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Diet / Weight Control Infocenter

The 20-Minute Meal

By Caryl Ehrlich

How do you eat a 20-Minute Meal? Not an easy task in a world full of fast food, faster food, fastest food – followed by quick, instant, easy preparation, package-to-plate-in-3-minutes, stir-over-medium-heat-for-5-minutes, add-hot-water-and-mix, microwavable offerings. How do you slow down in a world full of hurry hurry, rush rush, you’ll miss your train, you’ll miss your bus? Or, you’ll miss your kids.

To find out where you are and where you want to be regarding the 20-Minute Meal, use a kitchen timer or your watch to time your meals for about a week.

When I did this, I found my breakfasts were about two minutes or non-existent; lunches were two to 10 minutes; and dinner lasted anywhere from two minutes to two hours. 20-minutes became my goal.

Since this type of eating (slow and easy) was not part of my experience, it took ingenuity and creativity to accomplish it. Often, by the time it was mealtime, I’d be so hungry I wanted to inhale or vacuum everything on my plate. “Slow eating,” as I came to think of it, seemed foreign or odd.

First, I set the timer and began eating. I watched the hands on the timer ratchet toward the 20-minute bell, even though I was done in nine minutes flat. I then made myself wait patiently in my chair until the 20-minutes were up.

I forced myself to put utensils down between little bites, count 10-seconds before allowing myself to pick up the utensil (fork, spoon, chopsticks) and take a deep breath before continuing to eat. During a 10 second rest break I would take a sip of water before picking up the fork again. Sometimes I needed two or three sips of water to kill enough time between bites. I began to taste food. It wasn’t just running through my mouth for a few seconds. It hung around long enough for me to distinguish subtle differences.

Instead of spearing several pieces of food at a time, I tried to eat a little bite of a single item so I could taste the food and feel the texture. Then I’d take a bite from the next category until I’d gone around the plate as the clock continued to tick.

It is unrealistic – not to mention demoralizing – to expect yourself to go from a 4-minute meal to a 20-minute one with a snap of the napkin. Like everything else, it is a process. 


My 2-minute or nonexistent breakfasts became eagerly awaited, enjoyable meals. The variety of my food choices enhanced each meal. I was not only slowing down, I was looking forward to eating a meal I’d never before considered important.

Brenda G challenged me: I can’t make a hard boiled egg last more than 10-minutes, she said – how do you do it?

I think it is a good and necessary challenge because anyone can make a large meal last for 20-minutes. It is a skill worth cultivating to make a one-item meal last for 20-minutes. These suggestions might help. Let’s say you are eating alone. Here’s how to do it:


Read a newspaper article, magazine, or book.


Don’t pick up your utensils for 20-seconds between bites.


Cut smaller bites.


Finish reading a paragraph, an article, a chapter, before taking the next bite.


Take several sips of water before picking up the utensils again.


Read another chapter or paragraph or complete one page.


Count to 30-seconds before picking up utensils again.


If you’re with other people, ask questions of your companions.


Wait for the answer before resuming your meal.


And, take little bites; little bites; little bites.

Two minutes became 5, 5 became 10, and finally, about a week after I’d begun putting on the brakes, I set my timer for the 20 minutes and when the bell sounded, there was enough food left on my plate to mulch a garden. It felt great.

I then practiced making my lunches and dinners last 20-minutes. In a restaurant, I observed the paintings on the wall, the candles and flowers on the table. I listened to the cacophony of other diners conversing. I gorged on ambiance, not food. If I was alone, I practiced eating slower. In that way, I’d be completely comfortable eating slowly when I was with others.

A 20-Minute Meal will not be handed to you, but it is a luxury worth attempting. Four or five days can pass during which every meal is relaxing and pleasant. Then my schedule shifts and I might not be able to eat a leisurely lunch. Dinner is rushed as I need to eat is on the way to a meeting. Though life inevitably gets in the way, I try to create as many relaxing 20-Minute Meals, as possible.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner can become an oasis in the middle of your busy schedule. You’re entitled to three, 20-Minute Meals – one hour a day – when you’re doing something special for yourself. You are worth it.

