What a 16-Year-Old Taught Me about Mindful Eating

By Ashley TenBrink, Recent Arizona State University Nutrition Student 

I know that it isn’t polite to stare. Staring breaks the most basic rules of etiquette and manners.  Yet, my eyes were glued…

I could not pry them off of the creamy, golden layers of cheese that swallowed up the narrow tubes of macaroni.  As still as a pond on a windless day, the dish settled perfectly into the little white bowl.

That was until the moment the edges of the silver fork pierced through the surface.  My focus on the food broke simultaneously with the separation of the cheese itself.

I looked up at my cousin, who hadn’t noticed my absent-minded break from our conversation.  She was telling me about all the fun she had been having, preparing for her show choir performance. She continued her story and dramatically tossed her head back, imitating one of her classmates, before sticking the tip of her fork into the next bite of food.  I laughed along, enjoying her carefree and happy presence. She chomped into the bite of her mac-and-cheese and gently set her fork down, before readying it for another.

Half way finished with her meal, she set the food aside to put in a to-go box and moved on to the chocolate chip cookie that rested on her plate.  Don’t get me started on the cookie, with its gooey chocolate chips and soft, perfectly browned dough.

I couldn’t help but ponder, how does she eat so intuitively?  She doesn’t worry about what she is eating, or when she is eating.  She eats when she is hungry and stops when she is full. She manages to retain her awareness, despite the abundance of food available.

Straight From The Mouth of a Mindful Eater


The idea of being able to eat what you want, when you want, blows my mind. I have obsessed about strategies that would allow me to do so myself.  I have tried macro-counting, calorie counting, carb-cycling, etc., all to no avail.  Yet, my cousin manages to maintain her slim physique without even trying.  Yes, I know her young metabolism plays a role, but I struggled just as much at her age as I do now. I am also not as envious of her aesthetic composition, as I am her peace of mind and contentment when it comes to food.

With a break in our conversation, I decided to simply ask her, “How do you keep from over eating?”  She looked at me a bit puzzled, readjusted her glasses and sweetly chimed, “I don’t know.  I hate that feeling of being really full and uncomfortable, so I always stop eating before then.”

This was an “aha-moment” for me.  People who are mindful of their eating, eat for fuel.  They are more aware of their internal gauge that measures their fuel levels.  They eat for energy and nourishment and do so by eating what they want to eat. They spend less time obsessing about food and spend more time investing their energy into living life, working and playing.


Why Are You Really Eating?


The bright-side is that we were all born with the instinctive ability to eat this way.  Many of us have just forgotten how.

For those of us who struggle, it may be helpful to discuss our eating triggers.

We often have physical triggers, such as feeling fatigued or thirsty.

We may face environmental triggers, such as the presence of food, the amount of money we paid for food, or if someone bought the food for us.

We use food to address emotional triggers, such as feeling bored, stressed, mad, or sad.

We eat to celebrate or to reward ourselves…  How many people do you know who run to Starbucks for a frappuccino after a “hard” workout session?

Eating for our every emotion can leave us feeling disconnected from the real reason that we need to eat, and lead to us eating all the time!


Instinctive Eating Strategies


So how do we remedy this?  How do we become mindful of our eating and recalibrate our internal fuel gauge?


  1. Slow Down


How do you eat when your overeating?  Do you eat fast?  As if you want to scarf it all down before you have to give it up?  Do you eat out of the box, with the pantry door still open?

Step away from the fridge, take out a small plate and set yourself out a serving that you can sit down with. Breathe in between bites, and make sure to chew slowly.  This sounds elementary, but so many of us overlook the need to just slow down and allow our brains and stomachs to register the fact that we are re-fueling.


  1. Limit the Distractions-


You may think you are a master-multi-tasker, but the sad truth is that the human brain can only sustain attention on one item at a time.  Research in neuroscience has shown that rather than simultaneously attending to multiple things, the brain is actually rapidly switching its attentional focus from one item to another and back again.

This is why eating with distractions often causes us to eat until the bag is empty, the plate is clean, or we run out of food.  Instead, choose to eat when you can focus on eating.  Even if its a protein bar on the go, stop and savor the tastes in your mouth, the texture, the size of the bite you took.  If you are having a meal with someone, eat small bites in between conversation.


  1. Realize that Food Cannot Meet Your Other Needs-


Let’s face the facts, eating does not meet our other needs very well. If we snack when we are bored, as soon as we are finished snacking, then we are still bored. So we often begin to eat again.  This causes us to lose our ability to know when we have had enough. The human body is designed to store the fuel that it doesn’t need.

So instead of automatically reaching for the nearest comfort food, pause and ask yourself, “Am I hungry?”  Give yourself a couple of minutes to check in.  This will not only help you become a more mindful eater, but it will also help you find more constructive ways to meet your other needs.

Bored?  Read a book, exercise, or do an activity that you enjoy.  Sad?  Put on a music playlist with some positive vibes or call a friend.  Mad? Constructively channel your energy into a project.  Hungry?  Eat something!


I am thankful for the afternoon lunch I shared with my teenage cousin, I got an insider’s look at what it is like to eat mindfully and live vibrantly.

By learning how to eat more mindfully we can free ourselves from the pressure of food. By eating instinctively we can increase our awareness to eat according to our needs. Instead of eating according to diet rules, deprivation, or guilt we can open ourselves up to the freedom of being able to eat what we want when we want, which sounds like a perfect way to be extraordinary in the ordinary!

For delicious recipes that will keep you and your family full and healthy visit Fill Your Plate!

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