5 Ways to Make Small Meals Satisfying

In the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, we talk about the fact that you don’t need to eat a lot of food to feel satisfied – but when you’re eating, it doesn’t always feel that way.

If you’ve gotten used to eating larger amounts, you might have a hard time scaling back because you think you need that more food. And it’s even easier to think that in restaurants that give you large portions.

This is something I sometimes struggle with as well, and during the pandemic, I’ve noticed that the amount of food I’m eating at a sitting has crept up. So over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of portion sizes, and I’ve come up with a few suggestions for how to make this easier.

Use Smaller Dishes

One of the first and easiest changes is to use smaller dishes. If you use a large plate or bowl, you’ll be tempted to fill it up, or if it’s not full, psychologically it doesn’t feel like you’ve had as much.

For example, I recently made gazpacho – one of my summer favorites – and I experimented by putting it in two different sized bowls.

It’s quite a contrast, and even though the amounts were the same, the serving in the large bowl felt somehow incomplete.

Then there’s the fact that if you use a larger dish and fill it up, you’re much more likely to eat it, even if you don’t like the food or get full before it’s gone. Consider the study by Cornell that found people ate 34% more stale popcorn if they had a large bucket than if they had a medium bucket. Clearly, in this case, size matters.

Make it Look Nice

You’ve likely heard the phrase “you eat with your eyes first,” which is a way of saying that the presentation matters. If you’re ravenous, admittedly you probably won’t quibble too much, but if you’re normally hungry it helps to make your food look nice.

For anyone who’s a fan of the show Chopped, you know that this is important to the judges, who are also chefs. They judge on three things: taste, presentation, and creativity. Taste tends to win out in the end, but if two dishes taste equally good, the one that doesn’t look as nice is going to get chopped.

And when you go out to each, the restaurants try to make your food look appealing, with nice plates, artful arrangements, and different colors.

You don’t have to be as fancy as a fine restaurant or Food Network shows, but try to present your food nicely. The act of plating it this way will likely make you appreciate it more, and taking a minute to enjoy the appearance automatically gives you a pause before you start eating.

Take Small Bites

Taking small bites is a simple – but not always easy – way to make meals more satisfying.

One reason this is a challenge is that you may not feel like you have much time to eat. You might have a long to-do list, or if you’re eating during your lunch break, you could feel pressured to get back to work. Or for that matter, eat while working.

You may also feel self-conscious about “nibbling” at your food. It’s far more common for people to take large bites and eat quickly, so going against the norm could be uncomfortable.

Still, it’s well worth doing. Since we only have taste buds on our tongues, when you take smaller bites, you get more of the flavor of the food instead of losing it when the food hits the roof of your mouth.

Plus, small bites will automatically slow down your eating, which gives more time for fullness signals to get from your stomach to your brain.

Include Variety

I also find it useful to include different textures in my meal. Some soft, some creamy, some crunchy. This gives me some variety and makes the meal more interesting, and crunchy foods take a little longer to eat, which again slows you down.

You can add variety in other ways, too. You might have some parts of your dish that are hot or warm, and other parts that are cold. Or bites that are sweet, or savory, or spicy, depending on your preference.

All of this can keep you more engaged while you eat, which brings me to the last point.

Pay Attention

One of the most important things you can do to make your meal satisfying is to pay attention.

If you’re eating mindlessly, and you have just a small amount of food, you can very easily eat everything without noticing it. When you realize you’re done, you feel cheated because you didn’t taste the food. To make up for it, you eat more, even though you’re probably not hungry anymore.

When you pay attention, though, you can have small amounts without feeling like you’re missing anything.

For example, I often have peanuts and fruit as a snack. If I grab several peanuts at once and eat them, and continue that way, the peanuts are gone pretty quickly. I end up feeling somehow deprived, even though I had the amount of food I wanted.

But instead, if I have just one or two peanuts at a time, and I pay attention to how they taste, I slow down. And by the time I’m done, I feel like I’ve had enough.

You Don’t Need to Eat a Lot to Be Satisfied

American society doesn’t make it very easy to be satisfied with small amounts of food, but with practice, it’s possible to get there.

If you use smaller dishes, present your food nicely, take small bites, include variety, and pay attention, you might be surprised at how little you need to be satisfied.

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