Has food become a drudgery for you? Have you forgotten the pleasure of preparing and sharing a good meal? Many of us have become so obsessed with eating the ‘right’ foods that we have forgotten how to enjoy nourishing ourselves. Alexandra Stoddard, author of Living a Beautiful Life, says “Home is the extension of our essence. Home is what we make it.” As seasons change, the pace and tenor of our lives change as well. Our needs and appetites change according to the weather and the change of lifestyle. It is a good time to focus some time and attention on creating healthy habits and rituals for enhancing our eating habits. It is also a good time to rediscover the joys of good food and nutrition.
One of life’s constants is our relationship and need for nourishment and good nutrition. In our efforts to adhere to schedules, lifestyles, and habits that put us in a constant state of fight or flight response, our stress levels and the hormonal responses to that stress continually flood our bodies with stress-induced hormones. What works well when we are actually in physical danger, does not work as well when we are experiencing frustration, anger, or confusion over what to eat or not eat. The release of both adrenal hormones and cortisol, may at first inhibit appetite, but then acts to replace the hormone production lost. Not only might we eat more, become depressed, and not be able to maintain a healthy weight, but also the stress is harmful to other systems of our body.
What to do? Eliminating stress is neither possible nor entirely desirable. We can however, change the way we deal with food, meal preparation, and our relationship with food and good nutrition. Our goal is to lower the levels of stress, particularly related to preparing and eating meals. French Enlightenment author, historian, and philosopher, Voltaire wrote: “Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” While preparing to write this article, I was reading and listening to what others had to say about food, meals, and this necessary part of our lives.
One of my yoga friends and I were talking about the routine and repetitive nature of preparing food and eating. She mentioned her love of little Clementines. She said, “I like to get a bag of Clementines, and I take a few to work with me. When I prepare to eat one, I have to go through a little ritual of peeling and separating the parts. The whole process becomes enjoyable, and they taste delicious.” My friend was describing the process of eating mindfully. How can we approach our relationship with food, meals, and good nutrition both more mindfully and with greater pleasure?
Imagine that preparing to focus more mindfully on your eating habits is like planning for a party or preparing for guests to come stay.
Environment. Get things ready. Spend some time getting the kitchen and dining area in order.
- Clean out the refrigerator, and when you do, notice what you tend to buy that always seems to go to waste.
- Get rid of foods you won’t or shouldn’t eat.
- Arrange your refrigerator as if it were your favorite deli. Put fresh fruit in glass bowls, have vegetables cleaned and ready to eat and within reach. Put eggs in a wire basket. Make the refrigerator appealing and appetizing.
- Put fresh flowers and herbs on the kitchen counter.
- Set up a breakfast corner/cupboard where everything you need for breakfast is available. Set the table with placemats or a linen table cloth. Set aside places dedicated to eating in peace. Give yourself a view (set up a breakfast spot looking out the window) or put on some music when you are dining.
- Keep the kitchen clear of clutter and clean.
- Arrange cupboards to make food preparation and meals easier to set up and clear up. Use fewer dishes and pots and pans.
- Clean up as you go along. When you are preparing food or drinks, do so mindfully.
- Stay put. Avoid running out of the kitchen while the tea water is boiling to take care of some other chore. Be present in the process of preparing even a simple cup of tea, or a bowl of cereal and fruit.
Attitude. Look at food and meals as a key part of your life. Too often we fit meals and nutrition in between our ‘real life’. Or we eat well only when we are with other people. Good eating is a philosophy, a way of looking at our food and nutrition. Good nutrition requires that we eat regularly and that we eat foods that nourish and sustain us. Drinking a quick veggie shake, or downing a cup of yogurt on the way out the door, is not healthy regardless of the quality of the food. There are a couple of friends who will simply state if I call when they are preparing to eat, “I’m going to be eating now. I’ll call you back in an hour when I’m done.” This is a much more mindful way of handling meals (as opposed to gobbling something down in the breaks in a phone conversation). Honoring the time we devote to caring for ourselves is just as important as what we are feeding ourselves. Deciding that changing our relationship with food and meals is key to making any kinds of alterations in our habits. Decide what matters to you most, and then proceed to develop some new habits and rituals.
Rituals and habits. Rituals are those acts we repeat in order to honor something that is meaningful. Creating rituals and developing habits around food become tradition. Much of what we do around our eating is established through our upbringing, then later through the choices we make and new habits and rituals we establish. The old adage, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” might apply to some of our attitudes and behavior around food, eating, and meals. Think about some of the traditions your grandparents or great-grandparents had, and see if you can discover a place and purpose for them in your life now. To bring more organic and whole grains into your diet, you might
- get a fresh loaf of bread from your local organic bakery once a week
- make it a habit of taking a Saturday drive to buy fresh eggs from a local farmer.
- Bake bread from scratch and in the oven, once in a while. Visit the local farmer’s markets, or growing a vegetable and herb garden.
- Make a summer and fall ritual of making homemade jams and preserves. Can and pickle vegetables seasonally, and shop according to the season.
- Buy what is in season locally as much as possible. Pick apples in the autumn. Set the table for meals, and pack a picnic lunch or dinner, and get outdoors to eat.
