Written by therapist Megan Hanafee-Major
During the winter months, and especially the holiday season, we eat a lot. Food is a huge and important part of many traditions, but we may also notice that the cold weather prompts turning toward comfort foods to warm our bodies and souls. I think this is, or can be, a good thing! I am a firm believer that there are some things that the best therapy session in the world can’t heal as well as a hearty bowl of soup. Food feeds us, nourishes us, connects us.
Is it for me?
Many of us can and do have unhealthy relationships with food and eating. It can be difficult to think of food as a good thing if all we see is something that makes our bodies look, feel, or act in a way we don’t like. Food may be the villain in the story about our love for ourselves. Food may be the thing we turn to for comfort, but its soothing power has become unbalanced and now we feel out of control when we eat. There are no limits to the ways that our relationships with food can be warped, but food and eating can be a gift and may bring pleasure as well as nourishment. If you are in a place where you can only think of food as a source of fuel for your body for your own well-being, there is absolutely no pressure from me to stray from that path. Perhaps these exercises are something to read and think about but are not for you to practice at the moment. If, however, you want activities and techniques to support your goal of reframing your thoughts about food and eating into a mindfulness experience, I would love for you to give them a try.
Why should I do it?
Eating is something we have to do in order to live and for many people, that is the extent of it. There is nothing wrong with eating food for the pure purpose of providing energy and nutrients and nothing more. However, food and eating have the capacity to be a source of joy and thoughtfulness. Something I have learned to love (within reason) is the stories cooks and chefs tell as an introduction to their recipes. I will admit that I do often hit “Jump to recipe” to skip over this narrative, but when I have the time I love to learn about why this food is important to the author, why they chose these exact ingredients, and the ways that they hope the mixture of flavors bring joy to the reader.
Food is delicious. As a former picky eater, I have taken a long time to truly internalize this, but I noticed that as soon as I was in control of my own meals, when I could take time and care to grocery shop, once I could invest my time and money into the food I was eating, I was able to enjoy eating in a whole new way. Even if you don’t have control over your meals, shopping, and preparation, mindful eating can help facilitate this type of enjoyment.
Often, the goal of a mindfulness exercise is to focus our attention and awareness on the present moment. This may be through repeating a word, imagining an image, or honing in on something sensory. We aim to push away thoughts of judgment, the past, and the future by centering on the here and now. Mindful eating does this by focusing on the food you are consuming and the general experience of eating. Just like any mindfulness technique, the benefits of narrowing your thoughts onto one thing (in this case, eating) can include lowering anxiety, better awareness of emotions, suspending judgment, and seeing yourself more positively.
How do I start?
Take your time.
A key part of mindfulness is to be deliberate and slow. This is not an exercise to try on the go, when your kids need help with their homework, or over your not-even-enough-time-to microwave-leftovers lunch break. Practice this at a time and place where you can enjoy your food uninterrupted, for a decent stretch of time. After practicing mindful eating a few times, you will have a better guess of how long it will take. I would suggest starting with a small and short activity for 10-15 minutes and working your way up.
Mindfulness is all about focusing our attention, and we can’t do that when we are trying to multitask. A huge part of mindful eating is to give all of your attention to the food. Set aside time where you can do this well. Maybe that even means eating in a place that can afford more privacy. I find that there are certain rooms in my home that guarantee I will get sidetracked, so I know to go somewhere else if I want to be mindful. This is not an exercise to do while reading, listening to that podcast you love, chatting with a friend, or answering emails. Those things are important and have a time and place. The middle of mindful eating is not it.
This, for myself and many others, can often be the hardest part of mindful eating. Our culture has made eating synonymous with multitasking, and many of these things are wonderful. Sharing a meal with loved ones is a great way to engage in community. Eating on the go is often necessary to stay on a busy schedule. Especially in the winter, there is nothing I love more than curing up on the couch with tea and a snack to watch a ridiculously cheesy holiday movie. We don’t have to forgo these in order to incorporate mindful eating into our lives, we just need to find a time and space every so often to add a mindful treat or meal in.
Pick a food
Personally, I would not be able to jump right into a whole meal of mindful eating. I would feel too overwhelmed. When practicing mindful eating, the food you choose matters. Of course, you can use any food you would like, but I suggest starting with something you enjoy, perhaps even an indulgence. We want to signal to our brain that this practice is good and rewarding and what better way to do that than to pair it with a treat that we love? Mindful eating uses the sensory input from the food we use, so something that smells good, has a nice texture, and isn’t overwhelming in flavor is typically a great place to start. As you practice, you can change it up or add in new foods to see how that changes the experience. Since mindful eating is slow business, I have also found it a good rule of thumb to stray away from anything that might melt or cool off too quickly before I can finish it (so ice cream or hot cocoa are probably best to set aside for now). Choose something you enjoy!
Just like any new skill, it is helpful to start small and work our way up. Start with the expectation of 10 minutes instead of an hour. Start with a slice of cake rather than the whole thing. Start with one side dish of a meal before the feast. Keep it simple! You can always add new things, try new foods, and challenge yourself to new activities once you have built confidence in yourself as a mindful eater.
Speaking with a therapist can be helpful on one’s journey of mindful eating. If you don’t currently have a counselor, fill out an inquiry form online, our Optimum Joy therapists would love to meet with you!