What did you eat for dinner last night? How about breakfast this morning? For many of us this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Even if we do know what dish we prepared, recalling the flavour, texture and even sensation of actually eating can prove quite the challenge.
That doesn’t mean your meal wasn’t delicious or exciting – it is the way in which we eat which tends to cloud our memory.
Plonking down in front of the tv, taking quick bites while our fingers race across a keyboard or even munching on the go are all common experiences. It is rare that we set aside time to really savour and enjoy the meals we eat. With mindful eating, we can change that.
What is mindful eating?
The practice is a simple one, described by Karen Mayo, author of Mindful Eating: Thirty Days to A Whole New You, as “eating with awareness.”
Too often we eat on autopilot, not really paying any attention to what we are putting in our mouths but focussing instead on the numerous distractions around us. Bringing all the markers of our usual mindfulness practice to the dinner table draws our attention back to the food in front of us.
To eat mindfully it is important to sit down with your meal, banish distractions and allow yourself to take in all the details of your food.
Karen recommends taking it sense by sense, first noticing how your food looks on the plate before feeling its texture, hearing how it crunches under the pressure of your fork and noting how each bite makes you feel.
Eating in this way is naturally slower than usual as we give ourselves time to really connect with the dish on our plates. “Having a presence and awareness around the activity, and in that one moment, is a very different experience,” says Francine Russell, food consultant, coach and mindfulness practitioner with All About Food.
Eating any meal with such focus can begin to change your relationship with food, but Francine is keen to share the message that you only need to start small to feel the benefits of mindful eating.
How do I practice mindful eating?
As with anything, it is easiest to start small. You don’t even need to begin with a full meal, a piece of fruit will do just as well. Take a ripe apple from the bowl, sit down and study it before you take a bite.
You might wonder where it came from and how many people helped it along the journey into your home. Notice the sound as you crunch into it and savour the taste. How is it different to one you’ve eaten before? How is it making you feel?
“There’s no should and there are no rules. Be compassionate to yourself and non-judgemental,” says Francine. Eating mindfully at every meal is a worthwhile practice but it is not necessary to reap the rewards.
Follow the process every once in a while, and begin as small as you like. She explains that it is important to “start with a beginner’s mind – let go of the expectation and the expert mind, see it through a different lens and don’t be harsh on yourself”.
After all, according to Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, it takes roughly 66 days to form a new ritual so no one should expect to be an expert in an instant. Give yourself time and go at your own pace.
What are the benefits of mindful eating?
Learning to eat with more care and attention, and a new mindful approach, can have a positive impact on your physical health as well as your mental wellbeing.
Eating slowly and devoting more time to the actual process of eating often means we chew more and take longer to consume any one meal – this is brilliant for digestion.
Mindful eating can help us learn to recognise signals in our own bodies too. When we’re full, fat tissues release a hormone called leptin to tell the brain that we don’t need to continue eating.
Scientists say that this message takes roughly 20 minutes to reach the brain and so by the time that message is received by the brain, we have been left with a lot of time to over-eat. Slowing down therefore helps to keep us from eating more than we need.
Portion control is a big concern for many and mindful eating can certainly help. A 2013 study found that those who approach their meals with this mindset tend to eat smaller portions.
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There is some evidence to suggest that it steers us away from unhealthy choices too. When we are thinking more about the food we are eating, it seems we are more likely to choose healthy, nutritious food.
However, this approach is entirely non-judgemental. Eating mindfully, you become more aware of your body’s needs and so food can be seen as (delicious) fuel. Most of us have emotional attachments to food in some way but this can begin to be erased with mindfulness.
There are no good or bad foods just as there are no edible rewards and emotional eating is replaced by a grounding process focussed on need rather than want.
Francine explains, ‘It makes the eating process calmer and there is a real sense of wellbeing and self-care to it, so being aware of what I put in my mouth and the choices I make… it’s grounding.”
Can I cook mindfully?
For much of the time our kitchens seem to be defined by disorder – with music playing in the background, a recipe up on a screen, children asking for attention, a cat just asking to be tripped over – so you might not think there’s much space for mindfulness. But living in the moment can be applied to the kitchen as much as the dining table.
Cooking mindfully is essentially a practice in awareness which is all about making a connection with the produce we are using. Every step of preparing a meal, from setting intentions and planning what food you will eat, through to shopping and ultimately cooking, can be approached with mindfulness.
Ask yourself why you’ve chosen to prepare a particular dish and question the journey of its ingredients. As you note their colour and texture and the sensation of preparing them, form a connection with every ingredient from the earth it was grown in to the table upon which it will be served.
In essence it couldn’t be simpler, just do what you are doing and nothing else. It may sound reductive, but to banish all wandering thoughts from your mind as you prepare a meal is a surprising challenge. But seeing the process of cooking and eating as a full, mindful and even spiritual experience is a rewarding one.
Begin your own journey towards preparing and enjoying a mindful meal with our tips below.
5 steps to eating more mindfully
It is so much easier to stick to plans when they are made in advance. Set an intention to try eating one meal on a specific day more mindfully – you could write this down in a journal or just take a moment to cement the intention in your mind at the beginning of the day or week.
So often we are eating on the go. Whether that is a piece of fruit eaten on the way to work, a snack on a lunchtime walk or just busying about at home, it is much more difficult to be mindful when you’re not also still. Prepare a meal and sit down at a table to eat. Make yourself comfortable and allow yourself the space to savour your food.
Turn off the tv
Distractions like television, laptops, music and even particularly chatty friends can make your mealtime experience less meditative. Tune out everything but your own connection with the food you are eating. While it may seem strange at first, silence is perfect for this.
If finding the time and mental space for an entire mindful meal seems like too much, start smaller. Start with an apple or a simple breakfast. Many people find the easiest way into a mindful eating habit is with a box of raisins. Take yourself away from the hustle and bustle and eat them one by one with real focus. Notice what your body is telling you and stop when you’re satisfied.
Go sense by sense
Another way to ease yourself into the ritual is by working your way through the senses. The first time you eat mindfully begin by focussing only on appearance before finishing your meal. Next time, take note of sounds too. Then add texture, taste, and more until the experience becomes a complete one.
Learn more about mindful eating on the In The Moment Magazine podcast
Photos by Travis Yewell, Bonnie Kittle, Brenda Godinez, Katie Smith, Pablo Merchan Montes, Khamkhor and Alex Loup on Unsplash.