Ah, food. It nourishes you, it gives you life, it is the reminder of childhood memories and the protagonist of occasions that knit your life together. We all know that what you eat is the cornerstone of a healthy life — but how you eat is also important.
Do you scoff your dinner in front of the telly after a long day at work or running after the kids? Do you tuck into extra-large portions of cake when you’re feeling a little vulnerable, stressed and in need of some love? Perhaps your diet is exemplary but every time you put something in your mouth you’re busy typing or texting or talking.
Or perhaps, like me, you’ve been guilty of all three at various stages in life.
Taking time over meals, taking them slowly and enjoying them seemed to be normal a couple of decades ago, before life started to get so hectic. Now, though, food — and taking the time to eat it — seems to have become a secondary consideration at mealtimes.
Why talk about food on a blog devoted to meditation? Five days into the Mindful in May meditation program, I was sent an exercise on mindful eating. It suggested using meals as a trigger to be mindful; as a way to slow down and bring more mindfulness into your daily life. What a wonderful, simple idea. After all, most of us in these abundant countries of ours eat at least three meals a day — that’s three times a day in which you have the opportunity to slow down and to savour your food, your life, the present moment.
Mindful eating simply means being present with your food and focusing your attention on the experience of eating. It isn’t a spiritual or religious practice. It’s not available only to the wealthy or the privileged or the beautiful. You don’t need to prepare a special meal or invite special guests or even sit in a special chair. All you need to do is use all of your senses to truly discover what is on the plate before you.
I read about this exercise on a Sunday, chez moi, so I really had no excuse not to do it. I prepared some soup and sliced some freshly baked bread, put my phone and my book and the remote control to one side, and sat down at the bench of my mini apartment to eat.
I breathed slowly and deeply, concentrating on the smell and appearance of my meal, and thought about where each component came from. I picked up my spoon and took the first mouthful, chewing slowly, savouring the flavours and trying to pinpoint each individual ingredient (luckily I’d made the soup; it may have been a bit tough otherwise). I felt the muscles in my throat as I swallowed, then felt the heat in my stomach and a slight assuaging of my hunger. I put the spoon down and took a sip of cold water, focusing on how that felt. I took a bite of bread and chewed and swallowed, and felt grateful.
I ate that meal very, very slowly. I tried to keep my mind on what I was doing, rather than letting it run helter-skelter through my to-do list and back. I forgot what I was doing 100 times and brought my mind back to my plate 100 times. I felt a little silly, eating at a bench set for one, but then I remembered it was OK not to have to be anywhere and it was OK to be eating alone.
When I finished that meal, I felt calm and completely satisfied. I almost felt like I’d meditated and, in a sense, I guess I had. Like meditation, eating slowly and mindfully is about focus and enjoyment and gentleness. And, like meditation, mindful eating is a simple and sensible idea with powerful side-effects (see more reading below).
After that exercise, I’ve decided to be more mindful when I eat. I’ve committed to mindful eating before and it hasn’t stuck, but I’m going to lovingly recommit. I may only remember to eat mindfully once a day but this mindful eating business seems to be something of an art-form — I imagine it takes a bit of practice to perfect. And, you know, perhaps I don’t even have to perfect mindful eating, just get to the stage where it seems…effortless.
I invite you to try give mindful eating a whirl this lunchtime. Let me know how you get on.
P.S. For more about mindful eating, check out some of these articles from past issues of WellBeing:
- Food choices and the mind-body connection
- No more emotional eating
- Readjust your relationship with food
- Mindful munching