Mindful Eating Tips

Note: This is the third in a five-part series on mindfulness and mindful eating.

In my first post in this series on mindfulness and mindful eating, I talked about the benefits of mindful eating. Before I get into some mindful eating tips and strategies in this post, I want to give a little overview of the difference between eating mindfully and eating mindlessly.

To eat mindfully is to be aware and engaged in the present moment. You are conscious of the act of eating. You slow down and savor each bite. You start eating because you are getting hungry. You stop eating when your body or taste buds tell you you’ve had enough.

To eat mindlessly is to eat while you are distracted or lost in thought. You are operating on autopilot. You eat quickly and barely taste your food. You might start eating because you are hungry, but it might also be because you are bored, stressed, or just because you always eat lunch at 12:30. You stop eating when your food is gone—and sometimes you realize that you didn’t really taste any of it.

Developing mindful eating habits

I’m including two “sets” of tips for eating mindfully in this post, one “Full Mindful Eating Practice” and one “Mini Mindful Eating Practice.” While the full practice, which can be done with any meal you choose, is valuable because it immerses you in the experience, but I would never expect anyone to eat that way all the time—it’s just not practical. The mini practice, on the other hand, allows you to still practice mindful eating when you’re eating with others, eating at your desk, or really want to eat while reading a book or watching TV.

No matter which practice you do, here’s an important “warm up”:

  • Before reaching for food, pause and take a moment to notice what you are feeling—physically and emotionally—and what you might want to fill you up.
  • Are you actually physically hungry, or are you feeling something else? Stress? Boredom? Anger? Sadness? Loneliness?
  • If your needs are not about hunger, would something other than food better meet those needs?
  • Be mindful of your feelings, and your reaction to those feelings, and make a conscious choice about how to proceed, instead of automatically reaching for food.
Full mindful eating practice

Remember, you don’t have to practice mindfulness at every meal to benefit from it. You may find that it’s easiest to start with select meals, such as those eaten alone. If it feels better to start practicing with a small snack instead of a full meal, go for it! Here’s how to start mindful eating:

Set a place at the table. Clear clutter off the kitchen or dining room table. Set out a plate, utensils and a napkin. If you can, use an attractive placemat or light a candle. This makes it easier to slow down and enjoy the act of eating. Put away or turn off any distractions—books, magazines, computer, television, handheld electronics—so you can pay attention to your food. It’s also best to avoid intense conversations, if you decided to do this full practice while dining with someone else.

Make your bites count. When faced with many food choices, ask yourself what you really want to eat. Take the time to choose food you really like and food that would satisfy you right now. Choose food that honors your taste buds and your body.

Sit quietly for a moment before picking up your fork. Take a few deep breaths and actually look at the food you are about to enjoy. What does it look like? Does it look appealing? Where does it come from? Is it a food you can recognize or is processed enough that it doesn’t really resemble a specific food? Briefly consider what it took to bring that food to your plate. Who was involved in the growing process and production? Consider the soil your food grew in (or the grass your food ate!). Visualize the sun and rain that fell on the land? Ask yourself where in the world the food came from.

If you usually eat quickly, practice slowing your pace. Put down your fork between bites. Wait until food is completely chewed and swallowed before picking up your next bite. Slowing down while you are eating can help you truly taste your food so that you enjoy your food more fully. Slowing down also helps you be aware of when your hunger is becoming satisfied. Simple methods to help you slow down include putting down your fork or spoon between bites, pausing and taking a breath between bites, and chewing your food completely (there is an important connection between mindful eating and digestion).

Eat with all of your senses. Pay attention to the colors of the food. Notice the texture and sounds, the aroma and flavor. Is it crunchy, creamy, warm, cold, sweet, salty, spicy? Become fully present for the experience of eating and the pleasure that it can bring. Let all of your attention be on the complete range of sensations available in each bite and feel the joy. If you can’t savor it, why eat it?

Pause halfway through your meal. Check in with how you feel. Is your belly full? Are you satisfied? Does the food still taste delicious? If you clean your plate and want more, wait five minutes, then decide if you are still hungry. You may discover you’re no longer hungry even though there’s food on your plate or you may discover you don’t even like the food you’re eating. Give yourself permission to stop—or to continue—based on what you discover.

Deal with distractions. If a distraction arises during your meal, be aware of them, and make a point to bring your attention back to eating, tasting, and assessing your hunger and satiety several times throughout the meal.

Choose an ending. Create a ritual to signify that the meal is over, such as going to another room and having a cup of tea, or cleaning up the dinner dishes (mindfully).

Mindful Eating Tips
Mini mindful eating practice

This practice is adapted from an article I wrote for The Washington Post about how you don’t necessarily have to avoid all distractions to eat mindfully. (Useful if you’ve been wondering, “How does mindful eating work in the real world?”) Yes, you can pay attention to both your hunger and your eating and still enjoy your book or eat at your desk. Here are some tips:

  • Again, before eating ask yourself: “Am I truly hungry or do I want to eat for another reason?” Practice noticing bodily sensations of hunger, as well as the presence of non-hunger eating triggers such as thoughts, feelings, or environmental cues that prompt a desire to eat. This includes boredom and procrastination.
  • Take a few breaths before starting the meal and make a point of noticing how the food looks and smells. Then, tune into the first few bites, noticing the initial flavor, texture and other sensations.
  • Periodically during the meal, turn your attention away from your book, computer or dining companion, and back to your food. Is it still tasting good? When your enjoyment of the food starts to wane, it may be time to stop eating. Practice noticing bodily sensations of hunger and satiety change as the meal progresses.
  • Note your hunger and fullness five to 10 minutes after eating, and for the next few hours. This can give you valuable information about whether you ate enough, or maybe too little, at your meal, as well as what types of meals or combinations of foods keep you satisfied between meals.
Mindful eating resources

I hope these mindful eating tips are helpful! In the next post, I’ll offer up some tips on how to meditate, including a mindful eating meditation, but first, here are some of my favorite resources on mindful eating.

The Center For Mindful Eating. This website has tons of free resources, and for a $60 yearly membership fee ($75 for professionals), you have access to even more.

I regularly recommend these three books, which I have on my own shelves:

I have not (yet) read these two brand-new books, but they have stellar reviews from mindful eating and mindfulness experts whose opinions I value, so that’s good enough for me!

Note: If you struggle with eating disorder symptoms or with anxiety related to food, explore mindful eating with the support of a therapist and/or registered dietitian. Similarly, if you find if very difficult to acknowledge or cope with unpleasant emotions—or feel overwhelmed by any heightened emotion, even “pleasant” ones—consider exploring mindfulness under the guidance of a therapist trained in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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