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Why I eat in front of the TV

            The one rule that I have never been able to stick to in every diet I’ve ever been on, is don’t eat in front of the TV. The reasoning for the rule is that when you watch TV you go into a dissociative state – you are focusing on the TV characters or the story or the horrible news, or the sound effects, and not on yourself – and therefore you are likely to overeat. But distracting myself from myself is pretty much the point of watching TV. I find my own thoughts overwhelming, especially my own thoughts around food.

            I haven’t had a problem with other aspects of dieting – I can drink enough water, and exercise, and use small plates, and eat-this-but-not-that, and reduce portion sizes – but I can’t turn off the TV. If I were only allowed to eat at the dining room table, with no distractions, I think I might starve to death – because food just isn’t worth that kind of suffering.

“I don’t understand.”

            This sounds crazy, I know. But I think the problem started because nightly family dinners were one of the most consistently awful parts of my childhood. And it was consistent. My parents, who didn’t believe in regular chores or bed times, believed in eating dinner together as a family, every night, no matter what. I couldn’t escape to eat alone in my room, or say I wasn’t hungry, or even leave the table early. Those were just not options in our house. When I found out that other families didn’t always eat dinner together, I was shocked.

“Sometimes I like to eat alone too. So, stop following me.”

            We didn’t eat “kid food.” I heard about families where the kids ate fish sticks, or chicken nuggets, or refused to eat vegetables, or only ate white food, but I thought those were fairy tales. There was only one menu for dinner and it had to fit what my father wanted to eat and that was that. There was a time when my brother tried to be a picky eater, keeping his peas away from his meatloaf on the plate, or refusing to eat cream cheese and jelly sandwiches because they just didn’t go together, but that didn’t last. He trained himself to eat whatever was put in front of him, whether he liked it or not.

            My father also had a habit of throwing dishes (if they had minor chips in them), or yelling about having to eat chicken twice in one week, or just yelling because he was in the mood to yell. Otherwise, dinner conversation was most often focused on my father’s problems at work, or arguments about paying the bills, or other adult problems that needed to be solved. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was to crawl under the table and sit with the dog, whichever dog we had at the time, but I wasn’t allowed to do that either.

            I remember Friday night dinners, the worst of the worst of family dinners each week, when we had to stay at the table for hours, with guests, and discuss the news (Jeffrey Dahmer), and the gossip from our synagogue (ugh, don’t ask), and the latest unfairness my father had experienced at work (where they were all out to get him), and listen to my father’s childhood stories, where the moral of every story seemed to be that he could get away with doing any crazy shit he wanted. Everyone acted like all of this was normal, but I didn’t want to hear about the serial killer who ate his victims, or the rabbi’s affairs, or my father’s paranoia. And when I didn’t join in with the laughter or sympathy the way I was supposed to, I became the problem. That was when I became the target of jokes about my sensitivity, my looks, my eating habits, etc. I was a rich target, they told me, because I always “overreacted.”

            I remember a few times in my teens when I desperately wanted to leave the table, and leave behind yet another endless argument about whether murder is really wrong, or monogamy is necessary, or sexual harassment is actually a thing. I was the only one on my side of every argument (Mom abstained, excusing herself from the table to serve food or fill the dishwasher or do pretty much anything else). As the awfulness continued, I actually fell to the floor hiccupping with high pitched giggles, unable to catch my breath.

            I still wasn’t allowed to leave the table, though Mom came over to rub my back and give me a glass of water (which I promptly snorted through my nose).

            My eating habits were already disturbed by then. I was sneaking food past my mother after school, and alternately starving myself and binging on cookies I didn’t even like (either because my father liked them and if I ate them he couldn’t have them, or because they were the only cookies in the pantry).

            I tried, once, as an adult, to force myself to eat at the kitchen table in the old apartment. I put a notebook next to me so that I could write down whatever came to mind, and I sat solemnly in my seat, alone, staring at my food. But I couldn’t eat, or write, or breathe, really. I persisted, one meal a day for a week. If it had led to pages and pages of writing, and insight, and recognition of the emotions behind it all, I might have continued the experiment, but none of that happened. Everything in me just shut down, and all I could do was force myself to sit there and fork food into my mouth, but I couldn’t taste anything.

            So when the week was over, I let myself eat all of my meals in the living room again, in my comfy chair in front of the TV, and color came back into my life and food tasted good again. I knew I was choosing to dissociate from my body, and most of my mind, as I sat there eating in front of the TV, but I also knew that that was the best I could do at that moment.

