Questions: where were you at dinnertime last night? What did you eat? Was anyone else with you? Did you do anything else during the meal besides eat? How did your food taste? Did you enjoy your food? What did you think about as you ate? What mood were you in when you came to the table? When did you decide you were done eating? How did you feel after the meal? Some days we may be able to answer all of these questions. Other days not so much.
The truth is, there are days that we’re lucky to sneak in a meal at all. Children, meetings, travel, overtime, activities all mean we’re running from one thing to the next. Eating can be an afterthought – a chore inserted when possible and usually in tandem with at least one other activity. Even on the days when we sit down to a set table, we’re not assured a peaceful meal. The phone rings. UPS delivers a package. (Yes, aren’t you always the last house?) Little Suzy has a meltdown. Junior is feeding the dog from the table. There are multiple trips back to the kitchen for whatever was forgotten and a dozen or so fragmented conversations. If we’re eating alone, there are other kinds of distractions. Do we even bother sitting at the table? How about checking email or Facebook? A new magazine came today. Maybe I’ll just leaf through it while I have the chance. Whatever the case, the food itself quickly recedes into a mental background. The fork reaches our mouth. Maybe a taste registers, but we’ll have little recollection of the meal by the time our dishes reach the sink.
A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.” It follows the latest on mindful eating, a concept that has surged into public consciousness in the last several years with all manner of celebrity attention to it. Google now apparently organizes a monthly silent lunch at its headquarters. A few monasteries offer classes or retreats focused on mindful eating. As the article’s author suggests, taking a more conscious mindset to the table may be a pivotal tool in fighting our culture’s decidedly unhealthy relationship with food.
As a discipline, mindfulness training for the table becomes a meditation on the food itself. Participants learn to study their food – its feel, its weight, its appearance, its dimensions, its texture and taste. Chewing is slow and intentional. Time is spent on each morsel. Sometimes a meal for this purpose is all of three raisins or a single tangerine.
While I can’t say I’m sure I’d have the patience to get through one of those seminars, I commend the underlying purpose. We’ve relinquished the enjoyment of our food as we have other sensory and physical pleasures in our society. What’s sad is we don’t even realize it. We’ve written off the experience of honest to goodness dining. I’ll find myself at a good restaurant or a friend’s elaborate sit-down dinner celebration, and somebody (or bodies) will be checking their phones. (Is there an emoticon for this?) Our society seems to go ever further down the distractibility path, and our eating (like much else) is the worse for it.
The last couple of weeks I’ve written about the bad choices we tend to make and why. I’d tack this subject under the same header. The truth is, we sometimes make bad decisions because we give ourselves permission to “go unconscious,” as one expert in the article mentioned. We knowingly turn off all thought and let happen what will. It’s a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” kind of mentality. In a bizarre persona splitting, we shoo the responsible self away. We send it off to the movies with a $20 bill and tell it to have a good time. At the end of the evening, it returns to find a tub of ice cream eaten or a chip bag empty. How could you have eaten the whole thing? Well, you took the night off, didn’t you? I’m all for a good Primal indulgence, but how is this owning our choices? Maybe we just don’t want to hear – to rationally witness – what’s really going through our subconscious in those hours.
Which brings me to my main point about mindful eating… Yes, I appreciate the idea of savoring the eating experience – taking back dinner, so to speak. Many of us need this. In the early years with my kids, I felt like I never tasted a single thing I ate because it was all about mach speed if you wanted any caloric intake that day. I love the idea of accepting it as a fully sensory, personally nourishing, and even thought provoking exercise. Who couldn’t use that? But here’s the crux of it for me. If you wait to start thinking about your food until the first bite enters your mouth, you might be too late to the mindful party.
What about reflecting on what you’re bringing to the table (or kitchen sink, desk, couch or wherever you feel drawn to eat at that moment)? What mental chatter, what mood is acting as overlay to your food choices and/or eating experience? In my estimation, this is where people trip themselves up most often. If it’s been a stressful day, if you’re anxious about something, if you’re feeling down, I’d recommend doing something other than eating until you can put aside the baggage and come to the table with simply an appreciative stomach. It might mean just enjoying the social experience of dinnertime with your family and reheating your food later. It might mean leaving the house and going for a brisk walk to clear your head. It might mean taking a hot bath and deciding on dinner later.
Dr. Cheung, co-author of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, explains, “The rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves.” I’d whole-heartedly agree on that. I’d say it probably accounts for a lot of problems people face. People used to prepare for dinner. It was a more formal experience than it often is now. From prehistoric times to even now on some occasions, we observed rituals however lavish or mundane. We washed. We dressed. We carved servings. We said thanks. It was a time to put aside other things. If ritual or will can’t achieve this today, it’s better to put food aside than consciousness and self-control.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on eating mindfully. Have a good end to the week.