Welcome to Thanksgiving week, otherwise known as the beginning of the season of gluttony. Yes, Thanksgiving is a holiday centered around the feast. It really is about celebrating food. Giving thanks oftentimes comes in second to what ends up on our plates. Thus, it sets the tone for the remainder of the year. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying it happens.
Many people fill up on the ever-present food this time of year because they feel empty. They hope that they can fill this empty space easily, avoiding confrontation or even thinking, by substituting stuffing and pie for a loving relationship, rewarding career, or creative outlet.
If you are watching what you eat, whether it is in an effort to lose weight or to maintain a healthy lifestyle, this time of year can be difficult, to say the least. There are endless parties, cookie exchanges, ladies’ teas where everyone brings festive treats, friends send boxes of goodies, an endless parade of tempting delights marches through our personal space…you start to think it seems wrong to let all of this fantastic food pass you by. You start to wonder if your enjoyment of the season is being decreased by what increasingly seems like a very restrictive diet. You start to question your motives, stories justifying just one bite float through your head, and you think that maybe taking a holiday from clean eating for the next month is warranted. Your resolve starts to weaken and eventually you run the risk of binging on the very next plate of sugar cookies or gingerbread. If this scenario sounds about right, read on, my friend.
For you, it may just be the excessive temptation of so many treats coming at you from every angle that wears you down. Your resolve weakens, and suddenly you realize the plate of food in front of you is empty without memory of having eaten it. Many people fill up on the ever-present food this time of year because they feel empty. They hope that they can fill this empty space by substituting stuffing and pie for a loving relationship, rewarding career, or creative outlet. Inevitably they overeat, then feel guilty. The shorter days cater to this feeling of loneliness and darkness. It all adds up to the inevitable five pounds tacked on at the end of what may have otherwise been a healthy year. The first step may be to figure out what you are really hungry for. Is your relationship lacking? Does your career suck the life out of you? Do you feel stuck? Simply being aware of these feelings can help you focus in on the real problem. Then, by eating mindfully, you may be able to avoid most of the bloating and weight gain, and therefore the remorse.
First of all, I get it. I love food. It is one of my very favorite things, and because it sustains life, it rises to one of the most important things in life. What we put into (and onto) our bodies literally becomes our bodies. Eating is a very intimate experience. One could argue that it is the most intimate experience. Our bodies use what we eat to make each and every cell, tissue, and hormone present in our bodies. Food becomes the building blocks of which we are made. This is true down to the cellular level. The quality and energy of our food affect the quality and energy of ourselves. You literally are what you eat. Therefore, paying close attention to what goes into your mouth is maybe the most important thing you can do. Does this make you think you should eat mindfully? It does me. To me, eating mindfully means taking the time to have an experience.
Mindfulness isn’t reaching for enlightenment or transcendence. It is nonjudgemental awareness of things and situations in your day to day life. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, there seven attitudes that define mindfulness. These include acceptance, letting go, trust, beginner’s mind, non-striving, patience, and non-judgment (1). When you apply these attitudes to eating, you increase your awareness and therefore your enjoyment of the meal. This may mean that you need to eat less to feel just as satisfied. So you can enjoy all of the wonderful holiday food without the bulge. Bonus! I have broken down the experience of a typical Thanksgiving day meal at our house to illustrate how to bring mindfulness into your own meal. It starts with cooking and bringing sensual awareness into each step, then savoring each bite slowly and mindfully.
Before we ever get to enjoy a meal, we have to prepare it. How you set your meal up matters. First, procure quality ingredients. Simple, whole ingredients make a wonderfully clean meal. You don’t have to get fancy. In fact, the simpler the better. Make preparing food something you enjoy rather than just another chore. Tune in fully to the entire experience. Use all of your senses to stay present. Invite others to help. If a meal is a family experience, others are more likely to try new foods and have increased enjoyment of each bite. Having children help reminds you to use a beginner’s mind. Children are naturally present and genuine in their approach to pretty much everything, which is helpful to those of us striving for presence. Remember cooking unfolds in its own time. Resist hurrying it along or trying to get to the next step too quickly. Be patient. Put a little of yourself into your cooking by infusing it with love. Make it a kind of meditation. When prepared with love, a meal is so much better in every way. Trust the process. Remember another one of the attitudes is non-striving. Do your best, but sometimes the turkey has a mind of its own, so be flexible. For a squeaky clean holiday menu and recipes prepared lovingly by me for you, my dear readers, click here.
While the food is cooking, notice the smell. You can do this even if you aren’t the one cooking. Smell is a major part of enjoying your meal. Stop and really breathe it in. Smell is so connected with digestion that if you smell the food, your body starts producing the enzymes necessary to digest that food. It also adds to the overall enjoyment. I’m sure you have noticed that food tastes bland when you are congested. Taste and smell are closely related and neither functions well independently. Smell is also closely connected to memory. One whiff of a certain smell can take you back to your childhood. If you would like to revisit your childhood, at least momentarily, try some of your grandmother’s recipes. Holiday foods are packed with smells that bring us back to cozy meals at Grandma’s house. The smells that I like the most are when the onion and celery are sautéing in butter and the cranberry sauce is simmering with orange peel and cinnamon. To me, these two smells make the holiday. I even save prepping the onions and celery for the stuffing until the day of Thanksgiving so the house smells like them when my guests arrive.
