Happy Food: A Food for Thought Throwback

Happy Food

By Char Wilkins MSW, LCSW

Originally Published Food for Thought Magazine, Spring 2014

It’s Friday, 6pm. It was one of those weeks when I woke up Tuesday hoping it was Friday.

I’m tired, and it feels good to be sitting in my favorite Mexican restaurant, where familiar smells and sounds drift out of the kitchen to whet my appetite. I decided what I wanted to eat on the drive over, and having given the attentive waitress my order, I sit back and close my eyes for a moment. Immediately I remember that I have to write this article. My eyes pop open, and I’m digging for pen and paper.

The waitress sets down a red plastic wicker basket lined with waxed paper and full of thin, crisp tortilla chips. She balances a brimming saucer of bright red salsa lowering it from her tray to the table and slides another black saucer heaped with chunky guacamole next to it. I swear I can feel my pupils dilating. Eye hunger equals yum-gulp-yum-gulp.

I completely forget about writing the article and about the pen clenched in my right hand. Without a moment’s hesitation, my left hand plucks a chip, dives it into the guac, skims the salsa and in a less than graceful swoop it all arrives dripless at the Endless Cavern of Desire: my mouth. Crunchy . . . smooth . . . kicky. My mouth is in seventh heaven and more, more, more is the choral refrain in my brain. I sigh and lean back in the yellow, brown and orange striped vinyl booth. The week slides off my shoulders and the distance between my ears and shoulders lengthens by at least four inches. The pen slides from my fingers onto the table. The “mmm-m-m” that rises in the back of my throat is as much the sound of “tired” as it is “good.” It’s a relief from something I haven’t even taken time to acknowledge.

Just as my eyes start to close around the tastes and textures, my dear waitress arrives. She eases my favorite combo dish onto the table and, with the usual warning to be careful, it’s hot, she slides it to a stop in front of me. The bright orange platter is adorned with a burrito in its tightly wrapped pale jacket, the familiar brown beans splattered with cheese and colorful rice nestled against the red-sauced enchilada. A rounded scoop of sweet corn pone perches on the plate’s edge. My mind is jumping up and down and clapping with this array of stimulating colors, shapes, textures, smells, flavors.

And now, Eye and Heart hunger are neck and neck in a 10-inch dash for the fiesta food. My eyes bounce from item to item making it difficult to decide what to eat first. I’m on the verge of swallowing my tiredness, disappointment and the week’s irritation in my favorite distraction: food. My left hand reaches for another chip and begins its descent to the saucers while my right hand pulls the plate closer as it simultaneously lifts the fork.

Or should that be forklift. . . . as in shovel.

I love Happy Food. That’s what I call this Mexican dinner. I feel better just thinking about eating this spicy, warm, crunchy, soft food. And I most want it when my heart is achy and over-tired. My fork hovers over the plate coasting from a bite of soft burrito to the cool mouth-feel of rice to the sweetness of corn pone. I mix and match the crunch of a chip laden with creamy guacamole with bites of spicy enchilada and sips of cooling iced tea. This meal is easily on the Nonstop-I- Should’ve-Stopped-Long-Ago list of foods I can eat too much of, too fast. I put my fork down and lean back.

Just as my plate is a picture of contrasts -- spicy and cool and soft and crunchy -- so is the way in which I eat the food: moments of mindlessness and moments of awareness. I’m well aware that I won’t be mindful of every mouthful and I’m OK with that. I can be mindful of eating mindlessly -- consciously making the choice not to attend to my food for the next few bites -- and those moments help remind me that I don’t want to miss this entire meal and opportunities to experience satisfaction.

This is a practice I cultivate one breath at a time, one step at a time, one bite at a time . . . imperfectly. I practice relaxing into being less than perfect – maybe even average -- and find that there’s freedom in not constantly striving. In fact, I find I’m much more willing to slow down, pause or take a breath so that I can enjoy the food when I’m OK with not being perfect about eating every bite mindfully. Who can do that anyway?

My co-teacher, Jan Chozen Bays, told me about a way to eat more mindfully called Alternating Practice. Let’s say I’m one of those people who love to read while they eat. OK, I am one of those people. So if I just can’t put the book down for 20 minutes (This sounds ridiculous as I write it. Am I afraid the book is going to get up and return itself to the library if I close the cover?) I can alternate reading and eating. If I’m reading, I just read. If I’m eating, I just eat. Close the book to eat. Put the fork down to read.

Just as I toggle between reading and eating some days, I’ve learned to toggle with my favorite Mexican platter, even when I’m tired at the end of a long week. I bring attention to the textures, tastes and smells . . . and then I forget and don’t. I set my fork down, leaned back and created space, geographically and emotionally. I take a breath. I put my pen down and pick up my fork. I put my fork down and drink the iced tea. I acknowledge without criticism that I am tired and upset and that I am using food to soothe. Small steps count, and a sense of humor helps.

Of course, the Critic stomps right up her well-worn neural pathway, knife in hand, only to be met by A Little Kindness for the long week and my habituated way of taking care of myself. No sense arguing with a bully, is there? Being conscious of my hungry heart rather than denying it reminds me I’m not perfect. That means I can join the human race, most of whom are average folks, doing the best they can. And it’s such a relief to be off the prongs of Perfect.

About the Author

Char Wilkins, MSW, LCSW, is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist who works with women recovering from childhood abuse, disordered eating and body image. She is a certified MBSR instructor, trains professionals internationally in MBSR, MBCT and MECL (Mindful Eating/Conscious Living), and offers consultation for professionals. She previously served on the TCME Board. www.amindfulpath.com