by Melanee G. Evans
(originally published in the print version of the Columbia River Reader )
It’s autumn in the garden, and Kc stoops to let her toddler hold the acorn squash she will cut, butter, and bake for dinner. “He enjoys carrots and zucchini,” she tells me, “and so I’m hoping he’ll like this too.”
Sweet buttery squash is not the only reason Kc teaches her child about the garden. She is studying the science of mindfulness, a practice that invites people to stop, breathe, and observe the present moment with greater awareness and joy, and she wants her child to learn it too.
“I think the garden is the ideal place to teach a child about life,” she says. “When we work something happens. When we plant a seed and nurture it with care, fruit grows. And the more we take a moment to be with our food and enjoy it, the more gratitude we have for all of life.”
Kc is not alone in her desire to unearth the benefits of slowing down and savoring the bounty of the season. For the past 10 years, significant research at UCLA has shown that the practice of mindfulness can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, reduce anxiety and depression, increase attention and focus, aid in digestion, and foster emotional well-being.
The best news is that savoring and mindfulness don’t have to be another to-do. We do not need to sit on a mountaintop to do this. We can practice it this season right at our dinner table, by making the simplest meal a celebration not only of the food, but of the people we love.
Tips for a taste of mindfulness.
- Smile at each other before you eat. Take a few breaths before you begin, and then acknowledge each other’s presence with a smile.
- Fashion your table. Present the food in a way that honors the food and the people you’re with. Learn the art of simple garnishes. Place elements of nature on the table in a vase or bowl, like fresh flowers or pine cones.
- Look at the beauty of your food. The four chambered heart of the tomato.The perfect iris of a carrot slice. The star inside of an apple. Take a moment to appreciate the beauty of your food and ask these questions. Where did it come from? Who grew it? Who raised it? Who bought it? Who prepared it?
- Breathe in the fragrance of the food. Engage your sense of smell by breathing in your food before taking a bite.
- Name your food. When we sit to eat our food, it is helpful to name our food, “Asparagus,” “Lentil Curry Soup,” “Red Peppers and Steak,” and so forth. Children especially enjoy naming the food at the table.
- Enjoy a small portion first. Instead of piling your plate with a mass of pasta, see how long you can dine on a small appetizer before reaching for the entrée.
- Breathe between bites. In Chinese medicine, it is recommended to only eat until you are 80% full. This is because “topping-off” the tummy weakens digestion, and puts stress on the stomach and intestines. Sounds obvious, but taking a breath or two between bites not only improves digestion, but can guard against overeating.
- Chew slowly. Mahatma Gandhi condensed the art of eating into a single phrase when he said, “Eat your drink and drink your food.” In other words, instead of stuffing your mouth with chunks of food and swallowing, take time to chew your food. Of course this will be more rewarding if you eat something delicious, like a fresh piece of fruit as opposed to a bag full of cardboard crackers.
- Skip lunch and fight hunger. Holding a bowl of rice in our hands can remind us of the many people in the world that are hungry. Consider skipping a meal or twoand donating your change to a local food charity.
- Eat a meal in silence. Silent eating helps you notice the subtle flavors and beauty of your food, as well as the quiet joy of being together with those you love. You may also find yourself paying closer attention to changes in your appetite as the meal progresses, and hence, eating less.
- Wash the dishes by hand. Once a necessity, a sink brim with warm sudsy water can now be a luxury. Instead of stacking the dishes in the dishwasher while watching the news, turn off the tube and invite a child to join you. Rainbows in soapy bubbles, the fragrance of the soap, the sound of running water, the slipperiness of the plates, all combine into a memory embedded in the senses.