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Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D. Headshot

Mindful Eating While Dining Out

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Food preparation requires attention. It's an inherently mindful act. When we plan a meal, shop for ingredients, chop, stir, toast and marinate, we're much more likely to connect with our food than when a prepared plate is set in front of us. But if we train ourselves to be attentive, we can savor every meal, and really enjoy ourselves in the process.

I've learned to choose nutritious dishes and enjoy them fully when eating at restaurants, and find the experience to be incredibly rewarding. I enjoy the flavors more fully, don't leave feeling stuffed and stiff and am nourished by my healthy choices. So when a journalist from the New York Times dining section requested to interview me for an article about mindful eating, I was both pleased and excited. I learned that he had already read Savor, along with other mindful eating books, but wanted to have a firsthand experience -- so I suggested he visit Blue Cliff Monastery for a day of mindfulness to have an opportunity to eat mindfully with the monastics.

The experience of eating with a sangha (Buddhist community) can teach one a lot about savoring each bite. The monastics prepare simple and healthful food -- often a hot dish of veggies and tofu with brown rice, alongside a colorful salad and an array of fresh fruit. Before the food is served, a mindfulness bell sounds three times. This is a moment of stillness to breathe and consider the five contemplations: a set of principles that guide healthful consumption for our own health and the health of our planet. Then slowly, and with attention, they serve appropriate portions. They smile to the food, seeing the whole universe embodied in each dish, and smile at their fellow diners, connecting over the beauty and wholesomeness of this act. Taking small bites and chewing thoroughly to help digestion, they savor each morsel.

We can apply these same principles of food appreciation when dining out. I'll never forget witnessing a woman in Kochi, on the Shikoku island of Japan, look at her dish from all angles as if to gain a panoramic view of her food, before offering it a genuine smile, gently picking up her cutlery, portioning out a small bite and elegantly raising it to her mouth. The act was stunningly gracious and inspiring.

When we consider both our bodies and our food as sacred, we are prepared to make nourishing choices. Here are a few strategies I use to mindfully choose a healthy and fulfilling dining experience:

1. When choosing a restaurant, take a look at the menu and the photos of the food on their website to make sure there are choices that you like. We eat with our eyes as well as our stomach -- does the food appeal to all your senses?

2. When speaking with your server, be inquisitive about the dish that you're considering. Do they use healthy oils or butter? Is it excessively salty? What vegetable sides are available?

3. Choose a healthy protein.

4. Ask for the sauce on the side. Or even ask to taste it before ordering. Sauces can be very high in sodium, which is unnecessary and unhealthy. Inquire about healthier options and control the amount yourself.

5. Choose oil and vinegar over low-fat salad dressings, which are usually very high in sodium.

6. Dip your bread in olive oil instead of using butter. Or skip the bread basket entirely and save your appetite for the main course.

7. Choose whole grains over white bread and rice.

8. Stay away from juice, soda and other high-calorie, sweet drinks.

9. Skip a heavy dessert and choose a refreshing side of fruit. Or share your favorite dessert, with everyone dining with you savoring a few bites.

Dining out is a wonderful time to savor our food as we have more time to enjoy it. We've set aside this time to eat, now we just need to harness our attention, appreciate the food and enjoy.

For more by Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

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