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.
1. Honor the food. Start the meal with the five contemplations, or with whatever traditional grace or prayer you prefer to use to express your gratitude.
The Five Contemplations
1. This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard, loving work.
2. May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
3. May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
4. May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
5. We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.
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.
2. Engage all six senses. 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.
3. Serve in modest portions. 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 fillling it only once can help you eat more moderately.
4. Savor small bits, and chew thoroughly. 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.
5. Eat slowly and avoid overeating. 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.
6. Don’t skip meals. 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.
7. Eat a plant-based diet, for your health and for the planet. 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.
Excerpted from Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung