I have spent most my life eating at the kitchen sink. Literally. Even as a chef (or especially; I don’t know which), I rarely sit down and enjoy a meal with my friends and family at an actual table with silverware and the time to enjoy the experience. I spend hours creating a dining event for other people every day and never enjoy one myself. I grab the first thing at hand (usually bread or carrots) and slather it with the second thing at hand (hummus, romesco, tapenade, baba ghanoush—you get the idea), and call it a meal. My justification is that I taste all day long, so I don’t really need to eat. And while I am getting enough to eat calorically (although definitely not nutritionally), I am not doing something equally important, and that is feeding my soul. As a survivor of years upon years of relentless yoyo dieting and an alphabet soup of eating disorders, I still have not learned how to do the one thing well that is most essential—and that is to actually learn how to feed myself.
As Americans, we consume most of our meals with food that has been either handed to us through a car window, standing in front of the microwave or in our cubicle spilling ketchup and crumbs between spreadsheets. Food becomes merely a vehicle for existence, not a primary sensual and spiritual pleasure. Our health suffers, our soul suffers, and, let’s face it, our ass suffers. We clamp on to each new foodie trend in dieting—high protein, low carb, low fat, plant based, carnivore, caveman—with the ferocious passion of zealots, and yet we do not think about food as a long-term relationship, but like more an illicit affair. Most diets work short term: Calories in, calories out, it is simple as a mathematical equation. What diets are not taking into account is that far too many people are having a secretive relationship with food rather than taking it out of the closet and putting it front and center into the evening, the family and the dining-room table.
There are a couple of questions that you should ask yourself as you depart on a course of “deliberate eating.” Do you savor each and every bite, taking time to chew slowly and enjoy the experience or do you bolt your food, finishing every last morsel like you are competing for a Guinness consumption record? The art of deliberate eating requires that not only do you plan each eating event as an important part of each day, but that you focus on each and every mouthful and taste as you savor your meal. The art of deliberate eating is about changing how we eat. Part of the process of remaking our relationship with food is to redefine the way we view the actual event and eliminate that which does not nourish our soul as well as our body. Each day that you give your body nourishing, soul-sustaining food, it is repairing and regenerating positive growth and healthy energy.
If you look at the cultures in any one of the identified Blue Zones (areas of the world with exceptionally long life expectancies), you will see that each one revolves around the dinner table as the centerpiece of the important ceremonies of the day. Food is made from scratch, formalized by ceremony and shared by community. Food is treated with reverence and considered the centerpiece of family life. It is often the very glue that holds the family together through difficult times. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to be quarrelsome with a happy tummy? We suffer from a national case of body dysmorphic disorder that dictates we eat furtively, shamefully and alone, and this compounds the problems we already face with the Standard American Diet. Each year, when I teach my 10-week, plant-based wellness class in January, the first thing I ask is not what you eat but how. I can teach you to cook 90 percent of what you need to know in an evening. It took us generations to eliminate the sanctity of the family dinner.
Ask yourself some basic questions to identify your challenges: Are you eating alone? The defined dining place in your home should be separate from your other activities, and the actual act of eating should be its own entertainment. Do you eat with utensils? Laying out the table with cloth, cutlery, chopsticks, flowers and candles gives the dining event the sense of circumstance that it deserves. Do you eat with ceremony and intention? Many religions and traditional cultures observe the ritual, thanking the source of their sustenance, whether it is believed to be one of divinity or acknowledging the animal or harvest that produced their meal.
By simply changing how we eat, we are also more focused on what we are putting in our body. If we are going to enjoy the eating event with our family and friends, then it seems worthy of the time and effort required for preparation of a home-cooked meal that is nourishing. Take the deliberate eating challenge for one week and plan what and when you are going to eat, as well as where and with whom. Whether you are conversing with family or quiet in meditation, don’t allow outside media distractions or activities to interfere. No matter what nutritional guidelines you are following, treat the course of deliberate eating as the centerpiece of the table. Even if you live alone, make each meal a conscious action by consuming your meal at an eating place and slowly savoring every morsel. Note your physical reaction to your food. Note your emotional reaction to treating food with ceremony. Plan each event as if you were inviting someone very special to dinner. You are—you.