Ten years, one feature film, and thousands of rave reviews later, I finally conceded last week and sat down to read Eat Pray Love. Okay, fine, conceded isn't actually the word. I asked my oldest friend if I could borrow her copy, interested not in seeing what all the fuss was about but in diving with an open heart and mind into the wisdom that Elizabeth Gilbert might actually have to offer. My friend—whom I had rolled my eyes at the first time she gushed about the book all those years ago (you see, I was a terribly pragmatic-bordering-on-cynical creature in my youth)—squealed with delight at my request, hearing words that she (and I) never would have dreamed I would utter.
My interest was piqued sometime last year when a dear and inspiring friend recommended Gilbert's latest publication, Big Magic. Many months later, I happened to catch a snippet of Gilbert's conversation with Krista Tippett on On Being and was surprised by the thoughtful and intelligent ideas she offered. (Apologies if my surprise about this fact offends any of you.) Not quite ready to commit to actually reading her books, I watched her first TED talk on the idea of creative genius, in which I found her to be not only sharp and insightful, but also charismatic and damn funny.
So here I am, a mere few weeks later, sitting in bed with a copy of Eat Pray Love by my side. If you hate this book or don't care about this book or are absolutely exhausted by the ten years of hearing about this book, please stay with me for a moment; this post is not actually about Eat Pray Love.
...Barring this note: In one segment, Gilbert recounts an experience she had in a busy office building in New York. Upon rushing into an elevator, she caught a glimpse of herself in the security mirror and registered her reflection as a friend of hers, reacting for a fleeting moment with surprise and joy. Gilbert quickly realized her mistake and laughed it off in embarrassment. She shares this story with us readers in the midst of a night in Rome, where she has been living most vivaciously, when she finds herself suddenly overcome with depression and loneliness. Turning to her own self for support, Gilbert thinks back to this incident in the elevator. She scrawls in her journal: "Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend."
That is what I am interested in. This idea—no, this necessity—that we treat ourselves as our best, most unconditional, most unwavering friend.
But what does that even look like? There are countless ways in which we can be better friends to ourselves. I've already written about some of them. The way things are going around here, I could conceivably re-title this blog "Meredith's Writings on How to Be More Self-Compassionate and Eat Delicious Food While Doing So (A.K.A. the Story of Her Life)." In all seriousness though, this is a real thing. It's a Big Deal. It is arguably one of the most important things we can do in our entire lives: learn to love, value and care for our own selves.
So where does that process begin? I could easily write about combating negative self-talk or expressing gratitude or giving ourselves credit for our achievements or operating from a place of trust and truth rather than fear, which are all super important practices. But that's not what we're going to talk about today. Today, we're going to talk about the practice that sparked the journey of self-care, in truth, for me. We're going to talk about food.
Or, rather, the way we eat our food.
Mindful Eating, or The Gateway Art of Attentiveness
I first encountered the concept of mindful eating in Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food (which I highly recommend if you have not read it). He espouses this simple yet somehow radical—in today's overly connected and multitasking world—belief that when you eat you should just eat. Don't eat and scroll through any media or communications on your phone. Don't eat and watch TV. Don't eat and read the newspaper or Bon Appetit magazine. Don't eat while driving. Don't eat straight out of the fridge while making your ritual boredom lap through the kitchen. Don't eat standing up, rushing out the door. Don't eat at your desk, working through your lunch break. Eat and give your full attention to your meal (and your present company, if you are sharing the meal with others). Eat and relish the colors, textures, scents and tastes of your food. Take your time. Put your utensil down between bites. Chew thoroughly. Savor the flavors. Take deep breaths and feel the reactions of your body to your meal. Appreciate the care that you put into preparing your meal, or that someone else put into preparing it. Acknowledge and appreciate the hands that nurtured and harvested the raw ingredients and the wonders of our earth that enabled them to grow. And, while we're at it, also be sure to eat off of proper dish ware, treating yourself like the deserving human that you are. You wouldn't serve your guest breakfast straight out of a blender, a wrapper or a tupperware, would you?
I can hear you thinking, "That seems like a lot of effort." Or, "I don't have time for that." Or, "I won't get to read the paper if I don't do it over breakfast!" Or, "I would feel super awkward eating at a table by myself with no distractions."
