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How to Really Enjoy a Mindful Meal

We talk a lot about mindful eating here at Structure House. You’ve probably heard of it. What do you think? Does it scare you because you don’t feel like you know what hunger and fullness is? Does it make you squirm because you’re afraid you’re going to have to meditate? Do you brush off the idea because you feel like you don’t have time to eat any differently than you do now? These comments (among others) frequently find their way into my nutrition sessions when the topic of mindful eating comes up. There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about what mindful eating really is, what it’s not, and how to do it. So let’s take some time to clear the air.

What is mindful eating?

To eat mindfully means to eat in a state where you are fully aware of the food choices you have made, your eating behaviors, and your emotional and physical experiences while eating. AND you allow yourself to observe these things neutrally, without judging any one of them as right or wrong. Mindfulness and mindful eating practices have been associated with reductions in binge eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to external eating cues, as well as healthier dietary patterns and weight loss1,2.

Let’s look at an example.

If I were to mindlessly eat some chocolate chips cookies, I might:

  • Take a plate of cookies into the living room, kick up my heels, and turn on Survivor.
  • Nosh away until I’m startled when my fingertips brush not another cookie, but a few lonely crumbs scattered across my suddenly empty plate.
  • Criticize myself for eating all those cookies instead of fruit and yogurt.

In contrast, if I were to mindfully eat these same cookies, I might:

  • Take a few moments to think about my food choice, appreciating the fact that I have chosen these particular chocolate chip cookies that I baked myself from my mom’s recipe I remember from childhood.
  • Take my cookies to the kitchen table and sit down.
  • Visually explore the cookies, noticing how each one has different ridges, different degrees of roundness, and different distributions of chocolate chips and walnuts (yes, my mom’s chocolate chips cookies have walnuts).
  • Take a single bite of one cookie, noticing how my teeth crunch through the crispy exterior into the silky, smooth, chocolate.
  • Notice how the saltiness of the cookie complements the sweetness of the chocolate chips.
  • Likely feel satisfied before eating the entire plate.
  • Note that I have chosen to have cookies in this moment instead of fruit and yogurt, but not judge myself one way or another.

What mindful eating is NOT:

Intuitive eating

  • Many people confuse mindful eating with intuitive eating. While they do share some features, intuitive eating encourages choosing foods based on preference and eating them in response to the body’s cues of hunger and satiation. Many with a history of chronic dieting or erratic eating behaviors find that they cannot identify when they are truly full or hungry, so the recommendation to rely on these cues to guide their eating leaves them feeling lost. Mindful eating encourages us to merely notice the physical sensations (or lack thereof) we experience around eating that might suggest that we are hungry or satisfied.

The “right” way to eat

  • Mindful eating is A way to eat, but it is not necessarily the “right” way to eat. A mindful meal or snack will look a little bit different for everyone, and that’s ok. One of the major features of mindful eating is that it is non-judgmental. There is no right or wrong.

An all or nothing way to eat

  • Many feel that if they aren’t able to eat mindfully at every meal and snack, then they are failing at it and shouldn’t bother. We live very busy lives. It isn’t realistic to expect that we can dedicate 100% of our time and attention to eating mindfully 100% of the time. Just do it as often as you are able. Just like the other things we do for our health (exercise, getting high quality sleep, etc.) a little bit is better than nothing at all.

Here are a few tips for enjoying a mindful meal:

Here are a few tips for enjoying a mindful meal:

A. Take your food and sit down at a table.

B. Check in with yourself.

  • How do I feel physically? Emotionally?
  • Do I feel hungry? Mildly hungry? Ravenous? Unsure?

C. Check in with your food.

  • What made me choose this food?
  • Where did it come from? (Think about the long journey it’s taken from the earth, to the store, to the kitchen, to your plate.)
  • Notice how the food looks (colors, shapes, arrangement on your plate).
  • Notice how the food smells.

D. Savor your first bite(s).

  • Notice the different flavors, temperatures, and textures, and also how they change as you chew and swallow.

E. Proceed slowly.

  • Try to take at least 20 minutes to eat your meal.
  • If you notice you’re eating very quickly, try:
    • Eating with chopsticks
    • Eating with your non-dominant hand
    • Setting down your utensils between bites
    • Taking a sip of water between bites
    • Taking breaks (put your utensils down and take a full 1-2 minutes pause before continuing)

F. Just eat.

  • When eating, avoid doing anything else that might distract you from the experience.
    • No TV, phone, magazines, laptop, etc.

G. When you’re done, check in with yourself again:

  • How do I feel physically? Emotionally?
  • How satisfied am I? Comfortable? Stuffed? Unsure?

H. Regard your experience with compassion and non-judgment.

  • Nothing you thought or felt during the meal was right or wrong, it was simply your experience.

If it helps, print out the tips and take them to the table with you so you can practice. Once you’ve got the hang of it, lose the sheet and just enjoy the moment!

References:

Fung, Teresa T., et al. “An Expanded Model for Mindful Eating for Health Promotion and Sustainability: Issues and Challenges for Dietetics Practice.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2016).

Olson, KayLoni L., and Charles F. Emery. “Mindfulness and weight loss: A systematic review.” Psychosomatic medicine1 (2015): 59-67.

If you like this post, you might also like: 5 Tips for Breaking Free of Mindless EatingDeprivation: The Saboteur of Weight Loss

About Amanda Birkhead, MS, RD, LDN, CEDRD

Amanda enjoys helping people develop eating patterns that move them towards their personal values and goals rather than just a particular number on the scale. She believes that a healthy diet is one that nourishes not only the body, but also the spirit and taste buds. Amanda conducts individual nutrition sessions, teaches nutrition classes, facilitates grocery store tours and restaurant outings, and supports participants on the Bridge Module for Binge and Emotional Overeating. With degrees in both psychology and nutrition, she has worked in food service, nutrition research, acute care, and weight/chronic disease management. Amanda has spent a significant portion of her career working with individuals with eating disorders/disordered eating and has earned the designation of Certified Eating Disordered Registered Dietitian.

Originally from Colorado, Amanda earned her Bachelor’s degree is Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and her Master’s in Nutrition from Colorado State University. Amanda joined the Structure House dietary team in 2016.

View all posts by Amanda Birkhead, MS, RD, LDN, CEDRD