The art of mindful eating

When it comes to nutrition, there is a lot of focus on what to eat and even more on what not to. However, what I have found, working with countless clients over the last 16 years, is that before you address the ‘what’, it is much more important to focus on the ‘how’. Addressing how you eat is the starting point for real nourishment and happiness. The number one thing you can do to improve your eating, and as a result boost your health and feel fantastic, is to eat mindfully.

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Often our eating habits and attitudes to food are developed and ingrained in us as children. It’s much easier to nurture a positive, relaxed relationship with food from a young age than it is to shift those behaviours later on. Role modelling mindful eating for your children will improve your health and happiness as well as theirs.

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating means paying full attention to what you are eating while you are eating it, and to how it makes you feel. Sounds pretty simple, right?

The challenge is that mindful eating requires us to focus and eliminate distractions. We are often so busy we feel pressed for time while eating. Many of us multi-task while eating, perhaps with TV, emails, social media, reading or even intense conversation, which means we rush through our meal hardly noticing what is passing our lips.

It’s strange, really, when you think about it. Why would you eat a meal without paying attention to it? Think about the last meal you ate. Where were you and what were you doing? Were you sitting down, did you eat it fast or slow and do you recall what each mouthful tasted like and how it made you feel? Why did you eat the way you did and is this your typical pattern?

Mindless habits

Because food is available in such abundance, many of us have lost touch with our natural hunger cues. Rather than eating to satisfy hunger and waiting until we are hungry again, we often eat purely out of habit and can snack mindlessly right throughout the day.

Over time, we can develop eating habits that don’t serve us. However, we tend to keep these habits up simply out of routine or because we’ve never tried a different way. For example, we might associate food with certain activities such as eating ice cream while watching TV, snacking on cheese and crackers while preparing dinner or eating chips on a long drive in the car. We might always finish our plate, regardless of how full we feel or routinely have seconds even when we are no longer hungry. We might eat lunch standing, talking, walking, working or doing several other things because we feel rushed and overloaded.

All these habits affect our digestion, our satiety cues and the total amount of calories we consume. It is surprisingly easy to adjust your habits if you choose to do so. All it takes is a mindful approach, which starts by being intentional about how you eat.

When you eat mindfully, you naturally:

  • take your time and savour each mouthful.
  • feel pleasure and satisfaction.
  • have time to appreciate and be thankful for the food you have.
  • eat in a relaxed manner that leads to improved digestion.
  • slow down as your hunger is curbed.
  • easily stop eating when you are satisfied as you are aware of how that feels.

All of these things set us up to feel better, to eat in line with our body’s needs and ultimately lead to total health. Not only does mindful eating improve your absorption of nutrients but it also ensures your brain sends the correct messages to your digestive system, reducing potential bloating and discomfort. You eat amounts in tune with what your body requires. You notice the quality of the food and how it makes you feel and you have time to experience gratitude, which is a key to well-being. Overall, you feel more satisfied physically and emotionally from the meal you have eaten.

Imagine every meal you eat tomorrow is eaten without rushing, without distraction. Picture how different it would be and how different you would feel. The best way to see that difference is to try it out yourself, and the best way to teach your children is by role modelling it in your own life.

How to eat mindfully

  • Choose an appropriate place to eat. Sitting around a dinner table as a family has many benefits, including creating a positive association with coming together.
  • Sit down to eat (always, always!).
  • Aim for a relaxed atmosphere. (I know this is challenging with toddlers). Set the tone by being relaxed and positive yourself.
  • Eat all meals and snacks off a plate and use cutlery – unless it’s inappropriate for the meal, in which case emphasise the fun of eating things like tacos or wraps with your hands.
  • Switch off all devices (or turn them to silent mode and put them out of sight). This makes a huge difference and role models the behaviour you expect if/when your children have their own phones.
  • Look at each forkful or spoonful of food before you eat it. Savour each mouthful thinking about the different flavours you can taste. Focus on the textures of your food. Is it crispy, juicy, tender, creamy, or crunchy? Ask your children what textures they notice. Play ‘games’ with your kids to guess what ingredients are in the meal. This is a fun start to food appreciation.
  • Avoid starting the next mouthful until the previous one is finished.
  • If you are talking, take extra care to savour each mouthful and don’t feel you have to rush in order to speak.
  • Be aware of your breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly from your belly.
  • Pause a few times during the meal and put your cutlery down, If you are typically in a rush, you may find this a challenge. I invite you to persevere. You can adopt a new habit! Encourage your children to rest their cutlery and breathe between mouthfuls.
  • Aim for the whole experience to be relaxing and nourishing.

As a bonus, I also recommend your evening meal be a time to recap highlights. Take turns to ask each person what the best thing about their day was. Replaying this by verbalising it boosts the happiness factor and reinforces positive memories at the dinner table.

How do we talk about food?

It’s also important to be mindful of our language when we speak about food. Teach your children that certain foods are super nutritious and will help them become strong and healthy and this is why we mostly eat these foods. Instead of labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply reinforce that we always make sure we eat enough nutritious food to fuel our body well.

Remind your kids that while treats are tasty, they won’t feel good after having too many of them. These balanced, positive messages will help your kids avoid seeing certain foods as bad, and therefore feeling that they themselves are bad for eating them, later in life.

Gift your children with the ability to truly appreciate their food and this will become a life skill they will enjoy and pass on to the next generation.