“We could use a snack.”

            I still struggle to taste the food when I eat at a table with other people. The anxiety is too big and I just eat mindlessly, unaware of hunger or taste or how much I want to eat.

            With my Intuitive Eating project, I didn’t even bother trying to eat away from the TV, even though it’s high on the list of rules, or suggestions. I told myself, and my nutritionist, that this was one rule I knew I couldn’t follow, and if she insisted on it then I wouldn’t be able to continue. But she accepted it. She said that you should only challenge yourself as much as is helpful, because pushing past your limits is counterproductive.

            So, I eat while I’m watching the news, or Christmas movies, or Law & Order. I eat with a towel on my lap, to protect the couch and my clothes. I eat with my dogs surrounding me, begging for my food with their eyes, and then with their voices. And the food tastes good. Maybe someday I will be able to eat dinner at the dining room table (I’ll have to move the dog treats, box of wee wee pads, and containers of snacks first, though), and maybe not.

“What are you eating now, Mommy?”

            In the meantime, I hope I can come to some kind of peace with food, even if I can’t come to peace with the dining room table.

“Tables are overrated.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

97 responses »

  1. Family meals are great in theory and we always ate together with my parents and so did my children, but I can feel how awful your meal times must have been. No families are perfect and we endured my brother being forced to eat his cabbage before he was allowed his roast beef – he still doesn’t like vegetables! Any row, or my mother in a funny mood would spoil the meal. Now I am widowed I always eat curled up on the sofa with a tray and the television on when I am on my own and it is relaxing. My son and daughter-in-law live with me, but are often away working. When they are here we eat together and talk. Meals are for enjoying and we should do whatever suits us!

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  2. We always had family meals and talked about our days, etc, but you have every right to feel negatively about the ones in your childhood. I’ve realized as I age that my family is eerily functional, and I had a rather charmed youth. I eat in front of the TV now since I live alone with my critters, and I hear what the diets say about it, but sometimes the alternative is worse (eating in silence. staring at the dogs who want my leftovers? Weird!). Do what works for you!

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  3. My family was just me and my parents as I was an only child. It was not great but nothing as difficult as what you experienced. One thing I remember was that if anyone cried, either me or my mother, we would be told to leave the table by my father. Crying in public was not permissible in the British modus operandi. I applaud you for eating and watching TV. You know yourself best and know what you need to do to eat or diet or whatever.

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  4. Oh, Rachel, what awful family dinner experiences. No wonder you battle eating issues! Eat in front of the TV with everyone’s full support and approval. We certainly do. We watch shows that make us laugh (like Seinfeld reruns) and enjoy the food we’re eating, with the portions we’ve given ourselves. Treat yourself with kindness.

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  5. You write so well. I have tears of sympathy and empathy now. I do not have the same history as you, but agree “Tables are overrated.” I struggle with my weight but have rarely set our table in almost 30 years. We eat in front of the TV, and when I’m alone I do as well. I was relieved to read about your own routine and that it is healing to you. 🥰

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  6. Family meals are only a good idea when the family treats them as a safe space for family discussions, rather than a chance to hold their young captive while they spin their yarns. I can only imagine your discomfort. All I had to deal with was finishing my meal, no matter how long it took, before I could leave the table. I do watch TV when I eat, but it is usually talk shows or news. Stay well Rachel. Allan

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  7. No wonder you don’t want to eat at the dinner table! Enjoy your dinner in peace in front of the TV. No law against that. Do what works for you. 🥰

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  8. Do you watch Blue Bloods on Friday night? They always have Sunday dinner together…the entire family always eating and talking and getting in each other’s business. Our dinners, growing up, were always so quiet. We hardly talked. I’d never make it on Blue Bloods.

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  9. Wow, your childhood dinners sounded quite rough.

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  10. Our family usually all ate together at the dinner table, but in general, stressful subjects were avoided.

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  11. As a bloke who lives alone, every meal is eaten with the TV on. I’m currently eating cheese and biscuits while watching TV and reading blog posts 😊

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  12. It sounds like everyone eats with the TV on. Either mine is on, or my nose is in a book. I think I would prefer a desk to a dining room table. I might eat where my work is around me, but I likely wouldn’t eat at the table. Enjoy escaping into the world of your friends at mealtime. It makes the world a more comfortable place. 😊

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  13. That’s awful. I’m so sorry to hear about your childhood meal experiences.

