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7 Realistic Ways To Approach Mindful Eating

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You know slowing down and bringing awareness to each meal can boost cognitive ability, reduce stress, and improve well-being. But who really has time for all that?

Mindful eating, or the practice of consuming meals with greater attention to how the food tastes and feels, conveys numerous physical and spiritual benefits. Tuning into your senses allows you to enjoy the fare more, and simultaneously, encourages you to take in less since you're better able to read your body's hunger and satiety cues. "When practiced to the fullest, mindful eating turns a simple meal into a spiritual experience, giving us a deep appreciation of all that went into the meal's creation as well as a deep understanding of the relationship between the food on our table, our own health, and the planet's health," writes global spiritual leader and mindful eating pioneer, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Savor.

Sounds lovely, right? So why aren't more of us engaging in this beautiful behavior? A recent episode of "The Muppets" reboot (the classic children's series made a comeback in 2015) sums up the issue perfectly. Kermit, who plays a stressed-out producer struggling to keep a madcap late-night show together, goes on a mindfulness retreat. He and the other attendees sit in front of plates holding what looks like a single soybean. When the frog has a side conversation with actor Jason Bateman, the retreat's leader admonishes them for not being "present." She then instructs the class to, "Sit, [and] feel your bottom against the chair..."

To many watching at home, this mindful eating exercise must have looked insane, from the tiny portions to the silence to the spacey (and judge-y) instructor offering ridiculous cues. But for those of us who have dabbled in mindful eating, it also felt kind of familiar.

My first time trying a mindful eating exercise, I spent nearly half an hour eating a single clementine. Consuming the fruit so slowly and deliberately definitely gave me a better appreciation for its taste and texture. But it also left me feeling like, "Welp, there's no way I'll be able to do this on a normal day." I'm a working parent of two, which means breakfast is something I often consume standing up, usually while I simultaneously try to fill bowls of oatmeal for my wife and daughter, quell toddler tantrums before they become baby-waking meltdowns, and unload a dishwasher.

"Your morning sounds a lot like mine," says Mark Muesse, an associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, when I described the scene to him. Muesse is the creator of a "Great Courses" lecture series that first introduced me to guided mindful eating--the one with the 30-minute clementine. As a fellow working parent with a wife and young daughter, Muesse quickly disabused me of the idea that mindful eating means using that painstaking, time-consuming approach at every meal.

"There's no criteria that has to be fulfilled [in order to eat mindfully]," Muesse says. "It is not necessary to do it in silence. And it is not necessary to eat slowly. Those are just training techniques. I think it depends on whether or not there is attention. And certainly, you can have attention even when things are hectic and chaotic."

To those of us who don't often eat alone or won't ever have the time to "wash each dish with the same care as we would use if we were bathing a baby" (a suggestion from Hanh), this is great news. Here are seven mindful eating exercises Muesse and others recommend you try in real-world situations.

1. Choose healthy, not convenient, foods. Give some thought to what you're putting into your body and how it will affect you, rather than defaulting to the most convenient option, Muesse advises. "Eating is very important aspect of our overall interaction with the world," he says. "The Buddha advocated the idea that we eat in order to sustain our bodies for the benefit of other people and our own enlightenment."

2. Say grace. Or have a moment of silence. Do whatever best aligns with your beliefs and traditions and acknowledges the work that went into creating the meal before you. "I think about where the food comes from. How it gets there. All the individuals and other beings that have been involved in bringing to my place and time the food that is going to become a part of me," Muesse says. "So I reflect on this process of eating and how it is that the different elements of the universe have come together and now have become a part of who I am."

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