mindful eating

About a year ago I spent two days at Kripalu, a yoga retreat center in the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts. A friend invited me up there for the weekend to take a break from a few super-stressful months that had left me frazzled and exhausted. Despite being excited about a new experience -- and some much needed down-time -- I’d only practiced yoga casually for several years so I went along hesitantly.

We got there late on a Friday night and went straight to our rooms and right to sleep. We'd hit traffic on the way up and each of us had had rough weeks at work, and to say we were tired would be an understatement. Before we turned in we made plans to meet at breakfast in the morning. “It’s silent breakfast, by the way,” my friend said to me. I had no idea what he was talking about.

When we walked into the large breakfast room, all we heard were the clinks of silverware. There were a few dozen people there already, each enjoying their breakfast…in total silence. My friend and I filled our plates, walked over to a table, and proceeded to eat breakfast together, but without exchanging a single word.

It was one of the simplest and most enjoyable meals I’d ever had -- and I’m a big foodie and have had many, many amazing meals. The food was good but my experience had little to do with what I ate and more to do with how I was eating it: Mindfully.

Most of my meals are usually either rushed, on the go, or involve talking to someone while I'm eating, whether it’s my family or someone I'm meeting for lunch or dinner. I’m sure you can relate to having eaten a bunch of food and not really tasted it -- that happens a lot. As the pace of our lives keeps increasing, so does the pace at which we consume food -- faster, faster, faster. At my first silent breakfast in Kripalu I experienced the total pleasure of mindful eating and understood for the first time why this concept has been gaining traction during the last few years.

The idea itself is rooted in Buddhism and is essentially a form of meditation with food. Some Buddhist practices of mindful eating involve giving students a few raisins and instructing them to take 10 or 20 minutes to eat them -- and to truly experience the taste, smell, and sensation of every bite. Mindful eating is not a diet or a prescription of what to eat, and it’s actually a really simple idea:

Eat slowly. Don’t multitask while you’re eating by talking or watching TV or checking your email. Really taste the food. Put your fork or spoon down between bites to slow yourself down. Enjoy what you eat.

I was really inspired by my silent breakfast experience and have tried to make mindful eating part of my life as often as possible. Full disclosure: I manage to eat mindfully only a few times a week, at most. It’s still a challenge and something I'm working to make a more consistent part of my life.

Here are my 5 favorite ways to practice mindful eating:

1) Use your special dishes. You know how we save the “nice china” for special occasions? Well, an enjoyable meal is a special occasion. When you use your nicer dishes you’ll be more likely to treat the meal as something you don’t want to rush through. I bought a really fancy tea cup and saucer set and I find when I really need to slow down, drinking tea from something that feels fancy elevates it from something I do on the run to a small 5-minute sit-down ceremony in my kitchen.

2) Put your utensils down between bites. Disclosure: this can feel ridiculous at first. Between each bite set down your utensils and don’t pick them up until you’re done chewing. It will take you forever to eat… and that’s the point.

3) Practice your math. In many forms of meditation you count your breath. The idea is that by focusing your mind on counting you’re making it more difficult to worry about your to-do list or unanswered emails. Same applies to eating -- to keep your mind focused, count as you chew. My grandpa used to tell me to chew every bite 10 times. Believe me, he is not someone you want to argue with.

4) Sit. Down. If this seems like a ridiculously simple suggestion that shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, think about the number of times when you eat on the go -- walking around the kitchen or while you're on your way to work. Make it a rule to only put food in your mouth if you’re sitting down, and you’ll be able to focus on what you’re eating a whole lot more.

5) Pick a daily mindful meal. Our lives are crazy and hectic -- no need to put tons of pressure on yourself to eat mindfully at each meal (however awesome that would be). Instead, pick one meal a day to be your mindful meal: when you sit down, eat slowly, and really focus on enjoying your food.

There are numerous benefits to mindful eating -- including improved digestion, reduced risk of overeating, and, according to some studies, weight-loss. But I think the most important one is that you’ll enjoy your meals more and that is the true gift of making mindful eating part of your life.