Let’s raise a glass to the season of joy, love, and food. Cookie swaps, cheese trays, turkey dinners, cocktails and fruit cakes, shall we? I mean, what would the holidays look like if we didn’t have food to bring us together? Time for some mindful eating?

Food is a social lubricant that plays so many roles – it brings us together, distracts us, soothes us, entertains us, numbs us or lets us shine. So many uses, yet so many places to find ourselves overwhelmed. Hands up everyone who hits mid-December and thinks, “If I eat another bite I’ll explode!”

We can’t avoid the season of excess, so it’s important to come to peace with it. This year I’m proposing an unlikely answer to Christmas excess. Perhaps the tools of mindfulness — mindful eating in this instance — can help us have a simpler, more peaceful holiday.

Mindful Eating

I am a late-comer to mindful eating. When I first learned about mindful eating at Duke it left me cold. Our class had reconvened in North Carolina after our first month of training. We were full of joy and excitement to see each other and share our new perspectives and experiences as budding coaches. We dutifully waited through our morning classes to catch up at lunch, only to discover that we were going to have a ‘mindful lunch’. It was a silent meal with no interaction. We focussed on our bland cafeteria food as we glanced anywhere in the room away from each other.

Blech.

Still, I keep hearing good things about mindful eating. Like more enjoyment from your food, or weight maintenance or balanced eating. From my own experience, I can tell exactly where my emotional and mental state is by how I’m eating. Am I under deadline pressure? Then I’m bolting down my food. Am I worried or feeling emotionally vulnerable? Then I’m eating chocolate at night. Am I relaxed and happy? Then I’m on Yummly, exploring new recipes for dinner deliciousness.

So if silent eating with endless chewing isn’t my thing, where can I find the gold in mindful eating?

I’ve decided to see if paying attention to my Christmas treats can open up the joy and connection of the season. I want to see if it’s possible to shift my perspective about holiday food from being a management project to a treat to savour.

Here are three ways to check in:

Tune into your Senses

Think about getting ready to eat at a holiday event. Perhaps you’re helping yourself at a buffet table or enjoying a glass of wine and some cheese at a cocktail party. Take a moment to run through the different sensory experiences you are having with your food.

    • What does the food look like? Are the colours harmonious, striking, or bland? Are there different shapes in the same dish? What about the sizes of the ingredients?
    • Take a sniff and see if you can almost taste the food without biting it. If I’m offered a good glass of red wine I’ll take four or five deep inhales before my first sip. It enhances the flavour so much.
    • When you take your first bite be a detective for the different flavours. Do sweet and salty co-exist in one bite? Can you sense the flavour of the different ingredients? Does the outside of the bite taste the same as the inside?
    • If it’s finger food, can you feel the temperature or texture of the food?
    • How does it sound when you chew? Is there that wonderfully satisfying crunch when you bite in?

Don’t take more than a short moment to run through your senses. Try to avoid comparing your experience with others you’ve had in the past. If it’s a traditional family dish, don’t dwell too long on whether it was better last year or not. Stay in the present and notice what’s going on at the moment.

Thank the Cook

Take another moment to think about where the food came from. If it’s a potluck, do you know who brought the dish? Is it your host’s go-to favourite for parties? Maybe there’s a way to make a pleasant connection with someone over their cooking talents.

Do a Regular Check-in

Check in with how hungry you are on a regular basis. And how satisfied. Give your hunger a number on the range of one being ravenously hungry and ten being painfully full. A great rule of thumb is to stay between four and eight – not too hungry and not too full. Then think about how satisfied you are with what you’ve eaten. I know I’ve tried substituting a healthier food for something I’m craving, only to finally break down and just eat the food I’m craving. For me, an apple doesn’t satisfy the craving for chocolate. It’s almost always better to be satisfied by a mindful experience of chocolate than to eat three apples and then a chocolate bar.

Short bursts of mindful eating will help you tune into the wonderful parts of the season. If you’re having trouble applying these three principles to your eating, perhaps it’s a sign that you’re getting overwhelmed by your holiday schedule. Take some time out to take care of yourself.

I’m looking forward to English trifle (one of my mother’s recipes), gingerbread cookies (courtesy of Martha) and some smooth Italian red wine. What’s your favourite holiday treat?

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