Written by Erin Esaryk, Nutrition Outreach Worker (NOW)
Have you ever found yourself eating unconsciously while you’re mentally writing a to-do list? I know I have! As a student, it often seems like there’s not enough time in the day to eat. Between midterms, work-study commitments, and essay deadlines, eating can become an overlooked and rushed afterthought. However mindful eating can transform mealtime into a refreshing and stress-relieving act. To eat mindfully is to bring non-judgemental awareness to the act of eating, to notice both the food and our body’s sensations while eating. It’s an invitation to slow down in order to relax and appreciate our food.
It can be as simple as taking a deep breath before eating and saying a silent thank you for the food. Consider your meals to be an invitation to pause and enjoy the present moment. School work requires a lot of heady intellectual effort and in the midst of all this thinking, it’s easy to ignore the body’s feelings. Eating engages all of the body’s senses, smelling, tasting, seeing, touching, and even hearing. When you see the food on the plate, take a moment to notice how it looks, the colors and texture. Breathe in deeply and notice the pleasant smells of the food. You may even notice your mouth watering. When you bring the food to your mouth, notice your lips and tongue and how it feels to chew and swallow. Reconnecting with these physical sensations promotes ease in our daily lives and makes it easier to cope with the many stresses of student life. Mindful eating offers us the opportunity to enjoy these many sensations and reconnect with our feeling body.
I lived for some years in a Buddhist community, the San Francisco Zen Center, where mindful eating is a daily practice. Most meals are in silence and all are without screens or even reading. Sometimes we ate our meals as a formal meditation, a practice called Ōryōki, a Japanese phrase that translates to “just enough”. Mindful eating as a Buddhist practice means recognizing that each moment, however mundane, is our life, worthy of our respect and attention. Rather than rushing through a meal to get on with my pursuit of a future goal, the Buddhist teachings encourage me to wake up to this very moment, this very bowl of soup, as a radiant moment of life, no better or worse than any other. Now in the midst of school work, it can be hard to remember this practice. When rushing between classes, I pause and reflect on how my body feels with each step, to invite compassion amidst all the stress. Before eating a meal, I take a moment to consider how the food arrived on my plate, the farmers, the sunshine, and the soil, to connect with the fundamental gratitude of the present moment.
Abbess of SF Zen Center Linda Ruth Cutts told me she instructed her children not to be a part of the “clean-plate club” but instead to join the “just right tummy club.” To participate in the “just right tummy club” notice when you are hungry and eat; when you feel full (a just right tummy), notice that too. Rather than having a fixed goal of how much to eat, pay attention to your body’s cues to be nourished.
You can also practice mindfulness by making meal-time screen-free. If you have an apartment or a shared house, try clearing the kitchen table and putting down a tablecloth to make your table an inviting and relaxing place to eat.
If you find it difficult to eat mindfully, don’t worry; making a habit of mindful eating takes time and practice. Sometimes it’s hard to eat mindfully because by doing so we are likely to feel the stress carried in our body which can be very uncomfortable, so the practice requires a lot of self-compassion. Start with just eating one meal or even just one piece of food mindfully. Try eating a single raisin mindfully and use this guided meditation.
There are a lot of misconceptions about mindful eating so here are a few things mindful eating is not. Mindful eating is not a diet. It is not a time to dwell on calories, nor is it a way to be more disciplined. Finally, it is not a way to overcome hunger cues. Mindful eating on the contrary supports us to have a healthy relationship with food, to bring warm-hearted presence to our meals to appreciate the joy and intimacy of eating.
If you’d like to learn more about mindful eating try Jan Chozen Bay’s book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food.