Food serves many purposes; as comfort, to celebrate, or for bonding. I love a great meal with friends or family, when the focus is about enjoyment and connecting.
But there can be a darker side of using food for purposes beyond fuel for our bodies. Food can easily be used as a distraction, dealing with stress, or for filling an emotional void. And in most cases, the types of food desired are not typically fish and steamed vegetables, but rather sweets or salty foods that are neither health-promoting nor energy-giving.
Try This: Create a Meal Ritual
Creating a ritual - whether with a snack or full meal - can help to bring back the true purpose of food as nourishment. A meal ritual can help bring attention to your body, and allow yourself to come into parasympathetic mode, or “rest and digest” mode. In this state, your physical body is best able to break down and absorb food. Mentally, it can remind you to be present, and enjoy your food.
You can create your own meal ritual with something as simple as taking a deep breath before eating. What exactly you do isn’t as important as doing it with intention. Here are a few other practices you can consider when creating your own meal ritual:
- Say one gratitude
- Turn off or remove all electronic devices (TV, cell phone, computer)
- Remove any other stimuli - even an innocent good book or magazine
- Light a candle
- Use a real plate
- Set out a placemat and silverware
- Take 1-3 deep breaths before picking up your fork
- Recite a prayer
- Make your food look beautiful, how you would for a guest
- Set your timer for 1 minute to simply look at your food and smell the aromas
- Eat outside in the sunlight and take a moment to feel the warmth on your skin
Personally, having a meal ritual helps me feel satisfied after eating. My meal ritual allows me to hit the pause button and come to present moment awareness. When I take the time to slow down to really chew and taste my food, I’m able to fully enjoy it.
On the flip side, if I don’t slow down, I often find myself eating mindlessly (while trying to work at the same time), and before I know it, the food is gone. I’ve then missed that time to check-in with myself, and I’m still looking for something else to satiate my mind or calm my anxiety.
I’ve also found meal rituals to be helpful for emotional eating. I have a tendency to eat when stressed, walking to the kitchen when something feels hard to do. Before practicing mindful eating with a meal ritual, I would just keep going back for more and more snacks, eating an entire bag of something, with little progress on whatever stressful task, and now dealing with guilt and frustration. Now, even if I decide to have a snack as an emotional pacifier, if I take time to enjoy it and give it my full awareness, the ritual brings the space I need to just relax.
What I do
When I first tried doing a meal ritual, it felt a little awkward because I often eat alone. I felt like I needed to have something to do or something to look at so I wouldn’t be lonely. With practice, though, I’m now quite comfortable turning all my attention to myself and my food.
My meal ritual consists of two things: saying a gratitude, and removing my cell phone. I try to say a gratitude about something simple and specific, like how thankful I am that my partner does laundry, or how amazing it was that my friend from the east coast called me out of the blue. I then try to chew, really chew, and just taste. If you experiment with chewing, you’ll find that the taste changes a bit as the salivary enzymes begin mixing with the food.
When I eat with my partner, we say a sweet little prayer. The prayer comes from his side of the family, and my favorite part is the ending “ommm” (“om” like in your yoga class).
Earth who gave to us this food
Sun who made it ripe and good
Sun above and earth below
Our loving thanks to you we show
Blessings on our meal
Our family and our friends
Peace on earth
Begins at hommme
Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Eat offers small meditations on mindful eating. Keep this little book by your table and read a page before a meal.
Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, is a more in-depth guide on how to implement mindful eating.