3 Strategies for bringing mindfulness to your family dinner table

Meal times at my house can be quite hectic. We have a 4 year old who is very active and very imaginative when it comes to reasons for leaving the table. We are all often rushing to get home and then there is the rush to make dinner, followed by eating, and bath, and time for bed routines. It can all go by in the blink of an eye and be a whirlwind. 

I've just gotten back from a long weekend of attending lectures at the Nutritional Therapy Association's annual conference. I got to hear so many wonderful speakers and a common red thread among them has made itself clear to me. A lot of people talked about our minds and the brain's ability to affect our digestion for better or worse. Some speakers also spoke about emotional eating and taking the time to slow down and really tune into the body's hunger cues. This all got me thinking about dinner time in my house and the example I am setting for my child. 

When we are in a rush, either checking Facebook while eating, driving the car, answering phone calls, inhaling our food before we register the taste, etc we are eating in a sympathetic state. Digestion happens in a parasympathetic state, or a relaxed state of mind. We simply don't digest our food properly if we don't take the time to bring our attention and awareness to our meal and slow our nervous system down. Why is this a big deal? Besides the nuisance of belching, burping, and heartburn, which are all signs of improperly digested food, eating in a rush can cause our bodies to become even more stressed. Undigested food particles irritate the sensitive lining of our guts and are swept into our bloodstream through holes that were made when the inflammed tissue swells leaving tiny openings. Our body then has to clean up the debris floating around in our blood. Our immune system may become confused at the undigested proteins found and decide to attack it just like it would a virus, setting us up for food allergies. Our bodies have to respond to this inflammation instead of taking in the nourishment that our food should be, repairing and replenishing. Inflammation has been shown to be the root of all disease and instead of constantly trying to put the inflammation out we should be looking for ways to not increase inflammation in the first place!

This brings me to the first line of defense, bringing mindfulness to our eating practices. Our brain needs to register that we are about to receive nourishment from food so that it can signal our body to start producing enzymes and stomach acid, prepare bile to be released and help us assimilate fats. How do we do that? It is simple, yet has a profound effect.

 

1) Sit down and breathe deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth slowly, 3 times. Be sure to fully exhale, holding onto little bits of breath doesn't allow the body to fully relax. If we aren't exhaling fully our body still has some reserves "just in case" we need to spring into action, so by exhaling fully we are sending a signal to ourselves that we are safe and can let our guard down.

2) Smell your food, really look at your food. The sense is a powerful way to stimulate the vagus nerve which in turn tells our stomach to produce stomach acid, for instance. Seeing our food, really noticing it further signals the brain to start producing salivary enzymes, you may notice your mouth watering.

3) Express gratitude for your food. I like to invite my family to think of where our food came from. Did it come from a farm? What were all the steps it had to take from a seed to harvest, to being bought and prepared before it ended up on our plate? Feelings of gratitude have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the major signaler from the brain to start digestion. 

It doesn't take long to try these techniques and it really can have a profound impact on your body. I've enjoyed practicing this with my son and family throughout the week and really notice how it has changed our evenings. We are all more calm, it opens up discussion during meals and engages my son in a way he wasn't engaging before at the dinner table. 

Do you practice mindful eating techniques? How have they affected your life? I'd love to hear from you!

 

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