How (and Why) to Get Back to the Sacred Ritual of Meals: 5 Simple Steps

Have you ever noticed how much of a rush we’re all in these days? Nowhere is it more evident than during our meals: we gobble down a few bites of breakfast and coffee before sprinting out the door in the mornings; we eat lunch while typing away at the computer, reading the news, or taking care of some other urgent business; we stand up while nibbling on a snack (or a meal)…often typing away at our iPhones or Blackberries while we’re doing it. Talk about mindless eating!

And we wonder why the obesity rate is skyrocketing: it has to do with more than just with what we put into our mouths. It also has to do with how we put that food into our bodies: eating as an all-important ritual has been lost to us—and we desperately need to get back to it. Doing so will not only help reduce obesity rates, but will also help calm the indigestion, sour stomachs, and other digestive ailments (not to mention stress) that plague so many of us. How to return to eating as a soul-nourishing habit? Some simple steps:

1) Stop eating standing up. Personally, this is one of my hardest bad habits to break, and why I’m putting it first. And I know I’m not alone. We all have to make sure that every bite we put into our mouths is done sitting down at a table. This applies to snacks, those quick nibbles off our kids’ plates while we’re cleaning up the kitchen, and yes, eating at our desks. Studies show that not only will this help you keep track of what you’re eating (key to controlling weight gain), but you’ll also eat less and feel more satisfied. What also helps: don’t just plop down at the table and eat, set a place for yourself with a placemat and dishes. Sounds like too much trouble, right? It will be for unnecessary snacks, but for meals and times when you’re really hungry, you’ll want to put in the effort — and you’ll appreciate your meal even more as a result.

2) Enforce a no-tech rule. Sure, we’re a long way off from the Leave it to Beaver days of dad coming home from work at 5 p.m., setting down his briefcase for the day, and sitting down for a family meal every night. But just because we’re literally plugged in 24/7 and don’t have a definitive sign-off time anymore doesn’t mean we have to be on 24/7: turn off the TV, turn off the computer, set your cell phone aside (in a different room if you don’t think you have the willpower to not pick it up), and do not answer the phone if it rings no matter who calls — not even your boss with a very-important issue to discuss (most things are not so urgent that they can’t wait at least 30 minutes). And make it a point to get out for at least 30 minutes for lunch every day — no exceptions: Eating at our desks is one of the easiest ways to a) overeat (because we’re not paying attention to what we’re taking in) and b) not feel satisfied (because we’re shoveling down food while doing stressful work).

3) Eat real food. It’s no wonder that a recent University of Texas study found that people who drink diet soda had a greater waist circumference over a decade than non-drinkers: the stuff has zero nutritional value and no real taste. The same holds true for “diet” food: low-fat, low-calorie, and typically low-taste. Eating too much of this type of food keeps our taste buds hungering for substantial fare. All these empty calories not only contribute to dissatisfaction with what we’re eating, but also to a surge in eating disorders. By constantly depriving our bodies of real sustenance, we’re denying ourselves the very things we’re hungering for — and triggering a binge-purge cycle that leads to yo-yo dieting, bulimia, and more. When it comes to real food, make it a point to eat as much of it that comes straight from the earth as possible: whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, unprocessed meats and fish, eggs, fresh fruit or vegetable juice, and water. (And read product labels: the fewer the ingredients, the better. Also try to avoid ingredients you can’t recognize or pronounce.) You’ll find your meals more worthy of lingering over — and your satisfaction rate afterward will be much higher.

4) Appreciate the art of cooking. I used to hate cooking because I considered it a chore, a “waste of time” when you could just order in (or go out) for a meal that often tasted better. But I have come to learn that cooking is part of the ritual of eating and that it doesn’t have to mean using fancy ingredients and following complicated, time-consuming recipes. Study after study shows that eating at home is more nutritious — and prevents weight gain long term. And, as my Italian father always says, cooking with a little “love” adds to the flavor of any meal! My rule of thumb for cooking: keep it simple. Rice, quinoa, or another whole grain; pasta with fresh sautéed vegetables, marinara sauce out of the jar (nothing to be ashamed of!), or homemade pesto; grilled fish or meat; and/or a simple salad or fresh steamed vegetables in season. Limit eating out to once, maybe twice, a week — and you’ll come to see that the entire meal ritual (from prep to cleanup) become more appreciated in your own home.

5) Chew slowly, savoring every bite. We’ve heard the rule “Put down your fork between bites” a thousand times — but almost none of us follow it! (It is hard to do, I must admit.) But with time and practice and making it a point to linger over our meals as they do in Europe, as well as putting the above steps into place, this more leisurely way of eating will become more of an all-important habit.

Taking a moment to give thanks, either silently or out loud, before each meal, whatever your religion or spiritual beliefs, also helps contribute to the art of the sacred ritual and helps us to appreciate what we have — something we so often forget to do in these days of instant gratification. What you’ll find by getting back to eating as a ritual: you’ll be hungry less because you’ll be so much more satisfied with what you’re eating. And you may even find, that without even trying, you lose weight in the process.

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