The Mindful Eating Tip That I Barely Ever See Written About is the One Japanese People Use Every day
How a short phrase before meals can be the key to consistent mindful eating
Mindful eating, like all kinds of meditation, can actually be quite tricky when you’re first starting out. The mind is geared to wander and often likes to gravitate toward thinking about anything but the current moment:
Did I get feedback on my assignment yet? Should I renew my insurance for the car soon? Summer is coming and I’ll have to buy a new swimsuit but where should I shop…
In most cases daydreaming can be harmless, but when we’re eating? It can quickly spiral into overeating, digestion discomfort, and maybe even a bit of stress.
How do you become consistent about mindfully eating?
Distracted eating is a very common problem — according to a recent study commissioned by Nutrisystem, about 1 in 3 Americans are unable to finish a meal without going on their phone at least once, and about 35% of those aged 18–25 admitted that they couldn’t go without their phone during a meal.
I don’t believe that these are behaviors people are particularly proud of, because many people also recognize that their distracted eating habits can be harmful. They understand that the habit can lead to overeating and excess weight gain, and the lack of satisfaction from our meals can leave us anxious and stressed.
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There are a few standard recommendations that many doctors and health magazines list when sharing strategies for eating well. They’ll often mention eliminating distractions like a phone or television from the room, counting the number of times you chew before swallowing, focusing on feeling your food in your mouth, smelling it, and even listening to yourself eating.
But there is one tip on mindful eating that I barely ever see written about, yet have found to be the most effective, and one that I and many other Japanese people consistently use: a mealtime that starts with the phrase itadakimasu.
What is itadakimasu?
If you’ve ever been invited into a Japanese person’s home, there is probably something interesting that comes up right before you eat. Everyone takes their seat, gets ready to dig in, and right before they do they say a very short phrase: itadakimasu!
Itadakimasu directly translates to “I will have”, but it means something along the lines of “Thank you for this meal. Let’s eat!” Like casting a spell or verbalizing a good luck charm, many Japanese people will not start eating until they have said these words.
Unlike a Catholic Grace, saying the phrase itadakimasu before meals does not have any direct religious roots. It’s also much shorter — just one phrase — , more casual, and feels intuitive in nature for most people. In fact, if you claimed itadakimasu was any sort of important tradition in the art of mindful eating or showing gratitude for food, a Japanese person would probably giggle. But the effect of taking a single moment to mark the start of a meal is quite powerful in the way it influences the way we view and experience our meals.
Why the one phrase makes mindful eating not just easy, but intuitive
It nudges us to slow down.
When we start a meal with a phrase, it compels slowing down before starting to eat. In silence it’d be much too easy to start eating without waiting, but when we begin a meal with a phrase, we end up waiting for everyone at the meal until they are seated and completely ready.
Even if we are eating alone, we end up waiting until the food is on the table, we are completely seated, and have everything placed ready in front of us — then, we feel ready to begin eating.
It defines a space for eating, and nothing else.
It’s a simple phrase, but it’s the moment that marks the beginning of a meal. Like hearing the school bell ring, mentally it helps us carve out a space in our mind to just simply sit down and enjoy our food.
It just takes us a second, but it can help us to see it as a space where eating is the main activity, and nothing else.
It fosters gratitude for the food on our plate.
We are more keen to enjoy food that we feel grateful for. Giving thanks for a meal — whether to the person who cooked it, the people who grew our food, or even to ourselves — can help us recognize our meal as something to be appreciated and savored.
We are much more likely to take the time to enjoy and focus on the experience of eating when we see it as something special — so why not take a second to recognize it?
A simple mindful eating experience, starting with just a single phrase
Itadakimasu doesn’t just make mindful eating easier, but it can help make it intuitive and habitual. We naturally spend time chewing and savoring food we decide to focus on, and even light feelings of gratitude can help us become more mindful about the way we enjoy what’s in front of us.
So for your next meal try turning off your distractions, sitting down at the table, and beginning with a short phrase before eating. Preventing distracted eating doesn’t need to feel like a forced endeavor, but with a second to slow down and a bit of mindfulness to spare, it can easily become a natural daily habit for anybody.