The practice of mindfulness involves focusing our attention on the present moment — as it unfolds from one moment to the next.
However, when you’re just getting started with practicing mindfulness, it can be hard to know what to focus on. So many thoughts and distractions come into our minds, and it can be challenging to remain in the present.
To begin to train our awareness to stay in the present moment, we often use different “anchors” — such as our breath, sounds in our environment, or sensations in our bodies (like a cool breeze on our skin or the chair beneath us) — to keep us grounded in the present moment.
All of our senses can serve as potential anchors, helping us keep our metaphorical feet planted in the here and now. One of my favorite exercises for practicing mindfulness — mindful eating — incorporates all 5 of these senses.
Benefits of Mindful Eating
Eating is something we have to do every day, so it’s a great reminder to tune in and be present, even when we may feel like we don’t have a lot of time. It also tends to be pretty enjoyable — when we take the time to really tune in to the experience.
However, mindful eating has some other benefits as well. For one thing, when we really tune in to our food, we tend to feel more satisfied by it. Often, when we eat, we barely taste our food. We’re already thinking about the next bite before we finish this one. Or we’re thinking about something else altogether. Maybe we’re even watching TV or looking at our phones. We suddenly look down at our plates and realized we’ve finished eating, but we weren’t really paying attention. It’s like we weren’t even there for the experience! Incorporating mindfulness into our meals helps us appreciate our food and feel more satiated, making it less likely that we’ll feel tempted to overeat.
Furthermore, mindful eating helps us begin to tune into our bodies’ signals, so we can better understand what we need — when we’re hungry, when we’ve had enough, when some foods may not agree with us.
Tuning into our bodies’ responses to the food we eat can help us keep ourselves healthy and can encourage us to eat food that truly nourishes us.
A Beginning Exercise in Mindful Eating
This exercise is adapted from the book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.1
Mindful eating works with any type of food, although some types tend to work better than others when you’re first getting started.
Some foods that work especially well include a raisin or some other small piece of fruit, such as a berry. A small square of dark chocolate also works very well.
You can choose any type of food that you wish for this exercise, although it’s best to choose something small that can be eaten in a single bite.
Ready to give it a try?
1. Hold the Food In Your Hand
First, take the food and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve just come down to the Earth from some other planet and that you’ve never seen an object like this before.
Allow yourself to be curious!
2. See This Food With New Eyes
Try to see this small piece of food with what we call “beginner’s mind” — as though you’re seeing it for the very first time, as though you’ve never even seen anything like it before.
Examine it from every angle. Notice its colors, where the light shines off of it, the shadows, any ridges or textures.
Give it your full attention and curiosity.
You might imagine that you are a painter, getting ready to paint a beautiful picture of this object. Notice all of its shades and shadows, observe any small irregularities or asymmetries.
3. Get Touchy-Feely With Your Food
Close your eyes, and imagine for a moment that you are blind. Just as before, imagine that you are discovering this food for the first time, but this time through your sense of touch.
Explore it with your fingers, turning it over in your hand, feeling its texture. Notice it’s weight. Observe its smoothness or roughness, it’s temperature, its angles.
4. Breathe & Smell
Keeping your eyes closed, hold the piece food just under your nose and inhale deeply.
With each breath, notice any smell or fragrance that may come from this small object.
As you smell the food, notice any other sensations you may experience in your mouth or stomach.
Do you notice your mouth watering? Your stomach growling? An urge to put the food in your mouth?
Be a curious observer of your body’s reactions.
5. Listen to Your Food
It may seem strange, but some foods make noise!
Hold the piece of food up to your ear and move it slowly between your fingers, perhaps squeezing or rubbing it gently.
Depending on what it is, it may make some sound as you do this. Or it may be silent. Just notice whatever sounds it may make.
6. Place the Food in Your Mouth
Now, slowly bring the piece of food up to your mouth. Notice how your hand and arm know exactly where to go.
Gently place the food in your mouth — without chewing.
Notice how it gets into your mouth in the first place.
Spend a few moments observing the sensations of having the food your mouth, exploring its texture, shape, and taste with your tongue.
Notice the urge to chew the food, but refrain from doing so for now.
7. Really Taste Your Food!
When you feel ready, prepare to chew the food, noticing how and where it needs to be in your mouth for chewing.
Then, very consciously, take one or two slow bites into the food and notice what happens. Notice the waves of taste come from the food as you continue chewing. Observe how it changes texture, moment by moment.
Notice the urge to swallow, but don’t do it quite yet. Just focus your full attention on all the sensations — taste, texture, the feelings of your mouth as you chew.
8. Conscious Swallowing
When you feel ready to swallow the food, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this action is experienced consciously before you actually swallow.
9. Following with Awareness
As you swallow, see if you can feel what is left of the food moving down your throat and into your stomach. See if you can sense it as it moves down, and notice when you can no longer detect it.
Finally, take a moment to notice how your body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise.
Notice any urge to immediately take another bite of the food. Notice any lingering taste in your mouth, any sensations in your stomach, any judgments about liking or disliking the food.
Expat Focus: Mindful Eating Abroad
Mindful eating may be especially interesting for those living abroad, who may be trying many new and different foods for the first time!
Practicing “beginner’s mind” when it comes to food may be easier when you really are encountering new (and sometimes unidentifiable) foods.
For some people, though, new foods are immediately suspect. We may feel queasy about trying new things. However, approaching new foods with curiosity can help us be more open-minded to trying them, rather than being put off by their unfamiliarity.
As with many aspects of life abroad, trying new foods is often part of the adventure! That being said, we don’t have to limit our sense of curiosity to those things that are new and different. We can approach even familiar foods with the same sense of curiosity, and discover new — often enhanced — experiences of them.
Why not give this exercise a try today? We all need to eat, so you definitely have the time!
Mindfulness doesn’t require a lot of time or any special equipment. You can use everyday activities (like eating!) to begin to incorporate more mindful awareness and appreciation into your life today.
p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post.
If you tried the exercise, what did you notice? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below!
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