When I eat slowly, the meal is peaceful and I often leave food on my plate. I’m filling up sooner because I am smaller. Eating slowly enables me to identify the feeling of satisfaction and to leave something on my plate, when appropriate. When I take the time to slow down, I feel stress falling from my shoulders and inches from my waist.

The new way is my comfortable and preferred way. Now, if I eat too rapidly, I feel unsatisfied, cheated, distressed, deprived, out-of-control, and physically uncomfortable. This further reinforces how important it is for me to slow down when I eat.

I used to be the first person at the table to finish everything on my plate. Because I ate so rapidly, I did not give my body time to process the food, or to send signals of satiation to my brain. It took many weeks of concentrated effort to achieve my slowest-fork-on-the-block status. I am no longer the one looking for second or third helpings, nor do I always look for dessert, coffee, or something else with which to end a meal.

When asked about the 20-Minute Meal, one person I teach gleefully answered: “Oh. It’s so civilized.” And so it is.

* * * * *

“I had just started using a fork and now I’m urged to put it down, but I do eat less and it’s fine. I’m learning.” Jenny S

“Slowing down was enormously helpful. And writing it all down was such an eye-opener. Amazing I didn’t weigh more.” Olive

Here is the 20-Minute Meal Chart.

Conquer your food Addiction

The 20-minute meal instruction sheet

Before Meal During Meal After Meal
Stretch before every meal, even one item meals. Be present at mealtime. End meal by putting the utensils down.
Say to yourself: It’s going to be okay. I’m fine It will be enough. I really want to weigh ____ pounds. Cut small bites. Push the plate one or two inches away from you.
Deep breathe once or twice until completely relaxed Eat food individually. Push your chair back an inch or two.
Re-Commit to your goal. Don’t shovel a spoonful of anything. Take human bites. Either remove plate or have someone else remove it for you.
Acknowledge that speed eating does not work Put utensils down between bites. Acknowledge that what you ate was enough.
Plan in advance the category of food you’re going to order out or prepare at home. Sip water between bites. Feel the satisfaction.
Plan in advance the Number of items you’re going to order. Ask questions of your companions, and stop eating while they answer. Leave the table.
Plan in advance whether to have a Filler or not. It alone, count to 20 or 30 before picking up your utensils again. Brush your teeth if possible.
Plan the repatterning techniques you’re going to use if your original plan is not working. Make sure your mouth is empty before inserting more food. Go for a walk if possible.
When eating, wear tight clothes. Chew thoughtfully. Reward yourself with a food-free present if you achieved your mealtime goals.
Buckle your belt on “snug.” Taste food. Give thought to the next meal’s plan.
  Leave food on plate. Rewrite this sheet into your logbook and read it during meals when you are alone. If eating with others, read prior to mealtime.
  Ask yourself during the meal if you’re still hungry.  
  Leave the table if you’re eating too much, too late, too fast.  

See Also:

Unrealistic expectations can cause failure
Why not acknowledge small incremental improvements, times when you did better at one meal, one day, or one event than you might have? Focus only on what you did, not on what you thought you should have done.

7 Strategies to Stop Eating Junk Food !
There are no easy ways to fix junk food habits and make them into healthy habits, but I do have 7 quick strategies that you can easily put into place to start into motion your new lifestyle without junk food.

The Ritual of Food Addiction
If you’ve been trying to figure out the weight-loss game for as long as I’ve been coaching people – twenty five years – you’ve most likely been trying to avoid food, even though that point of view has not worked.

Good Food/Bad Food What's Left to Eat?
What's Good Today is Bad Tomorrow: What Can I Eat? We've entered the Twilight Zone when it comes to the multitude of diets being promoted today.

This article is an excerpt from the book Conquer Your Food Addiction authored by Caryl Ehrlich. Caryl also teaches The Caryl Ehrlich Program, a one-on-one behavioral approach to weight loss in New York City. Visit her at http://www.ConquerFood.com to know more about weight loss and keep it off without diet, deprivation, props, or pills. Caryl welcomes questions or comments about this article and the behavioral methods she incorporates into her weight loss program.

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