an excerpt from Savor: Mindful Eating Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
At home, reserve a time for dinner. Turn off the TV; put away the newspapers, magazines, mail and homework. If you are eating with others, work together to help prepare dinner. Each of you can help with washing the vegetables, cooking or setting the table. When all the food is on the table, sit down and practice conscious breathing a few times to bring your body and mind together, and recover yourselves from a hard day’s work. Be fully present for each other, and for the food in front of you.
After a few conscious breaths, look at each other with a gentle smile and acknowledge each other’s presence. If you are eating alone, don’t forget to smile to yourself. Breathing and smiling are so easy to do, yet their effects are very powerful in helping us and others to feel at ease. When we look at the food in such a moment of peace, the food becomes real and reveals our connection with it and with everything else. The extent to which we see our interrelationship with the food depends on the depth of our mindfulness practice. We may not always be able to see and taste the whole universe every time we eat, but we can do our best to eat as mindfully as possible
When we look at our food on the table, it is helpful to name each dish: “pea soup,” “salad” and so on. Calling something by its name helps us touch it deeply and see its true nature. And mindfulness reveals to us the presence or absence of toxins in each dish so that we can stop eating something that is not good for us.Children enjoy naming and recognizing foods when we show them how.
Being with our family and friends to enjoy food is precious. Many people are hungry and without family. When we eat in mindfulness, we generate compassion in our heart for them. With compassion and understanding, we can strengthen our commitment to helping nourish the hungry and lonely people around us. Mindful eating is a good education. If you practice this way for some time, you will find that you will eat more carefully, and your practice of mindful eating will be an example for others. It is an art to eat in a way that brings mindfulness into our life.
One way to incorporate mindfulness into your meals is to simply use the breath. Before eating, make a practice of pausing. Breathe in and out a few times so that you can be one with the food you are about to eat. Mindful eating takes dedicated practice, and there are seven practices that you can develop to help you eat mindfully for good health.
The Five Contemplations
If you are eating with others, steer mealtime conversations toward the food: Acknowledge the local farmer who grew your lettuce and tomatoes, thank the person who prepared the salad; or talk about other topics that help nourish your gratitude and connection to your food and each other. Refrain from hashing over work or the latest atrocities in the news. Refrain from arguing. This can help you make sure that you are chewing only your food, not your frustrations. In Vietnam it is a custom to never chastise anyone while they are eating, so as not to disturb their eating and digestion. We can learn from this very commonsense wisdom. Eating in this way, we have the opportunity to sit with people we love and to savor precious food, something that is often scarce for many people in the world.
At all Plum Village practice centers, we eat our meals in silence during the first 20 minutes of the meal so that we are fully immersed in the experience of eating. We encourage you to experiment with a silent meal at home — even just a silent cup of tea. But you do not need to eat every meal in silence to become a more mindful eater. You can start by simply unplugging from daily distractions during mealtime: turn off the television, the laptop, the cell phone, so there is no watching, no surfing, no texting.
As you serve and eat your meal, notice the sounds, colors, smells and textures as well as your mind’s response to them, not just the taste. When you put the first bite of food in your mouth, pause briefly before chewing and notice its taste as though it was the first time you had ever tasted it. With more practice in engaging all of your senses, you may notice that your tastes change, increasing your enjoyment of what you may once have perceived as “boring” health foods.
Moderation is an essential component of mindful eating. Not only does making a conscious effort to choose smaller portions help you avoid overeating and weight gain; it is also less wasteful of your household food budget and our planet’s resources. Using a small dinner plate, no larger than 9 inches across, and filling it only once can help you eat more moderately.
Consciously choosing smaller bites and chewing them well can help you slow down your meal as well as allow you to fully experience the taste of your food. It can also help improve your digestion, since the process of breaking down our foods begins with enzymes in the mouth. Chew each bite until the food is liquefied in your mouth; that may be 20 to 40 times, depending on what you are eating. Chewing well allows your tongue and palate to taste the food better. Once you have swallowed this bite, you will still be able to savor the wonderful taste that the food offers you.
Eating slowly may help you notice when you are feeling pleasantly satisfied so that you can stop before you have eaten too much. There is a difference between feeling that you have had just about enough to eat and feeling as though you have eaten all that you can possibly eat. Mindful eaters practice the former so that they are not overtaxing their bodies — or overtaxing the planet’s resources — by consuming more food than they need. In Chinese medicine, it is recommended to eat only until you are 80 percent full and never to “top off your tummy,” because this weakens the digestive power of your stomach and intestines, putting too much stress on them over the long haul. There is ongoing scientific research on the effects of caloric restriction on longevity, though the results are far from conclusive in humans. Of course, avoiding overeating is half of the secret to weight control.
One way to slow down is to consciously put your eating utensils down in between bites. Be aware of your body as you eat. When we eat mindfully, we are relaxed and calm. There is no rush to attend to other tasks; there is no hurry. There is only the present moment. To help you practice this, make sure to allow enough time to enjoy the meal. If your mealtime is short — for example, during your lunch break at work — plan on a smaller meal rather than cramming down a large meal quickly.
Skipping meals can make it harder to make mindful choices. When hunger consumes us, the strong forces of habit energy may lead us to grab whatever foods are close at hand — be they from a vending machine or a fast-food restaurant — and these foods may not further our healthy-eating or weight-loss goals. So-called grazing — moving from one food to another, a few bites of this, a few bites of that, without ever sitting down to a regular meal — can also work against your healthy-weight goals, because you may consume more food than you realize without ever feeling truly satisfied. So give yourself the opportunity to make mindful choices throughout the day; plan regular meals and, if it suits you, healthy snacks in between. It is also good to eat your meals at the same time each day, to help your body settle into a consistent rhythm. And give yourself enough time to fully savor your food so that you are aware of all the sensory delights your meals have to offer.
When mindful eaters look deeply at the meal they are about to eat, they see far beyond the rim of the plate. They see the dangerous toll that eating some types of animal foods can take on their bodies — the higher risks of colon cancer from red meat and processed meats, for example, or the higher risk of heart disease from the saturated fat found in meat and dairy products. And they see the equally dangerous and destructive toll that meat production and dairy farming take on our environment. Researchers at the University of Chicago estimate that, when it’s all added up, the average American could do more to reduce global warming emissions by going vegetarian than by switching from a Camry to a Prius. Even just switching from red meat and dairy to poultry or eggs for one day a week could have a measurable impact on global warming — and a bigger environmental impact than choosing locally sourced foods.
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