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Eating at Meal Times and Eating from Habit

Eating at Meal Times and Eating from Habit

Do you eat because it’s time to eat, whether you’re hungry or not? A lot of people do, and then feel crappy afterwards.

If the goal is to eat when you’re hungry, does that mean regular meal times are out? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. But figuring out how to make your hunger coincide with meal times is actually a skill. People trying to stop emotional eating probably won’t be able to do this immediately.

If you’re a parent, you’ve heard the debate about whether to feed babies “on demand” (when they cry to be fed – i.e. when they are hungry), or on a schedule (at regular meal times, regardless of whether they are hungry).

A schedule is more convenient for the parent, but infants should be fed on demand until they are old enough to speak and understand the concept of meal times. Before that, if they cry and aren’t fed they just feel like they’re being starved. This can lead to emotional eating issues later in life.

Also, infants can’t regulate their intake to accomodate meal times. The same can be said for an emotional eater in early recovery.

Eating at regular meal times has some advantages. If you work outside the home during the day, you may have preset lunch or dinner hours. If you don’t eat then, you don’t have another chance until you get off work. There is also the social aspect of eating with family and friends. You can’t enjoy dinner with others unless you schedule the meal in advance, and then arrange to be hungry at that time.

But once eating becomes disconnected from hunger, meal times become just an excuse for recreational eating, a habit that no longer serves a function. The reason for scheduling meal times is to free you to do other things at non-meal times. If you’re eating between meals as well as at meals, there is no point to the scheduled meals.

Something to Try…

The best way to break out of this habit is to go back to on-demand eating for a while. Ignore conventional meal times to the extent that your schedule allows, and eat the way infants eat – when you’re hungry. Try this for at least a month, and see how it feels.

Once you get used to eating for hunger, you can slowly work your way back to regular meal times, if this is convenient for you. Note that eating at regular meal times means not eating between meals! With practice, you’ll learn how much you need to eat at each meal to hold you until the next meal. You’ll also find that to be hungry for breakfast, you must stop eating at a certain point in the evening. (This also can help you to sleep better.)

Do you eat at meal times and between meal times, as well? How does it feel to eat “on demand”, independent of conventional meal times?


  1. Sheryl,

    this is absolutely SPOT ON, I can’t believe youve written a post on this now, its exactly what I needed!! thank you SO much for this reminder. I have spent a number of years in 12 step programmes where I “had” to eat 4 to 6 hours, the same portions as well, no matter whether I was hungry – had done alot of exercise that day or none at all, time of the month etc. So it has taken me a while to get the hang of this in NE. Not so much the eating behaviours as much as the beliefs in my head about what is the “right” time to eat etc., which is corroborated by social structures like Breakfast, lunch and dinner etc. The two meet and I need to find a way of getting my hunger, natural cues etc., to worm their in amongst all this.

    I found that when I was in Thailand recently, becuase of the jetlag and different body clock, that i did eat out of hunger rather than “meal times”, for the first day or so while I was there, and kept that up pretty much throughout my whole 2 weke stay. It was brilliant. Such a sensation of attunement. Now, I have gone backwards it feels like, as in back into those routines which often override my actual body. Something in me there about self esteem and trust of my body -could it be that it actually has its own intelligence and is something i can use as a guide, rather than this thing riddled with the “disease of Overeating”?. I hope so, and really need to continue to remind myself of this.

    It feels so scary somehow, if I don’t trust these rules, will be totally at sea? What about other people who eat like clockwork, surely they are right?

    Anyway, I am going on a bit but you can see how apt this all is for me right now. I have had a few days recently of eating that little bit too much and want to redress it now. I LOVE the idea of eating outside of meal times for at least a month, thank you for that suggestion. I shall put it to action immediately.

    There are also, as you considerations around practicality, preparing food and so on. But the actual TIME of eating, and amounts, can always be negotatiated in some way I think.

    Anyway, thanks for this brilliant and timely post!

    Lisa Bee

    avatar Lisa Bee
  2. What has been important for me in this regard is to make friends with hunger so that it doesnt scare me. I had to know hunger so that I could know satisfied.

    When I was on a 12 step program I chose the 3-0-1 plan. Three meals a day with no snacks in between one day at a time. I can tell you that I definately was hungry in beween those meals and ready for the next meal. It sounds simple, but was quite challenging.

    Presently, I am unemployed so not on a particular schedule. I find that my internal hunger doesnt kick in until between 10-11am and then again around 4-5. On this schedule my body only needs 2 meals a day. If I have plans to share a meal I do let myself be hungry knowing I want to enjoy the meal. My struggle now is mostly stopping when I’ve had enough.

    avatar Fran
  3. Lisa – glad it spoke to you!

    Fran – thanks for mentioning the fear of hunger issue. This is often huge for emotional eaters, and it doesn’t surface until you start trying to wait for hunger before eating. I think that on some basic level this is about trusting yourself to take care of yourself.

