From grazing to structure.

The other day, a client asked me how one makes the transition from grazing to regular meals. The first problem being that it sounds very scary.

I agree.

It’s scary because, if you have any history of hunger, whether due to not having enough money to buy food, or what I like to call “self-induced food insecurity” such as dieting or food restriction, or even due to just not placing a priority on eating regularly, and hence “forgetting” to eat for a long time — a part of you still remembers that experience, and you carry the fear of not having enough to eat inside you, sometimes for a very long time.

We talked about the fuzzy self a bit before — and it seems that the fuzzy self has a long memory. It does not forgive and forget easily.

As such, grazing and eating on demand seems very comforting. It sounds, on paper, like the perfect solution: just eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full! And, indeed, lots of people apparently do this successfully by teaching themselves to eat intuitively and to give up dieting. This is the basis for programs like Overcoming Overeating, an approach that has helped lots of people.

But for some people, it doesn’t work out. Hi, I’m one of them.

I think demand feeding can work, but it’s not the only option. For adults with structured work or school schedules, it can be impractical. And if you are one of my clients or readers struggling with eating, then there’s a good chance demand feeding did not work for you.

If you are eating on demand or grazing and it’s going well for you, great. Keep on keeping on. What I’m about to say applies to people who tried demand feeding and only received partial benefit, or couldn’t make it work at all.

Eating regular meals and snacks, having discrete periods of eating interspersed with discrete periods of not eating (and not having to think about food), can be really helpful if you struggle to feel hunger and fullness signals. It can also be incredibly reassuring to the small, scared part of you who remembers going hungry, who didn’t know where its next meal was coming from (or when.)

I try not to be too rigid about this structure. For me, it means eating in a routine way, at roughly (roughly) the same times every day. The way this works out in my life, at present, is that I eat breakfast soon after I get up, then drink coffee, and then around 12 or 1pm, I will have lunch. Around 3 or 4pm I will usually want a snack, and then dinner happens at 6 or 7pm. Usually there is an evening snack, either with a client right after dinner, or later in front of the TV around 9pm.

The way I arrived at this schedule was through a series of trials and errors. It also changes as my other daily routines and work schedule change.

It is not easy to simply impose a meal schedule on yourself and then stick with it. I am a firm believer in planting seeds of routine, and then letting the routine grow itself a bit, until you’re ready to plant another seed. This is the only way I have ever managed to get myself to develop a routine in any area of my life, because I am incredibly resistant to self-imposed routines (FEELS LIKE RULES!!! MUST BREAK THEM!!!), and yet I am so much happier when I’m in a good one.

And this is how the transition from grazing to structure happens: one seed, one piece at a time.

The first piece is simply observing what you do with food now, and the ways in which grazing isn’t working for you. When is the first time you usually eat during the day? How do you feel before and after eating? How long does it take before you are hungry again? Uncomfortably overhungry? Are there any times of the day during which you consistently get overfull or keep eating when you’re not even enjoying it?

Don’t just think up the answers after the fact — practice observing how these things happen in the moment. The answers you come up with will show you the best place to plant your first seed of structure.

For me, it was making the real-time observation that I was drinking coffee before eating in the morning, and then feeling not-hungry but incredibly tired and crappy. On the mornings when I ate something first, even if I didn’t think I was feeling hungry, I noticed that I felt much, much better. (Guess what? Sometimes hunger manifests itself as tiredness!)

That gave me the idea to make one, single deal with myself: to eat something for breakfast (even if it was just one slice of toast, or a glass of milk and a banana) before drinking coffee.

That was it, that was the whole deal.

I focused on that one thing, and let everything else slide for about a week.

During the time of seed-planting, it is important to continue observing. With observation comes the all-critical intrinsic motivation to do, or not do, something.

When you observe the actual consequences of what you are doing, by paying actual attention in the moment and not sort of putting two and two together long after the fact, you develop a memory that lasts, and you begin to apply it automatically when making decisions in the future.

I do this now, when deciding each morning to eat breakfast, even when I don’t think I am particularly hungry. It goes something like this:

“Self, what should we have for breakfast?”


“Well, we could skip it and just have coffee instead…”


“Okay, let’s pick the easiest thing and then have coffee.”


(I don’t know why my internal dialogue sounds like a very reasonable Bob Ross coaxing a drunken frat boy to eat a banana, but there you have it.)

The trick to this entire process is the willingness to let yourself make mistakes, and instead of letting your mind jump immediately on the judgey train to Verbal Abuse Station, just watch, notice, and mentally jot down what happens under “Notes for Future Consideration.”

Other useful observations I have made, noted, and continue to use to inform the choices I make around eating:

  • If I do not eat something fibrey for breakfast a few times a week, there will be digestive consequences.
  • If I wait too long for lunch, I will get desperately overhungry (even if I think I am not overhungry) and then feel like taking a nap for the rest of the day even after I have fed myself.
  • If I do not eat fruit and/or vegetables with lunch, I will feel “off” and vaguely dissatisfied and noshy for the rest of the afternoon.
  • If I do not eat an afternoon snack, I will be in no state to cook dinner.
  • If I do not start cooking dinner before I actually feel hungry, I will fumble around the kitchen like the unfortunately-named Fourth Stooge, Droppy — and by the time dinner is ready, I will be overhungry and spend the rest of the evening in a toddler-like state of insolence to all authority figures, real or imagined.

In order for me to make these observations, and plant the corresponding seeds, I actually had to make every single of these mistakes. Repeatedly. But with one critical condition: I paid attention while it was happening, made the connection between the consequence and the action (or lack of action), and refused to berate myself.

One step at a time, structure grows from the mistakes you make, and the seeds you plant in response.

When your seeds are all planted, and structure growing from them, a remarkable thing will start to happen: you will start to feel hungry, comfortably hungry, at the routine eating times through your day.

Even if you forget to eat, the feeling of hunger will come knocking on your door to remind you — and if you respect it and respond to it, you will make friends with it. Instead of hunger being scary, it will become your little handmaid, reminding you to take care of yourself.

When you sit down to eat feeling comfortably hungry, it’s easier, in turn, to eat until you feel comfortably full. “Eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are full” becomes second nature. It just happens to occur at roughly (roughly!) the same times every day.

And with time, the fuzzy self will start to forgive you and feel safe again — no more scary.

Internal dialogues regarding bananas are welcomed in comments.

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