These are all valid concerns, but hear me out. Mindful eating has incredible physiological, psychological and emotional effects. For starters, when we take the time to slow our eating and chew more fully, our bodies actually have greater access to the nutritional benefits of our food. Believe it or not, chewing is the first step in the digestive process. When we chew completely, our teeth essentially liquidize our food, which enables our bodies to digest it more easily and frees up internal resources to focus on absorption. Our saliva also contains digestive enzymes that are necessary to break down the food for optimum conversion into energy. Slowing down and chewing fully means we physically gain more benefit from the food we eat!
When we savor the process of eating, we are also able to tune in to our levels of hunger and satiety, more easily avoiding overeating and feelings of post-meal discomfort (as well as unwanted weight gain and chronic stress on our digestive system). Additionally, as our minds and bodies are constantly in relationship, eating with attentiveness helps us remember the experience of having eaten, which actually keeps us feeling fuller longer.
And then there's the joy bit. The benefit of pure pleasure that comes from truly noticing and appreciating how delicious your food is, how curious of a sound it makes, how many hands it took to get from the field onto your plate, or how wonderful that even amongst your hectic/frustrating/disappointing/exhausting day, you took time to create something for yourself. By making an effort to eat away from your desk, or off of real dish ware at the dining room table—even if you're by yourself—you are actively showing yourself that you're worth caring for. That, in itself, is something to be practiced, savored and celebrated.
Words really cannot express how radically the practice of mindful eating has changed my life. It has so many benefits and an incredible ripple effect. You start paying more attention to your food and your eating and suddenly everything in your life seems deserving of increased attention, care and even reverence. Trust me. You'll see.
While I encourage you to harness your mindfulness the very next time you eat, this salad is a particularly great dish to practice mindful eating with because it is a total party in a bowl of bright, sweet, juicy, and fresh flavors and textures. This is a very unorthodox take on tabbouleh, which is a Middle Eastern salad composed of mostly parsley, speckled with bulgur, tomatoes, onion and a hefty zing of lemon. In less traditional versions, you may see mint and cucumber thrown in too. But here, as a celebration of the waning summer, I got really crazy. I threw peaches into the mix because they're fragrant and delicious, black chickpeas in the mix because, hello, BLACK CHICKPEAS!?! and because I'm a fan of fiber and plant protein, and swapped the bulgur for quinoa because it's gluten free, so more bellies can enjoy it. There is so much winning in this salad, I can't even.
Summer Stone Fruit, Cherry Tomato & Chickpea Tabbouleh
1/2 cup quinoa
1/2 cup dried chickpeas, black or white (or a can of chickpeas if you don't want to cook your own)
2 ripe peaches or nectaries
2 Persian cucumbers
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup minced mint
1/2 cup minced parsley
1/2 bunch chives, minced
high quality cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
If you are cooking the chickpeas from dried:
1. The night before, put dried chickpeas in a very large jar and fill it with water and a splash of apple cider vinegar.
2. Once the chickpeas have soaked for 12 hours, drain and rinse them.
3. Place chickpeas in a large pot and cover 2" above with fresh water. You're welcome to throw in some smashed garlic, half an onion, a carrot or celery, a bay leaf, a cinnamon stick, or a sachet with any spices you like to enhance the flavor.
4. Bring the water to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let chickpeas cook until tender, 40-60 minutes. If the water level sinks to the surface of the chickpeas, add more water. If white foam collects on the surface of the water, skim it off with a spoon.
5. When the chickpeas are tender, strain and rinse them and remove any aromatics you added to the pot.
6. Congratulate yourself for cooking chickpeas from dried and marvel in how much better they taste than the canned ones!
To assemble the salad:
1. Rinse quinoa and place in a small pot with 3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp water. Bring water to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. When the time is up, turn off the heat and let the quinoa sit, covered, for 10 minutes.
2. While the quinoa is cooking, prep your produce. Chop your peaches or nectarines and cucumbers into 1/4" cubes. Quarter your cherry tomatoes, making an X with your knife from the top down. Mince your herbs, if you haven't already.
3. When your quinoa and chickpeas are ready, add a generous drizzle of olive oil, squeeze of lemon and hefty pinch of salt to each. Toss to coat.
4. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Taste and add more olive oil, lemon and salt as needed.