  4. Thanks Sheryl – right on the nail as usual. I have felt I have been ‘lucky’ in that many days I am hungry at around the time that other people in my office have their lunch (we have ‘healthy’ sandwich-type food provided by the company). However I need to be careful because sometimes I eat then:
    1) because I feel left out and antisocial if I don’t eat when others do – OR
    2) because I need to stop working – not because i’m really hungry!
    3) because I can’t be bothered to think about my hunger or what I really want.
    We are such a close-knit work partnership that I feel I have to really assertively respect my body’s will in order to break the of eating when it’s ‘lunchtime’.
    Finally, I notice that one of our accounts clerks, who is naturally slim, frequently says “No, i’m not hungry yet” when people ask if she’s coming to lunch. Maybe I can use her as an example of how to do things differently?

    avatar earthsign
  5. Thank you Sheryl and others! I have been trying to start the phases in Normal Eating. Still full of self-doubt. Was really afraid of “not doing it right and believe I cannot trust myself”. I do believe I can eat mindfully and so want that but that doubt is still there. I too come from 12 Step Programs that insist on weighting and measuring every morsel and times to eat and what to eat. This worked in it’s time but no matter what food plan I adopted I ended up binging again after even a year of “abstinence”. I am not knocking that method as it works for many people. However my last try with Greysheet Anonymous had me so insane with weighing and measuring and not being able to do put skim milk in my coffee without weighing it and calling sponsor if I switched from green bean to spinach, aghhhhhhhhhhh!!! I do beleive I can do it without that insanity. Mindful Eating is what I hope to achieve – “it sounds so peaceful”. Thank you all for your posts. Cynthia

    avatar Cynthia
  6. HI Cynthia,

    Just wanted to say hi and welcome! I come from exactly the same 12 step tradition as you – weighing and measuring everything, digital scales, the works. I wanted to offer hope that through NE you can more sanity, joy and freedom than you could imagine, around food. My user name on the Normal Eating forum is Lisa Bee on the forum and feel free to post anytime or email me. THere is also a thread called “EX-OA” or something like that, also on the forum (you can find this if you use the search engine) and I am sure you will find this helpful.

    All the best,
    Lisa Bee

    avatar Lisa Bee
  7. I didn’t realize that I was an emotional eater until my counselor pointed it out to me. Since then I have been trying really hard to get it under control. A friend of mine gave me a book titled, “The MindBody FX Lifestyle” by Melonie Dodaro, who happens to be a weight loss expert. I learned something that I thought was interesting… I learned that lack of water was also another reason why people over indulge in food… the body has a difficult time distinguishing hunger and thirst. I know that this is also something that I have had problems with (don’t drink enough water). Apparently, those who drink at least 8-10 glasses of water a day, are less likely to over eat. I am not sure if this is going to help with my emotional eating, but I am going to test her theory- interesting stuff!

  8. Fran,
    I relate to your previous fear of hunger. A situation I also deal with is when I have committed to more controlled eating (no snacks or whatever) I will get an occasional wave of depression in realizing I cant just eat whenever and whatever I want all day long. This style of eating has not served me well and I am longing to tap into my natural eating, but it will take some mental work I think.

    avatar chilly
  9. I started to really pay attention to my physical cues and hunger recently. I hadn’t really thought about the “mealtime” quandary as being a pressure to eat. I began to pay attention to that. Last night it became apparent I feel compelled to eat at “dinnertime” even though often I am not hungry.

    I am also noticing how the should s and shouldn’t sneak into my thoughts. Noticing is what it’s about. It’s having compassion for myself that is tricky after years of self deprecating inner dialogue.

    avatar Beth
  10. I’ve recently began recovery from pretty significant bulimia and I am extremely paranoid of eating “normally” I’ve restricted so that I only ate a few bites a couple times a day or eaten ’till I coudn’t move (binged), for so long that I’ve forgotten how to eat normally. I remember that my whole family used to tell me that I “eate like a bird” but I never thought so, but I was always a size 1 so I’m sure I did. Its terrifying to me to just let go and eat normally. so much so that I am currently just staying hungry during the day and only eating from 5-10 pm. so I don’t have to go to bed hungry. even then I panic when I feel “full.” I love love love this site and reading these comments makes me want to say forget this growling tummy and fasting business and go have some fruit. But I know I won’t. Hopefully hanging around here will help a lot. thanks for this place!

    avatar Rachel
  11. I have trouble on the weekends. Through the week I am on an every three hour schedule. This works for me because if I eat “just enough” food, I am hungry every three hours like clockwork. It makes me feel good and steady to eat this way through the week. The problem is I don’t have any structure on the weekends, so my mealtimes are all over the place. Thats when I have the hardest time listening to my internal cues. Should I try to structure my weekends more like I have through the week? I resist “scheduling” on the weekends!

    avatar Becky
  12. I cannot believe that I found this posting. I have recently joined the forum and am looking forward to life as a NE. This was one of my biggest concerns. Thanks for this posting.

    avatar Esther
  13. Becky wrote:

    > The problem is I don’t have any structure on the weekends, so my mealtimes are all over the place. Thats when I have the hardest time listening to my internal cues. Should I try to structure my weekends more like I have through the week?

    I’d say, listen harder! 🙂

    Seriously, it sounds like you are dealing with emotional eating on the weekends and are looking for outside structure to deal with it rather than internal control. That is the opposite of what Normal Eating is about. Do you have the book? Are you working through the Stages? This will get you where you want to go.

    – Sheryl

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