One of the most fundamental reasons I write about food is joy.
I learned to appreciate what I eat, after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Her book chronicles her family’s efforts to produce most or all of their own food, or to buy it locally, for one whole year. After reading her book, I was heavily impressed with the fact that, like many of us in this country, I was so far removed from our food system that I could not have identified a potato plant, or known that brussels sprouts grew on a stalk, or had any idea what happened to asparagus spears were they not to be harvested.
Like most of us, I knew only what happened in the grocery store, and it is this removal from my food that made me careless with it. After smugly filling my cart with fresh produce and feeling great that I was buying healthy food, I often let it turn to goo in the drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator that my husband eventually dubbed “the rotter.” Veggies that went uneaten did so without any guilt, with very little understanding of their life before my plate, and landed straight into a garbage bag destined for a landfill. Once a vegetable hit my home, its place in the food chain ended permanently, its nutrients exiting the system of which most of my fellow Gen-Xers are fairly unaware.
After reading Kingsolver’s novel, my callous disregard for the sacrifice made by the plant struck me to the core, and my husband and I decided to try to match her family’s challenge. We moved from our home in Southeast Texas to a parcel of land in the Hill Country, central Texas, where I fought the elements, including an intense lack of rain for almost our entire two year stay, to grow tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli, watermelons, and more.
We owned pasture land on top of the highest point in the Hill Country. The relatively constant stiff breeze, the blazing sun, and the low humidity was fantastic for drying clothes, but it sapped the moisture from my large leafed squash plants and stressed my tomatoes so bad that battling opportunistic bugs became a daily exercise in futility. Every tomato and pepper became so precious to me, so representative of the early mornings I had to get up to haul water from our tanks – as we had no well or water hookups – to the beds where I carefully funneled the water directly to the roots. It tasted of all of the afternoons I spent re-staking the tomatoes, handpicking bugs from the peppers, and scraping my wrists cutting tender yellow squash from their prickly vines. The watermelons smelled of sunshine and evenings spent protecting them from the marauding raccoons whose nimble fingers defied all of my attempts to protect them.
After that first summer, I began to feel empathy for the farmers, and for the sacrifices made by their plants, to feed me. I felt inadequate and knew I’d need to understand my food better to feel that I deserved the backbreaking labor and the sunshine and life that was cut short to keep mine going one more day. It is not just meat eaters that end life to sustain their own, I discovered. Vegans, vegetarians and omnivores all need to eat things which once lived in order to continue for even one meal.
I began to eat with appreciation, something Thich Nhat Hanh, a widely followed Buddhist monk, refers to as “mindful eating.”
What I discovered as I began to eat mindfully was that it brought me joy to do so. To my surprise, I had been letting opportunities for joy pass me by, three times per day. By noticing details and recognizing the elements of life that were in front of me, I began to feel more part of the universe, more intimately involved in not only my food, but in the full circle surrounding me. Feeling connected helps us to feel empathy with others, which completes its own circle in our community.
To eat mindfully, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests starting before you eat.
1. Honor the food. Start before you even see the food on your plate. Think about the people who spent their days nurturing the plant, about the nutrients that the earth gave up, about the sunlight and water in the fruit. Consider the nourishment you’ll receive from it and what it can do for your body. Anticipate the flavors and colors before any of it actually lands on your plate.
2. Engage all your senses. Mealtime should bring joy through more than the taste. Start by appreciating the colors and textures of the dish before you, imagining the sunlight and water and noticing how the plant seamlessly turned those elements into the colorful, nutritious meal before you. Breathe deeply the aromas, and hear the crunch as you bite into it. Feel the textures in your mouth, and notice the satisfying way your stomach receives it. Eat as though you are doing it for the first time.
3. Serve in modest portions. Consider the fact that we have abundance in this country, but it does not mean we should be eating in proportion to the availability of food. Remember how many go without food, and adjust your serving size downward with respect in your heart for conserving our planet’s resources as well as your family budget and your waistline.
4. Savor small bites, and chew thoroughly. When we are hungry, we tend to take large bites and chew quickly, but satisfaction with your food is greatly diminished, and you will miss opportunities for joy if you eat this way. Chewing your food slowly and thoroughly allows all the flavors to be released in your mouth, and triggers enzymes that can aid in digestion and nutrient absorption.