- Pack the makings for a veggie sandwich in a paper sack (whole grain bread or roll, red peppers, lettuce, avocado slices, lemon wedge to season and a flask of water), and take a hike in the woods. Then eat your lunch out in the open after taking a nice walk and working up an appetite.
- Light a candle, play some music, and use your best dishes.
- Pour some sparkling water in a champagne goblet, and add a slice of lime or lemon.
- Sit with your tangerine or Clementine and mindfully peel off the rind before biting into the juicy, sweet fruit.
- Make a habit and ritual of preparing food for the week on the weekend, and once a month or so, invite someone over to share a meal. Combine pleasure with business. When I taught at St. Andrew School in Pasadena, California, the school principal, Sr. Claudine Peacock would host a monthly luncheon for all those whose birthdays were that month. She would go around before the luncheon and ask each of us who had a birthday to tell her our favorite foods. At the luncheon, we would be honored and celebrated, and we would have our favorite foods on the menu. The meeting we had, was brief and friendly for we had shared time celebrating with one another, and found that did more to help resolve problems and address issues than all the meetings in the world. Another mentor, Miss Hattie, ran a school in Watts in South Central Los Angeles. When I visited her school, her advice was “Invite everyone to the table. Feed them, and they’ll take care of whatever needs doing.” She was not only wise but also very successful. If we can look at our own lives as worthy of treating with attention, care, and mindfulness, we can enhance all aspects of our lives.
- Make it a habit not to skip meals.
- Sit down to eat, and occasionally invite a friend to join you for breakfast out, lunch at home or in the park, or dinner at the end of a long day.
- Share food with others. I cannot seem to cook for just one person. This is great when I want a week’s worth of split pea or lentil soup, but now I make extra soup to share with one of my friends or my family members. I make sure the person likes what I prepare, but enjoy adding something to someone else’s life and lightening their load a bit. In San Francisco where my family lives, we make a point to take food to the local shelters (after parties and when we have an abundance of something) or to give some food and water to one of the homeless people in our neighborhood. In Portland, while teaching at Marylhurst University, we used to take food left over from big events to the mission on Burnside. a good friend of mine used to organize a day when friends gathered to make over 200 sack lunches, with protein-rich sandwiches, fresh fruit, vegetables, and home made cookies to take to Skid Row in Los Angeles. She also used to get donations of socks, blankets, gloves, and hats to hand out as well. She was in her 80s and still doing this right before she died at 85.
Carrying on this kind of tradition is another way to deepen our own understanding and awareness of the importance of food in our lives, and the good fortune many of us overlook as we struggle to eat only the right foods.
In our culture, many of us have the luxury of choice-choice about food, shelter, clothing, health, and how we choose to live our daily lives. There are also many who struggle to make ends meet and to put food on the table for themselves and their families. Congress’ decision to cut food benefits for so many, has made it even more difficult to eat nutritious foods and maintain a balanced and healthy diet. We have to become more mindful of what we eat and how we eat. Be appreciative of all the choices you have, and see how you can live and eat more mindfully.
Appeal to the Senses. Use your senses to become more mindful of what you are eating and how you are eating. Begin each act of preparing food by taking a few moments to breathe and focus. Give thanks, meditate, or simply focus on the intentional act you are about to take. In many families, the blessing before the meal or at the end of the meal, is an act to consecrate or make sacred the act of eating, together. The original altar was the meal that was shared when people came together to feed and nourish one another. Take pleasure in creating meals that are beautiful, colorful, and appetizing. Take time preparing even simple meals and snacks. Take time to cut an orange into bite-size, triangles, or cucumbers into cool, refreshing slices. Cut up an avocado, and put a slice of tomato between each avocado slice. Arrange the table with flowers and candles, and fill the room with music and artwork. Delight the senses with fragrant aromas, and keep things simple. Instead of thinking you have to serve a feast at each meal, serve one or two items arranged beautifully, and prepared with attention. Eat slowly. Think of all the senses, sight, sound, taste, touch, and incorporate something into your meals that appeals to each sense.
- Keep you food simple. As Elmo says, “Eat your colors.” Green, red, yellow, blue, white (not too much white).
- Eat at regular times, and don’t allow your body to get hungry or thirsty. By the time you are feeling hunger pains or thirst, you have already depleted your body of nutrients or hydration. Eating smaller portions at regular intervals (meal time), helps you avoid sending your body the wrong signals and thereby triggering hormonal responses that are harmful.
- Make your meals appropriate for the seasons, for your nutritional needs, and optimum health.
- Make food preparation and meals an art. Put the finishing touches on simple dishes. A dab of yogurt in hot, steaming bowl of Lemon Chicken Soup. A sprig of parsley and slice of fresh, raw tomato on top of a grilled sandwich. Dress for dinner, use your nice dishes, and make each meal an occasion to stop, rest, and nourish yourself in a variety of ways. Get a nice tea set, and make tea a part of your daily life.
Think of each aspect of your relationship with food as part of your sacred obligation to take care of yourself, and to honor those you care about and are responsible for. Make menus and lists before shopping. Shop mindfully, and develop habits that are healthy for you and for the meals you prepare and enjoy. Honor what your body tells you about what you need or don't need. Avoid getting upset or frustrated about food and meals. Simplify. Enjoy. Be mindful, and grateful for being able to nourish yourself and your loved ones so well.