Most of the time, I eat in an extremely hurried way. I try to start the day with a leisurely breakfast, but that rarely happens (need to get to work, deadline to meet, phone calls to make, bills to pay…..). From there, I’ll grab lunch on the go, and evening meals are more often than not a social get together with friends which usually means chatting more than concentrating on eating. If I’m home, often, I’ll be too tired too cook, so it’s more about assembling the easiest, healthiest option. It wasn’t until I went on a silent retreat recently that I realised this rush, rush, rush was a big part of the reason I often feel sluggish, bloated or dissatisfied after a meal.
At the retreat, I’d eat totally alone, continuing my silence. The table would be laid out with a proper table cloth, co-ordinated napkin, place mat and fresh flowers for each meal, and a candle lit in the evening. I had the time to take in the details and that was just one way my eating experience was enhanced. Also on the table was a little manifesto – a kind of step-by-step on how to eat a meal mindfully. I read this sheet every day (well I had no one to talk to!!), and faithfully followed the routine. To begin with, sitting, relaxing and taking full, deep breaths. As the meal arrived, taking time to contemplate where the food was from, appreciating the work which had gone into the growing and preparation and being thankful for all those things. Then, savouring each, small mouthful, noticing the textures and flavours to enjoy the food to the maximum.
To my surprise, this turned each meal into a joyful experience, and I realised that after just a day or two (even with horrendous jet lag – the retreat was in Southern India), my digestion was excellent. No griping tummy which can so often happen when I’m stressed or travelling. Of course, it helped that the food was all beautifully prepared and cooked by a brilliant chef for me. And that it was organic, grown locally and vegetarian. But I wasn’t ‘denying’ myself anything – in fact I pretty much ate everything put in front of me. Four courses for breakfast – juice, fruit, porridge, toast with butter and jam and tea – as well as soup, salad, main course and dessert for lunch and dinner. I tend to wolf down big platefuls of food, whereas here, I was eating a little bit of everything in a slow and relaxed way. I was in the moment, able to focus on what I was eating and I left the table feeling completely satisfied, with no cravings whatsoever, and certainly my body was in good shape for it. (I wasn’t there to lose weight, but I definitely toned up).
Beforehand, I wasn’t sure how taking meals in silence would be, especially as there were other guests at the retreat speaking and socialising. But rather than feeling like a gooseberry, sitting at the table became another form of meditation for me – easy to do in the right environment, but it left me determined that I’d eat more mindfully on my return. Of course, back home, my busy schedule has not changed, and I will always love sharing meals with friends and family. Still, when I do eat alone, I’m making space to eat properly, setting the table with all the lovely place mats, cutlery and crockery I usually save ‘for best’. Taking time to take a few deep breaths first and to be thankful for the food in front of me, and most importantly, eating in silence with no distractions. It is working so far.
This awareness has also got me thinking about how I stick to eating the same foods all the time. Now, with the change of season, I’m inspired to change up the menu. In Ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine), the seasons are thought to align with its constitution categories. Winter is seen as Vata; cold temperatures, blustery winds and dry air align with the Vata body tendencies of cold hands and feet, dry skin, fast movements and quick mind, offering an explain for feeling restless and a little anxious at this time. To counteract this, a Vata balancing diet of warm, freshly cooked foods, avoiding dry raw fruits and vegetables is recommended. Makes perfect sense – embarking on a spartan raw food detox regime would seem odd now.
Instead of fruit salad, what could be more comforting than a seasonal fruit compote of apples and blackberries sweetened with a little honey and served warm. The abundance of parsnips, pumpkin, butternut squash and beets inspires hot soups and roasted veg instead of salads. And warming drinks are on the Vata menu: plain hot water instead of cold, or ginger tea made with fresh slices of root ginger. I’ll also be adding steaming hot chocolate to that list. Above all, I’m determined to take time to prepare, eat and enjoy my food every day, no matter how busy life is.