5. Eat more slowly and avoid overeating. Take time to experience your meal fully by letting each bite give you every molecule of flavor before swallowing. You may find that by eating more slowly, you become full faster and with less food. If you have difficulty controlling your weight, this is a helpful tactic that not only aids in weight loss but also gives you a chance to release hormones of happiness in your brain.
6. Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals makes you more inclined to miss your next opportunity for joy by wolfing down a burger between dance class and soccer practice. If you may miss a meal, pack some nuts or vegetables you enjoy snacking on in your bag, and practice mindful eating while you wait in the car or attend a softball game.
7. Eat a plant-based diet. While I personally feel that meat has a very important place in human evolution and nutrition, I also acknowledge that we do not need nearly as much meat as we eat. If you are vegetarian, great! If you aren’t, be as mindful of the sacrifice made by the life that was taken to sustain yours. Honor the life by utilizing every scrap, eating smaller portions, and thinking about the experience of living the animal had prior to reaching your plate. Buy locally sourced, sustainably raised meat, that was not given artificial hormones, antibiotics, and that was treated well in its life. Recognizing that the chickens, pigs and cattle that died so that we may live will help you feel more empathy for them and waste fewer resources to keep yourself alive. Try to limit your meat consumption to two or three times per week.
Similarly, buy non-GMO vegetables, locally raised with few or no chemicals, by people who practice methods of farming that do not deplete the soil. It can be more expensive, but mindful eating takes the entire food chain into consideration and does not ignore the farmers’ families’ needs like industrialized farming does. By buying industrially raised vegetables, you are feeding a system that will eventually ruin the environment, ecosystems, and continue to produce food that does not contain the micronutrients we need to be healthy. You’ll also eat less by eating mindfully, offsetting your per-item increase in price.
I’m adding a modern-day number eight, nine and ten:
8. Put away the screens and interact with your dining companions. Eating doesn’t take longer than an hour, at most. Put the phones, tablets and televisions to sleep while you eat. Talk to your family or friends. Use this time to connect not only with the food, but the people sharing it with you. Catch up on their days. Dinnertime chatting can help you be closer to your children, parents and friends, and give you an important opportunity to pick up on subtle cues that need attention, or a chance for your children to build their own self worth by sharing their daily victories. Dinnertime can be valuable bonding time. You also miss the opportunity to practice mindful eating if you are multitasking with Facebook or Snapchat.
9. Express thanks to the cook or chef. Whether you are really enjoying the food or not, whether or not the person who prepared the food did anything more than reheat leftovers or pop a TV dinner in the microwave, someone made an effort on your behalf who deserves being recognized. Perhaps your spouse does all the shopping and cooking and you are lucky enough to sit down to a plate of food that required no effort on your part. Perhaps you are the person making the effort. Regardless, it is important to be thankful of the work that went into selecting, purchasing, preparing, cooking and serving the food. Even if you dislike it, thanking your cook or chef for the hard work will help engender trust and intimacy the next time you sit down. If you have constructive criticism, frame it gently and with kindness after you thank them for their work.
10. Wash dishes mindfully, too. Whether you hand-wash or load them in the dishwasher, the process of cleaning up after your meal gives you another opportunity to be thankful and experience joy. As you rinse the remains of your meal off your plate, think about the satisfaction you feel having a full stomach, and try to imagine what it is like for people who seem to never get enough food to have that sensation. Appreciate the work and craftsmanship that went into the creation of your dinnerware and silverware. Engage your senses as you feel the warm water rushing over your hands. Place the dishes carefully in the cabinet and appreciate the resources available to you that enabled you to have a service for four, or eight, instead of a single plate or bowl.
Eating mindfully takes practice. Our hurried society places expectations on us that are often difficult to change, but if you slow down and remember what it is like to be grateful for simple things, like sunshine, water, nutrients and the hard work of so many people that helped bring your meal from a little seed to the bounty in front of you, you’ll find you miss fewer opportunities for joy and find more ways to be grateful for just about everything.
Please watch for weekly posts like this here on AshevilleBlog and at Asheville Wine & Food Festival all summer long.