This is, however, a trick to help you be the one making the decisions about it. I really don’t care how much you eat, because that is none of my (or anyone else’s) fucking business. That’s entirely between you and your stomach. I only care about your eating being enjoyable, nourishing, and satisfying.

At the same time, especially if you’re of the “Oops, I forgot to eat lunch!” variety, it’s important that food be reasonably convenient to you, so that you can continue having regular meals at regular times.

That still doesn’t mean it should be staring you straight in the face. It means that, if you’re busy and don’t have much time or energy to cook, you should find some quick and easy meals, even frozen or instant stuff…and then put them away until it’s time to eat.

It means that, if you sit at a desk all day long and often forget to take a lunch break, or bring a lunch to work, you should get some tasty, filling snacks…and put them in your desk drawer until it’s time to eat.

Or create a snack box.

I have a snack box. It’s where I store the food that I eat with my clients during sessions. Because we’re dealing with food issues like guilt, or shame, or vague fears about “unhealthiness,” a lot of this food is of the delicious, immediate-gratification variety. Otherwise known as “junk food.”

I discovered long ago that leaving this food just sitting on my desk – a Snickers here, a bag of chips there – instigated both Jeffrey and me to primal feeding sessions of the type not seen since Wild Kingdom. Which was rather inconvenient, since then I would have to go back out and buy the food all over again, and also since we’d not be very hungry for dinner. Which is a crappy feeling.

The solution cost like two bucks at Ikea – one of those cardboard cassette boxes with a lid.

I set that puppy on my desk, all the tasty snacks went in there, and it was just…no longer an issue. Not because we were disallowed from eating the tasty food (we can still raid it, in a pinch, and we still sometimes do), but because it suddenly just didn’t occur to us anymore.

This works because, first of all, neither one of us is a restrained eater, meaning we’re not abnormally preoccupied with food – and second, because it is no longer bossing us around by gazing into our hungry ape souls.

When we do decide to open the snack box, it’s because we really want that food, and it’s going to be awesome enough to be worth the hassle. Win-win.

That said, now for the figurative aspects of putting food in its place.

Food is only one important aspect of your life.

It is necessary for survival, yes, just like sleeping and going to the bathroom and drinking water. But, ordinarily, none of those activities consume our thoughts when we are not doing those things, or preparing to very soon do those things.

When we do start to become preoccupied with them, it’s usually because something is out of whack – we’re stuck in traffic with no bathroom in sight; we’re burning the candle at both ends to get a project done, or to nurse a baby; we’re hiking in hot weather and the water bottle is empty.

So, what does that mean for food? When you are preoccupied with it, outside of planning for meals to happen, or actually sitting and eating, then it could be a sign that something is out of whack.

Normally those things are either 1) you’re not getting enough to eat, or 2) you’re not getting enough permission to eat.

If you’re not getting enough to eat, it may just be a practical issue – you need more time. You need more money. Or you need to be a bit more organized about getting groceries into the house and food on the table.

You need to make getting fed more of a priority, just like most people normally do with sleep and going to the bathroom.

When you gotta go, you gotta go – and when you gotta eat, you gotta eat.

It may also stem from a lack of permission, which is the second issue, and which is something I see very often in my clients.

You need to give yourself permission – by saying explicitly to yourself that you have it, and then following through as though you believe it – to eat as much as you want. To eat the food you really, really like. And to eat frequently enough that you’re not starving in between times.

Sometimes a lack of permission is present even when you are getting enough (or sometimes too much!) to eat – though that sounds totally counter-intuitive. Even so, merely the hint of a thought of possible future food restriction, maybe, at some point, on the Fourth of Vague – that can be enough to set off the alarm bells in your crazy monkey brain.

And here’s how it responds:

“OMG SHE DISAPPROVES. MAYBE SHE WON’T FEED ME AGAIN. WHEN WILL WE EAT? WHAT WILL WE EAT? WILL IT BE GOOD, OR WILL IT BE THAT BLAND CRAP SHE EATS WHEN SHE FEELS BAD ABOUT HERSELF? WILL IT BE ENOUGH? CAN WE GET DESSERT JUST THIS ONCE? MAYBE WE SHOULD EAT THE LEFTOVERS RIGHT NOW JUST IN CASE.”

This is not only the sound of crazy-monkey-alarm-bells, it is the sound of food taking over your life in a completely inappropriate, and totally useless, way.

How do you get over it? Present yourself with enough tasty food at regular times, and then give yourself the permission to eat it. Even give yourself the permission to overeat it, since that is probably going to happen anyway for a while, until your crazy monkey brain starts to trust you again.

You may as well short-circuit the shame spiral, right now, and interrupt the feast-famine cycle. And since it’s hard to interrupt the panic eating part of the cycle, target the thing you can control, and stop beating yourself up about it. And for God’s sake, stop threatening yourself with thoughts of future restriction.

Once you’ve calmed down and stopped obsessing, you can work on directing your attention toward other things – like pre-planning some of your meals for the week. Like asking yourself what you’re hungry for, and then putting in some effort to make that happen. Like making a list of what you need to stock your cabinets and fridge, and then actually going and buying those things.

Like eating with a reasonable amount of attentiveness, and pausing to give yourself explicit permission.

You know – useful stuff. In manageable quantities. Right where it belongs.


If you feel like you need to work on this more, you can sign up for one of my groups, or work one-on-one with me.

And we’re also going to talk about it right here, cause that’s what we do.

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