Does anyone remember the Paul Harvey radio show? Well, I certainly do. My father was a huge fan and listening to Paul Harvey’s storytelling while gathered around the table for lunch just went hand-in-hand for us. In fact, our family ritualistically surrounded the dinner table for meals in our small, quaint kitchen in Nebraska. Although we would listen intently to the Paul Harvey news at lunch, there were no other distractions at meals. No talking on the phone – for one thing there were no cell phones at the time. In fact, there weren’t even cordless phones. We didn’t have a television in our kitchen. Another thing I don’t believe anyone had back then.
There were no “superfoods” at our meals. We ate whatever my mom prepared, whether that was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, fried egg sandwiches or just plain leftovers. And, we were thankful…for the food, for the time together, and the time to just take a break in the day.
My experience eating mindfully began before “mindful eating” was even defined in our culture. Growing up in a food environment that emphasized regular family meals taught me to appreciate good cooking, food and time with family.
And now for “The Rest of the Story”…
Sadly, this harmonious meal time didn’t stay so sweet and peaceful. External cues from society that normalized dieting, “eating on the run”, and “good” vs “bad” foods increased as I ventured off to college and the working world. Lunch was no longer peacefully enjoying my meal while listening to the velvety voice of Paul Harvey. Instead, I was running off to get a large frozen yogurt and popcorn (because these were nonfat and “good for you” at the time), then eating at my desk while working on the computer. Evening meals ended up being some “low-fat” frozen meal conveniently heated in the microwave and then mindlessly eating in front of the television.
Coincidentally, I couldn’t understand how I continued to gain weight. I thought I was eating right. Eating continued to become so chaotic, cycling between restricting and over-eating; struggling with persistent weight gain; and, continuing to erode away my pleasure with food.
I began to obsess about what to do? So, I exercised more and ate better. After some time (and the desire to make a career switch), I decided to go back to school and study nutrition. Clearly, I thought, if I just knew more about nutrition, then I would get it right! Well, I did get that Master’s degree in nutrition, and fortunately discovered my passion for physiology, food and nutrition. In fact, the education actually helped me break many of the diet rules that had sabotaged my enjoyment of food and eating. But, not even an advanced degree in nutrition could have changed my relationship with “how” I was eating.
I fondly remembered back to that time when it was so simple. I could eat food, enjoy my meals and not worry about what I was eating, calories or my weight. Was that even possible anymore?
As my own family started to grow, I began to plan and insist on having family meals. My husband and I sitting at the table with a 2-year old and a baby wasn’t the sweet and peaceful “Normal Rockwell” painting I remembered back from that dinner table in Nebraska. But, we stuck with it. Eating began to be more focused on “how” we were eating instead of “what” we were eating.
Of course, I continued to try and provide good nutrition for our family at the meals. But, it really wasn’t about the food. I began to notice that I looked forward to planning, shopping, and preparing family meals with favorite family recipes and with foods we actually enjoyed! We were thankful for the meal and setting apart the busyness of the day for each meal. And…unintentionally, my weight dropped back to the point I was at before all the chaotic eating.
Fast forward about 15 years through a divorce; being a single parent; stress of a job; taking care of adolescents; and the list goes on. As I reflect back, mindful eating has been the cornerstone of health and nutrition for me. Finding a peaceful relationship with food, eating and weight has not included any specific foods or recipes. It has NOT been about following a diet or set of food rules. It has not been about eating less or more depending on how much I exercise (or don’t exercise). For me, eating mindfully has been a practice of staying aware of my body and giving myself permission to take time to eat. Whether having a family meal (even as a busy single parent); or, a meal alone, eating at the table without distractions has truly been an important behavior to stick with. This has meant challenging judgment about food, and instead eat what I enjoy at meals, not what is the latest food or diet trend.
Of course, being a nutritionist, I enjoy preparing a variety of foods while keeping balanced nutrition in mind for my family. But, if you asked anyone in my family, they would tell you there are no “forbidden foods” and “it’s just normal to have a family meal at the table.”
Recently, we had a young guest over for our evening meal. The table was set, as it is at every evening. We began our meal with our usual centering of prayer. As we talked about the day, enjoying our food together (with no cell phones or TV allowed), our guest commented about how different this meal was from her experience at home. When I asked, “what seemed different?” She added that “it was very strange to sit at a table and eat.” Later in the meal, she continued to explain how “there is so much noise at her house during meals” and “eating here is so pleasant.” Awww…truly the joy of mindful, healthy eating!