How we eat—not just what we eat—impacts our well-being on the physical, mental, and emotional levels. Therefore, it’s important to bring special attention to the time we spend at the table. This includes our food choices and how we relate to each other, as well as the environment we create when we sit down for a meal.
Over the years, Jeffrey Zurofsky, Culinary Program Director at Newport Academy, has developed a variety of ways to promote a more thoughtful and harmonious mealtime experience that boosts mental health. Here’s Jeffrey’s step-by-step guide to eating mindfully.
Set the Table with Care
Make sure that you set the table thoughtfully before anyone sits down. That means taking time before the meal to think about exactly what you’ll need. Moreover, that includes the ambience and your personal needs, plus condiments for everyone to use.
“You want to avoid having to jump up throughout the meal to grab the mustard, get another glass of water, change the music, etc.,” Jeffrey says.
You can also spend time before the meal making the table beautiful. This is a lovely ritual for family and friends at special gatherings, but it can be an everyday routine, too. This way, everyone feels included in the preparation even if they didn’t help to cook the meal.
Furthermore, turn off your phones and other electronic devices. It’s important to set boundaries around the use of technology, and mealtimes are a great place to start.
Find Your Center
Once everyone’s plate is full, take a moment to get quiet. Wait until everyone has served themselves or each other. Next, take a few silent minutes to close your eyes and settle in.
After the bustle of getting the food prepared and on the table, sitting and breathing together creates a sense of harmony and connection. Moreover, there’s a collective sense of energy and focus.
“You are creating an atmosphere of connection and positivity before the meal even begins,” Jeffrey says.
Take some time to express gratitude for your meal. Specifically, give thanks and praise (out loud or internally) to the animals and plants you’re eating for their nutritious offering, to the people who raised and grew them, and to the cooks and their assistants who prepared what you are about to eat.
You can create your own gratitude ritual or prayer, or find one that resonates with you and your family. For example, here is a Buddhist prayer often said before meals:
“We receive this food in gratitude to all beings
Who have helped to bring it to our table,
And vow to respond in turn to those in need
With wisdom and compassion.”
Or, you could try the Quaker tradition of silent grace before meals. First, everyone joins hands in a circle around the table. Each person silently gives thanks, meditates, or prays in their own way.
Finally, one person gently squeezes the hands of the people seated next to them. This signal is passed around the table. At that point, people begin to eat and talk.
Slow Down and Savor
Make your first bite a vegetable—and savor it.
“When we get to the table, we’re hungry, and our first impulse is to shovel it in,” says Jeffrey. “When my little daughter eats, she’s acting on pure instinct, with the one goal of satisfying that drive to survive. It takes effort to override that primal conditioning.”
Therefore, Jeffrey has figured out a way to start the meal mindfully: He makes his first bite a vegetable. Here’s why it works for him:
- Typically, the focus at the table is on the main dish, which is often meat or another protein. Focusing on the vegetables first encourages the cook in the family to make veggie dishes that are just as delicious as the other courses.
- Choosing a less filling dish for the first bite extends the eating experience. Instead of obeying the hunger instinct and digging into the dish that will satisfy your hunger fastest, starting with vegetables slows us down.
- The flavors of vegetables are often more subtle than other tastes, such as meat or dairy. Therefore, we are forced to pay more attention to what we’re eating in order to fully experience the complexities of the taste experience.
Chew Your Food Well
There’s a mindfulness ritual in which practitioners chew each mouthful as many as 50 or 100 times. Try counting how many times you chew a bite, and you’ll realize how quickly we tend to swallow our food. In fact, we often chew only two or three times before swallowing.
However, from a health and wellness perspective, chewing is vital to nutrient absorption. Specifically, amylase, an enzyme in our saliva, does the first work of breaking down and digesting our food. As a result, we can assimilate it more effectively.
Therefore, chew each bite five to 10 times for maximum nutritional impact. As a reminder to pause between mouthfuls, put your silverware down after every bite. Moreover, don’t pick it up again until you’re consciously ready to move on to the next bite.
Breathe and Relax
Chewing and swallowing quickly can prevent us from breathing deeply and slowly. Take time to focus on your breath as you eat.
Furthermore, during the pause between finishing one bite and starting the next, take one long, slow breath. Or you can pause and take a breath when you switch from eating one dish to sampling another.
Moreover, this will increase your enjoyment by activating the sense of smell. Consequently, our food tastes even better. “The olfactory receptors in the nose are as important as our taste buds in communicating flavor to the brain,” says Jeffrey.
Slow, deep breaths also calm the nervous system. As a result, digestive function improves.
Linger for a While
Because we are all so busy, we tend to jump up and start clearing the table as soon as we’re done, even if others are still eating. Also, we often have the urge to check our phones or email to find out what’s happened while we’ve been unplugged.
Instead, make the conscious choice to stay at the table until everyone is done. Additionally, this encourages more leisurely eating, since each person has to adjust to the pace of the slowest eater in the group.
“Plus, it extends the conversation and the positive group dynamic that you have created throughout the evening,” Jeffrey says.
May all your meals be mindful, nourishing, and fun!