Mindful Eating as a Gateway to More Mindfulness

I recently participated in an “Introduction to Meditation” class. We met on four Friday nights, with homework in between. The homework mainly consisted of practicing meditation (Susan, the instructor, had us start at six minutes a day) along with short readings.

I was pleased that Susan started us at six minutes a day because when I signed up for the class I imagined that we would be asked to meditate for longer periods of time. I was thrilled with Susan’s “start small” approach, which I agree is the best way to successfully adopt new habits.

During the third session, after a discussion about being more mindful in various ways, we were given the homework assignment of practicing mindful eating. Specifically, we were asked to take at least three mindful bites at each meal.

While I tend to be mindful of what I choose to put in my body, I was excited to begin working towards being a more mindful eater in other ways, and I was pleased that, once again, Susan had started us with a small goal.

When I was a kid, I was a speed eater. My dad would tell me and my siblings to chew our food 30 times before swallowing, but we ignored his advice and his good example (he is the slowest eater I have ever met). I did learn to eat more slowly as a grown-up. It wasn’t something I decided to do all at once—there was no great moment of awakening—it was just something that I learned to do over time, with various strategies such as putting my utensils down between each bite. Yet, I still often had the experience, like many people, of eating a meal and then thinking afterwards, “My plate is clean and yet I hardly remember taking a bite.” And I knew that eating more mindfully would be good for my physical health: It’s good for your digestion and it helps you to not overeat.

The morning after I received the mindful-eating assignment, I filled up my bowl of cereal and sat down to eat more mindfully. At that moment, I realized that I would have to give up a habit that I had long resisted changing: reading the newspaper with my breakfast.

The mechanical function of eating is so ingrained in us, so automatic, that it’s one of the few things that we can do the same time we are doing something else. In this case, I was doing a good enough job reading (I wasn’t going to be tested on what I read in the paper, I tend to skim it for pleasure and because I like to be up on general goings-on in the world), and I was successfully taking in the food my body needed. But the goal of eating more mindfully helped to remind me that there is no such thing as multi-tasking—that we are jumping back and forth between the two activities, doing neither well. In this case, I wasn’t eating well because I wasn’t eating mindfully.

I always thought that the reason I ate while reading the paper was my sense of rushing to work in the morning. By bringing awareness to this long-time habit, I realized that was not entirely the case because I was also eating and reading on weekends. I now knew that I was reading while eating primarily because it was habit, a routine created more than 40 years ago, and reinforced nearly every day since.

I also timed myself slowly eating a bowl of cereal and learned that doing so was about a five-minute activity. And while every minute can seem important when you need to get out of the house in the morning, I knew that I could fit in five minutes of mindful eating and still have time for the newspaper. (Timing things to question my assumptions has been a strategy that I have used in the past. For example, I timed a traffic light near my house and found that it only stayed red for one minute. While I would prefer for it to be green, I now know that if it’s red when I arrive it’s only going to be red for one minute, which has helped me to stop saying to myself, “Why does this light last forever?” )

Cutting the newspapers out of my breakfast routine was surprisingly easy. I quickly got into the habit of not bringing the papers in from the driveway until after I finished my cereal. And the absence of the papers acted as a valuable trigger to remind me about my homework assignment—to eat more mindfully, specifically at least three bites during each meal.

In my youngest days, before I started reading the paper over breakfast, my brother and sister and I (like so many other kids) would read cereal boxes—the backs, the fronts, the sides—so much so that I practically memorized the ingredients. To make sure that I didn’t revert to my childhood habit in the absence of the newspapers, I made sure not to bring the cereal boxes to the table. Amazingly, a couple of days into newspaper-less breakfasts, I realized that I was reading the milk carton!

Habits are hard to change, especially long-ingrained ones. That’s why we can rarely make a change instantly. It takes 21 days to form a habit, and knowing this allows you to not beat yourself up over the inevitable slippage.

About a week and a half into my new habit, I took my daughter for a lengthy dental procedure. While I was waiting for her to come out, I stepped out of the office to pick up something to eat. I brought my lunch back to the dental office so that I would be sure to be there when my daughter came out, but I ate it in the hallway so as not to bother the other patients. Halfway through my lunch, I realized that I had been reading while eating—the names of the doctors on the other doors in the hallway and the bookshelves of one office with glass doors and shelves filled with interesting looking nutrition books, the names of which I strained to read at a distance. The good news was that the awareness kicked in, and the mindfulness came back.

Awareness is a piece of mindfulness, so every new habit that we decide to undertake is a step toward a more mindful overall experience of life. As the days went by, my awareness of the new habit grew and I noticed an unexpected benefit of my new habit: When one of my family members said something to me in passing while I was eating my cereal, I stopped eating and gave them my full attention, something I sometimes had trouble doing when I was reading the paper while eating. It’s hard to imagine a better by-product than being fully present for my family and I’m excited that this new habit will be a stepping stone to a more mindful life.

What are some habits that you have adopted in order to live a more mindful life? Join the conversation…

David J. Singer is the author of Six Simple Rules for a Better Life and blogs at www.SixSimpleRules.com.

Photo credit: ‘Healthy Eating‘ by Big Stock