Back in the late ’90s, Nielsen Media Research estimated that 66 percent of Americans ate dinner in front of the TV. The TV Turnoff Network says 40 percent of us do it, and a CBS News poll found that 33 percent of its viewers dine with the TV on. Whatever the exact number of TV diners, the point is this: A lot of us do it, myself included. So it’s already a habit.
Even worse, everyone and your mom say eating in front of the TV is a surefire way to get fat. Eating while distracted, researchers have found, can make us ignore signals of satiety and take in 10 percent more calories than we would have if we paid more attention to our food. And we watch a ridiculous amount of distracting TV—more than five hours a day.
It’s a no-brainer, then, to chuck the TV dinner trays. But boob-tube dining shouldn’t die—it just needs a makeover. My proposition: Watch TV only while eating dinner; you might wind up eating and watching less.
Now hear me out. I don’t have cable, but between Hulu comedies and Netflix movies, I probably spent a good two hours a night with my Vizio. And even though I believe there’s cultural value in just about everything I watch, from The Daily Show to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to classic films like The Bicycle Thief, that’s just too much time spent staring at LEDs when I should be eyeing my neighbors’ decorating choices during a nighttime walk or learning Italian so I can read Dante’s Inferno in its original form.
And let’s be honest. Dinner takes all of 15 minutes to eat. Twenty tops, even if you’re eating with your family. Therefore, if I only watched TV while eating dinner, I’d watch only 20 minutes of TV. I gave myself 30, just to be nice. Cue: A phone alarm set for 30 minutes. Reward: Chocolate. Here’s what happened.
My Junk TV Time Decreased
If you’re like me, you have a list (or found one like this) of must-see movies that you’ve never watched because they’re too damn long. Gone with the Wind: four hours. Cleopatra: four hours, eight minutes. Plus, I’m traditionally an all-or-nothing TV watcher; I’d rather watch four complete half-hour shows in two hours than quit on a movie halfway through.
Knowing I was allowed to watch TV for just 30 minutes killed any hesitance to dive in—and watching Cleopatra eliminated any entertainment decision making for more than a week. I now know that Richard Burton had great legs for a miniskirt and Scarlett got what she deserved.
I Stopped Eating (But Not Craving) So Much Chocolate
Before embarking on this new adventure, my TV-time chocolate intake could drain an entire M&M's store in a month. My waistline hadn’t budged much—I’ll thank a seven- to 10-hour-a-week training schedule for that. But surely I didn’t need that third ramekin full of candies. When chocolate became my reward for turning off the TV and not something I’d start munching in TV hour two, I was satisfied with less, just like all those studies said.
Bonus: Much More Time for Training and Chores
I’d like to say it was something I saw during an evening stroll that inspired me, but my neighbors close their curtains at night. I simply had more time to do home projects. Within a span of two weeks, my husband and I put up crown molding and painted the walls in the kitchen, living, and dining rooms. It looks pretty good, too.
This does not mean that I’ve adopted the new TV habit without a hitch. There are times when my alarm sounds and I grab another handful of M&Ms and settle in for more SNL. I’ll thank my husband/accountability partner for throwing me a hoodie and dragging me out the door for a walk when that happens. But sometimes even he can’t resist a double feature of The Mindy Project. I’m not worried, though; habits aren’t made overnight.