Lesson Six – Checking in.

When discussing emotional eating, I described a method of doing what is often termed “mindful eating” – picking a delicious food, sitting down alone with it in a comfortable place, giving yourself permission, and then eating it without external distractions.

This is basically what is meant by “mindful eating” when it is discussed as part of intuitive eating, and I do think it has its place. However, I feel like the term “mindful” has some connotations that make it challenging for lots of people. It seems to imply full, willful attention given to the food. Even the circumstances of mindfully eating a delicious food can seem rather ascetic – no distractions allowed. The focus is solely on the food.

However, in real life, not all eating can be this way. And maybe all eating shouldn’t be this way.

For example, eating is often a social experience. We eat with family, we cook for friends, we go out to restaurants on dates, we eat at parties. Socializing while eating, when you get down to brass tacks, is a form of distraction. It is also a wonderful way to eat.

There are other cultural food rituals in which distraction is embedded, and I really can’t bring myself to have a problem with them – popcorn and Jr. Mints at the movie theatre, pizza in front of the TV on Friday night. You can pry these from my cold, dead hands.

“Mindful eating” terminology also conjures up, for me, images of the previously-mentioned foodgasm. Real talk: not every meal is foodgasm material. Sometimes you just have to get the job done, quick-and-dirty style. Sometimes eating isn’t pretty.

Mindful eating is also often promoted as a sneaky method of food restriction, either overtly by intuitive eating approaches that promise weight loss, or we do it accidentally to ourselves, because our neurotic feelings about food can creep into even the most benign and food-positive activities.

And for these reasons, I’ve chosen to think about mindful eating a bit differently, and in a way that removes some of the pressure — since we looooove to pressure ourselves about eating, and even when we’re rejecting the idea of dieting pressure, somehow we manage to find ways of flagellating ourselves with the idea of Doing Intuitive Eating Right.

I think about mindful eating, at regular day-to-day meals, in terms of checking in.

Checking in with your food does not require a sustained level of monastic attention and being-in-the-present – although if this is something you do well, then by all means, knock yourself out. Checking in takes only a few seconds. It will not make you look weird. It is not even noticeable at all to the people I eat with. In fact, I’m willing to bet it’s something you may already do from time to time.

If you don’t, then having an explicit, sustained practice of mindful eating – the intense kind, where you sit down and eat food without distraction – on a regular basis, actually can start to generalize itself to other situations. It can become a completely unintentional habit that feels damn near effortless – this is how it happened for me.

After practicing having some pretty intensely mindful meals and snacks (mainly because I had reached the desperation point and couldn’t take another moment of alternately over- and undereating and feeling like crap about it, so I finally just went and did the thing that my dietitian was telling me to do), in a few months I started to notice that I do this thing, and I don’t really do it on purpose. It looks like this.

While I’m eating dinner with my family, or even just eating Kraft Dinner out of a mixing bowl in front of the TV (it happens), there will come a point where I stop for a second. Maybe five seconds. I stop picking up food with my fork, I stop looking at the TV, I stop talking, I even stop listening, and I just look at my food. Or I just close my eyes briefly and taste what’s in my mouth. I give my mind a moment to float, and listen to my little caveman thoughts of “Mmmmm, food. Food good.”

On occasion, I’ve been known to make a yummy sound.

And then, I go back to the rhythm of eating and talking, or eating and watching.

It happens several times during any given meal – tiny moments of food appreciation. Even if the food is not spectacular, I can still appreciate the sensation of hunger becoming satisfied.

Checking in also allows me to eat exactly what I want of what is offered – no more, no less. It tells me when I’m full, when I need seconds, or when I’m done with dinner but still want dessert. It tells me whether or not I’m still enjoying the food, and thus, whether to keep eating. It brings the food I’m eating into brief bursts of focus, enough to let me enjoy what I’m doing and truly get enough – so that I can then be truly finished with eating, and move onto other things.

Eating is one important part of your life. Whether you are having a sandwich or a five-course meal, practise spending a few moments to give it its due – no obsessing needed.

Sign-ups are now underway for the spring Eat Without Drama groups. If you want a safe, fun place to practise eating normally, come join us.

If not, that’s cool – I still want to hear about any sneakily-restrictive “mindful eating” messages you’ve received, in comments.

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