Eating is essential to survival — and it is deeply symbolic. Virtually every culture has rituals around food: the fasting and feasting that surround holy days in Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish traditions; the solemnity of the tea ceremony in Japan; or the harvest festivals that occur everywhere from Kenya to Kentucky.
Yet ritual has gone missing from many modern meals. Breakfast is often a smoothie slurped in the car; lunch, a sandwich gobbled over the laptop. Another late meeting and family activities once again relegate dinner to an ad hoc affair — or maybe the drive-through.
Eating like this satisfies some basic needs: It fuels our bodies. Still, being fed isn’t the same as being nourished. For that, a few mealtime rituals can go a long way.
When finding time for a meal is a challenge, the notion of adopting eating rituals can be especially daunting. “It’s hard to take foreign rituals and make them synthesize with our daily lives,” acknowledges Halé Sofia Schatz, coauthor of If the Buddha Came to Dinner: How to Nourish Your Body to Awaken Your Spirit.
Still, most food rituals are simpler than the Japanese tea ceremony. A ritual is just an emotionally significant practice one undertakes routinely, according to family therapist William Doherty, PhD, author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties.
A mealtime ritual doesn’t need to be time-consuming, he says. Even the busiest person can bow her head for a moment before drinking her smoothie.
The benefits of doing so are many. For one, rituals heighten our enjoyment of food. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Minnesota discovered that people who engage in small rituals before eating find their food more flavorful. And the action itself seems largely unimportant: One test involved participants knocking on a table before eating baby carrots.
Mealtime practices also draw us into a state of increased awareness, explains Megrette Fletcher, cofounder and president of the Center for Mindful Eating in West Nottingham, N.H. “Rituals can be a way to focus our intention,” she says. They bring us into the present moment.