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  14. Who came up with the myth that eating in front of the TV is bad? That’s such nonsense and everybody (really everybody) does it. It does not matter where you eat, just that you eat and that enjoy it. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
    People like your father (ya, mine was similar) are the reasons why generations of women decide to stay single. I’m really sorry that you had to go through that. *hugs*
    Have a pawesome day, stay healthy and be safe.

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  15. Eating at the dining room table is only a good idea if it is joyful and peaceful. Otherwise it attaches bad/sad feelings to the eating experience. I typically eat wherever I am working. You should do whatever feels right for you. I am fighting a losing battle with my weight. If I stopped making food I like, it would be much easier.

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  16. No wonder you don’t like eating at a dining table. Such distressing memories.

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  17. My dad was seldom home for mealtimes, so my mom fed us three kids and picked and ate – standing up by the stove or sink – what we kids ate. My dad would arrive later and his diet consisted of, for a number of years, cream of chicken soup and a toasted (not grilled) cheese sandwich because he allegedly had some kind of stomach/ulcer problem. Family meals were never much fun in terms of conversation, but they were more decent meals – if you like baked dry skinless chicken thighs and canned veggies. Holiday ‘feasts’ and the occasional splurge of dinner out were therefore real treats. I eat in front of the TV because my kitchen is so small it can hold my small table but with no room for chairs. I’ve had to rely on portions on a plate (usually paper) and the laziness that comes after eating that means I don’t go back for seconds. It is also the only time I watch TV!

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  18. Jeffrey Dahmer as dinner topic conversation! yuck

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  19. wow, your sharing takes me back to the 10 years of a dysfunctional marriage where meals had that kind of dangerous ambiance! eating in front of the tv made it so much easier! i can relate indeed! i well understand! congratulations on your clarity of expression, which helps me to be glad that i am here today & not still in that old prison-house! we’ve come a long way! 🙏🏼❤️🙏🏼

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  20. Seems you have more than justified your reasonings for wanting to zone out with television. You did not deserve the dysfunction you had to tolerate as a child. I do agree that nuggets and picky eaters make for a weak, unhealthy society, as well as so many of us are obese and do eat mindlessly. It is very hard to be present when the present is so full of fear tactics and oppression. My husband and I made a choice to raise our son with every dinner at the table, to make that time for family, to catch up on the day, and certainly to have the option to discuss unsavory topics, if needed, but not cannibalism. However, as he has gone to college months ago, we have moved our dinners to the coffee table and watch TV game shows each night as we eat. I enjoy eating and solving the puzzles, but mostly just the levity of the moment. Perhaps it is a distraction, but I think if that is your choice as an adult, it is not a poor one. We are not promised tomorrow, so it’s always a balance of healthy choices and enjoyable moments. Prayers for you to find your way.

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  21. I know, right? I use my dining room table as my craft table (or station for piling up stuff LOL) but definitely not for eating. Too many memories. I eat in front on the TV. But I tried to at least listen to audio books instead of watching TV while eating, and my cat, for some reason, refused to get up on my lap. She wanted the TV on before she would jump up. Ha!

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  22. It seems to me that the “no TV while eating” rule should be viewed on a case by case basis. The reasons someone might have ‘food issues’ probably number in the millions. We’re all different in what the cause is I think. The rules about making sure to drink enough water, smaller portion sizes if one is trying to lose weight or eat more healthy choices or whatever, and the rest of the ‘diet must dos’ make sense. That TV thing always bothered me too, and although I’ve tried to severe the ties (for the reasons you mentioned), I always end up doing it again. I suspect that TV for you represents a safe place where you can enjoy what you’re doing, eating, writing or whatever, and nobody is judging you or being malicious. For you TV is part of the solution I think and I bet your health care worker(s) would agree. Your young years sound nightmarish. I’m happy to see you progressing in spite of them too. It takes courage.

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  23. Pingback: Why I eat in front of the TV — rachelmankowitz | THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON...

