You’d Better Be Anorexic

Dear Helena,

My mother-in-law eats very slowly. She says she is practicing “mindful eating.” When we have cleaned our plates and even had seconds, she is still taking tiny mouselike nibbles. In my view, this is not mindful eating, this is a power trip. Is it rude to dawdle over your dinner? -Annoyed Son-in-Law

Dear Annoyed Son-in-Law,

For Zen Buddhists, mindful eating can be a form of meditation. (Plus, it can make you appreciate your food more.) But in America, this spiritual exercise has evolved into a dieting strategy. The CAMP System mindful-eating website offers tutorials in eating slowly to lose weight. One tutorial, “The Mindful Doughnut,” suggests that you cut a doughnut into 16 pieces with a knife and fork, and then meditate on a different aspect of the doughnut during each bite. During bite 15, for example, “Consider the sacrifice of animals that died during the harvest of the wheat for your doughnut.”

Dieters and Zen Buddhists aren’t the only ones who believe in slow eating. Practitioners of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, recommend eating no more than could fit in a bowl made by your cupped hands, and chewing thoroughly to optimize digestion. Wynn Werner of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, explains: “Since 108 is a sacred number in Ayurvedic teachings, some recommend chewing every bite 108 times.”

This isn’t as weird as you might think. Enzymes in saliva do help break down food so that it is digested more easily and fully. And eating slowly makes you likely to eat less.

However, dining with other people is not the time to count 108 chews. Sure, you should appreciate your food. But your companions deserve your attention, too. Plus, eating together is a powerful bonding ritual, and part of that ritual is eating the same food—at the same time. Whether your mother-in-law is doing it wittingly or not, disrupting that ritual is rude.

There are two exceptions to this rule: the anorexic and the very old. The old can hardly help their slow eating (especially if they have no teeth). And slow eating can be a symptom of anorexia. Is your mother-in-law looking gaunt? Even if she looks normal, she could have an eating disorder in its early stages. Have you noticed other strange eating rituals? Does she exercise compulsively? If this is the case, the problem could be a medical condition, not a lack of manners.

But assuming your mother-in-law is hale and hearty, you risk offending her—as well as looking petty and insecure—if you tell her straight out that her slow eating makes you uncomfortable. Unfortunately, you’re just going to have to sit and wait.

Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.