Mindful eating, or the practice of consuming meals with greater attention to how the food tastes and feels, conveys numerous physical and spiritual benefits. Tuning into your senses allows you to enjoy the fare more, and simultaneously, encourages you to take in less since you’re better able to read your body’s hunger and satiety cues. “When practiced to the fullest, mindful eating turns a simple meal into a spiritual experience, giving us a deep appreciation of all that went into the meal’s creation as well as a deep understanding of the relationship between the food on our table, our own health, and the planet’s health,” writes global spiritual leader and mindful eating pioneer, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Savor.
Sounds lovely, right? So why aren’t more of us engaging in this beautiful behavior? A recent episode of “The Muppets” reboot (the classic children’s series made a comeback in 2015) sums up the issue perfectly. Kermit, who plays a stressed-out producer struggling to keep a madcap late-night show together, goes on a mindfulness retreat. He and the other attendees sit in front of plates holding what looks like a single soybean. When the frog has a side conversation with actor Jason Bateman, the retreat’s leader admonishes them for not being “present.” She then instructs the class to, “Sit, [and] feel your bottom against the chair…”
To many watching at home, this mindful eating exercise must have looked insane, from the tiny portions to the silence to the spacey (and judge-y) instructor offering ridiculous cues. But for those of us who have dabbled in mindful eating, it also felt kind of familiar.
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My first time trying a mindful eating exercise, I spent nearly half an hour eating a single clementine. Consuming the fruit so slowly and deliberately definitely gave me a better appreciation for its taste and texture. But it also left me feeling like, “Welp, there’s no way I’ll be able to do this on a normal day.” I’m a working parent of two, which means breakfast is something I often consume standing up, usually while I simultaneously try to fill bowls of oatmeal for my wife and daughter, quell toddler tantrums before they become baby-waking meltdowns, and unload a dishwasher.
“Your morning sounds a lot like mine,” says Mark Muesse, an associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, when I described the scene to him. Muesse is the creator of a “Great Courses” lecture series that first introduced me to guided mindful eating—the one with the 30-minute clementine. As a fellow working parent with a wife and young daughter, Muesse quickly disabused me of the idea that mindful eating means using that painstaking, time-consuming approach at every meal.
“There’s no criteria that has to be fulfilled [in order to eat mindfully],” Muesse says. “It is not necessary to do it in silence. And it is not necessary to eat slowly. Those are just training techniques. I think it depends on whether or not there is attention. And certainly, you can have attention even when things are hectic and chaotic.”
To those of us who don’t often eat alone or won’t ever have the time to “wash each dish with the same care as we would use if we were bathing a baby” (a suggestion from Hanh), this is great news. Here are seven mindful eating exercises Muesse and others recommend you try in real-world situations.
1. Choose healthy, not convenient, foods. Give some thought to what you’re putting into your body and how it will affect you, rather than defaulting to the most convenient option, Muesse advises. “Eating is very important aspect of our overall interaction with the world,” he says. “The Buddha advocated the idea that we eat in order to sustain our bodies for the benefit of other people and our own enlightenment.”
2. Say grace. Or have a moment of silence. Do whatever best aligns with your beliefs and traditions and acknowledges the work that went into creating the meal before you. “I think about where the food comes from. How it gets there. All the individuals and other beings that have been involved in bringing to my place and time the food that is going to become a part of me,” Muesse says. “So I reflect on this process of eating and how it is that the different elements of the universe have come together and now have become a part of who I am.”
3. When in a group, try a small dose of silence. Some mindful eating exercises ask people to eat an entire meal in silence so each person can better appreciate the experience of eating. But for many families, mealtimes are also a chance for people to connect with each other. “At my house, we’ll just take the first five minutes and eat in silence. Then the rest of the meal we have conversation,” Muesse says. “It doesn’t have to be five minutes. It can just be one minute or two minutes. But it sort of sets the tone. It’s exactly what Buddhist monasteries do. They take about 15 minutes of silence [at the beginning of meals] and then they have conversation.”
4. To slow things down, count your chews. You probably already know some of the basic practices of mindful eating include removing distractions like TV or smartphones, putting down your fork between bites, and eating slowly. But what does “slow” mean? For Hanh, the suggestion means chewing more—probably much more than you do currently. “Chew each bite until the food is liquefied in your mouth,” he writes in Savor. “That may be twenty to forty times, depending on what you are eating.” In case you need extra motivation to up your mastication, know that science supports Hanh’s idea. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people chewed almonds at least 25 times or more, their bodies absorbed more of the healthy fats contained by the nuts than other test subjects who chewed only 10 times.
5. Portion your meal based on the time you have to consume it. Another mindful eating exercise Hanh employs to avoid feeling hurried is to size his plate based on the time available for consuming it. “If your mealtime is short—for example, during your lunch break at work—plan on a smaller meal rather than just cramming down a large meal quickly,” he writes.
6. Avoid skipping meals. “Skipping meals can make it harder to make mindful choices,” Hanh explains. It’s easy to see why. When you’re hungry like the wolf, you’re a lot more likely to devour whatever is in your path (i.e., vending machine goodies). This is why it’s so easy to pass over healthier options like fruits and vegetables that might not be as readily accessible or need preparation for consumption.
7. If you do have a spare hour, try this. A technique Muesse uses to show his students the power of mindful eating is to take an entire hour to eat dinner. “I prepare dinner, set a timer and say, ‘You are going to stay here for an hour. You can’t leave. It’s part of the exercise. You finish your meal in 15 minutes, you are going to be sitting here for 45 minutes.’ Knowing that they have to be there for an hour really slows them down and makes them deliberately savor the experience,” Muesse says. “They love it. It’s plain food, nothing fancy, but they come out of it saying things like, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know food could taste so good.’ Maybe that’s because they have never really tasted it.”