  24. We always used to have our main meal of the day as a family around 6pm except Sundays when Mum would do a Sunday roast. Sunday tea was the only time we could have dessert first as it was sandwiches and savoury snacks. Now, we have our main meal between midday and 1pm and snack around 3.30 to 4pm. It plays hell with trying to diet sensibly sometimes as I feel guilty eating something around 530 as I would normally because he can’t have anything, and 3.30 is too early for me. We haven’t got a TV, but when we did, it was not unusual to demolish an entire tin of biscuits (2 layers) or a dozen mince pies. We don’t eat at the table because to be honest I can’t be bothered setting places and getting chairs up to it, so we eat on our laps. It’s only the two of us anyway.

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  25. Dining when you were growing up sounds less than nutrition and more like torture.

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  26. I confess I’ve been known to eat in front of a computer screen.

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  27. You’d think professionals who deal with eating issues would get that not everyone should be/needs to be at a table to eat! I wish you happiness eating wherever you want, watching whatever you want, with your adorable puppies beside you.
    Cheers,
    Julie

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  28. Cream cheese and jelly sandwiches? I wish I had known about those at a young age. No. Wait. It’s a good thing that I didn’t. One more temptation avoided.

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  29. Yes, in front of the TV is often where I eat 📺😋

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  30. Your childhood family meals sound very stressful. I never had anything like that going on, but I hated the feel of meat and vegetables in my mouth, so mealtimes were always a struggle between me and my mother. I still don’t really enjoy food unless I have a book to read or something to watch on TV.

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  31. I feel for you, Rachel. we never know what struggles others are experiencing. Thank you for sharing.

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  32. After living in a small apartment for 12 years and having no dining table, I swore when I had the chance, I would never eat in the living room again. I moved to a larger house in 2012, and we have a big kitchen table here. Every single day since, without fail, I have eaten at that table, even when I have been alone in the house.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  33. I recognise a lot of that myself, from my own dysfunctional family and childhood, although my Dad was really a very gentle person forced to behave contrary to his nature to conform to the fundamentalist teaching they were under when I was a child. They got out of it but not before we had all been damaged by it. Love to you from across the UK x

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  34. Hurtful family events in childhood can become part of one’s connective tissue. My stepmother was an alcoholic and I to this day cannot stand the smell of gin or the tinkle of ice in a glass. You are wise to just make eating pleasurable on your own terms rather than trying to adhere to a command that is so triggering.

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  35. Oftentimes my wife and will actually plan a meal for tv time, because of a special series or movie. In fact, tv time is especially enjoyed with snacks, despite what the health experts say. I would venture to say that at least half of our home meals are consumed in front of the tube. Our breakfasts are usually reserved for the table next to our living room window– to watch our outside birds (which we feed) while they eat and drink and wash themselves. By the way… we also like Law and Order.
    Art

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  36. Once again I swear we were living the same life a coast apart. It took me years to sit at a table to eat and I still often prefer my recliner. I do find that when I cook a nice dinner and sit down just with Charlie I can, after all these years, finally realize that I am in my own safe home.

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  37. >She said that you should only challenge yourself as much as is helpful, because pushing past your limits is counterproductive.

    This is great advice and I wish we would all hear it more.

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  38. Meals are incredibly triggering to many people, but especially those with social anxiety and a history of PTSD from traumatic meals.

    I think the issue about not operating in front of the TV can be managed by portion control and tracking if you’re eating a meal or simply snacking in front of the TV and either setting rigid boundaries (meals in front of the TV are fine, thanks to portion control, but snacking in front of the TV needs to be only once per day or something similar.

    I’m glad your therapist agreed that this was one rule which had to go in your case, as anything which punishes you is counterproductive to your healing efforts.

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  39. I so admire your ability to be able to share your story in a way that keeps the reader so engaged. You are helping others – and I always love your dog photos and humor –

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  40. We use our coffee table as our dinner (meal) table. It is low so we sit on the floor, backs against the couch and eat and watch TV. We rarely eat at a table sitting in chairs. Sometimes we stop what we are watching so we can make yummy noises and really enjoy the food. But we ALWAYS watch TV and eat.

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  41. And then there is me with a small table behind my chair on which I sit in my workroom writing on my laptop. The table was meant to be a place where not only I would do some coloring and drawing but also my eating, I have gotten into the habit of eating from a plate next to my laptop on my computer table while I take bites as I continue working on my laptop, now I tell you that is even worse I know I should give more thought to the meals I just don’t. I hope you and your furry friends all have a very happy new year,

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  42. I think you have described exactly why you should sit and eat wherever and whatever you want. 🙂

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  43. Eating with the TV is a great comfort and pleasure in a world where there aren’t many…take care 😊😊

    Reply

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