The next step happens simultaneously. It’s taking the time to notice your food visually. The colors, shapes, and general appearance of foods add to our enjoyment so much that presentation is a top priority for many successful restaurants. Think about your favorite coffee place. They don’t have to make the pretty design on the top of your drink or serve it in a nice mug and saucer, but doesn’t it add to your experience? Would you rather drink from a paper cup or a pretty mug? Food seems to taste better when it’s pretty, so much so that sometimes what plates look like are a higher priority than the food itself. Does that mean you should stress over the presentation of the meal? Absolutely not. I make sure the turkey’s skin is golden brown, the green beans are bright green, and the gravy is in a nice boat. At Christmas, I have nice serving dishes. That’s as far as I go. I let the food do the talking. As the person eating the meal, take time to notice what your food looks like. Really soak it in. Remember to be accepting and non-judgemental. It is what it is, it’s not good or bad. What color is it? How do smell and appearance work together to give you an impression of what you are about to eat? Use smell and sight together to heighten your experience.
I would pause here to be grateful for what you are about to eat. If only to thank the cook or the host for the fantastic meal. Feeling grateful increases the pleasure of your experience by switching any niggling negative thoughts off and turning positivity on.
As you take a bite of food onto your fork, notice it’s texture. As it crosses your lips, really feel the food in your mouth. Is it crunchy? Soft? Squishy? Is the stuffing crispy on the outside? Is the turkey tender? Is the skin crisp? Is it dry? Does the gravy have a silky texture? How does the texture change your experience? Remember to be accepting. If the potatoes have lumps, notice the lumps but let it go without judgment. Let the food linger in your mouth a little longer than you normally would. Some people would tell you to chew a certain amount of times, but I find that restrictive and weird. Just turn the food around in your mouth enough to really be able to appreciate it instead of shoveling it in so quickly that you look down and your food is gone without noticing it. This also has the effect of starting your digestion. Enzymes in your saliva start the process of breaking down your food chemically and the grinding action of chewing breaks it down physically (if you want this delicious experience reduced to cold science). This makes it easier for processes down the line to do their jobs.
Taste is the obvious sense here. While you are noticing the texture, you are probably also noticing the taste. Rather than letting the taste come and go, really become aware of how each bite tastes a little different. Savor each bit. Is it salty? Savory? Sweet? A little bit sour? How do the taste and texture meld together to give you a unified experience? Once I started doing this I noticed that things that aren’t necessarily good for me don’t really taste that great, but maybe have a texture I like or are vehicles for other foods. Like mashed white potatoes. They don’t taste that great by themselves. They’re wonderful with gravy. Or dinner rolls. Kind of dry and uninteresting by themselves, but with butter they’re awesome.
One caution with this sort of heightened attitude, other people will continue to eat normally. It will seem to you that they are positively shoveling their food in. You may feel the need to tell them to slow down and enjoy their meal. You may become disgusted by other people’s eating habits. Especially if you are like me and are highly sensitive to the sound of other people chewing. That’s the one sense I left out. Sound and food don’t often come together to make a pleasurable experience. At least for me. I try to put on pleasant music during dinner to drown out the slurping, gnashing, gnawing, gulping, chomping…ugh. This is where the “letting go” attitude comes in handy. Really, let it go. Concentrate on what you’ve got going on and allow your sensual experience to drown out what’s going on across the table.
This technique works with alcohol, too. Remember that alcohol can lower your resolve even more and cause you to make poor decisions. Having said that, if you choose to have a drink or two, be sure that it is enjoyable and doesn’t cause feelings of remorse later on. Think of how a wine connoisseur experiences wine. He takes small sips, does that annoying slurpy thing that they do, rolls it around in his mouth, and then spits it out…okay bad example. But you get my drift. Sip your drink, hold it in your mouth, experience it, then swallow. When you enjoy the drink slowly you will need less to enjoy it more. Bonus: You won’t be drunk at the end of the night. Alcohol is best when enjoyed with friends and less is definitely more.
Using mindfulness not only allows you to enjoy your food and drink, it also causes you to pause and appreciate each bite. This has the effect of increasing pleasure and satiety at the same time. You may eat less and enjoy more with this tactic. Gone are the days where you look down at your plate and wonder what happened to all of the food. Let everyone else languish in front of the television in a low vibration food coma after dinner while you enjoy your increased vibrancy. Now you know the secret to having your pumpkin pie and eating it, too!
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(1) Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. https://www.amazon.com/Full-Catastrophe-Living-Revised-Illness/dp/0345536932/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1511184363&sr=8-1&keywords=full+catastrophe+living