Breaking bread together has been one of the best ways for humans to bond since the dawn of the species. We use shared meals to catch up, exchange gossip and ideas, and build deeper connections. That's not going to change anytime soon, but that's not the only way to approach enjoying a delicious meal.
Take Ichiran, a popular chain of ramen restaurants in Hong Kong and Japan, which just opened its first branch in Brooklyn, New York, for example. At this unusual eatery, guests don't chat around tables but instead slurp their noodles alone in small enclosed booths. You don't even have to interact with a human to order. Simply check your preferences off on a menu, place it under an electronic reader, and your meal is silently delivered to your table.
The idea, according to Ichiran, is to encourage "guests to dine alone and focus solely on the bowl of noodles in front of them." They call it "low interaction dining," but there's probably a more straightforward way to describe this sort of concentrated enjoyment of food -- mindful eating.
Eating as "stealth meditation"
And given the mindfulness craze sweeping America, perhaps it's unsurprising that restaurateurs are capitalizing on our frantic search to create a little peace in serenity in our fast-paced, always-on lives. But the idea of mindful eating isn't just a clever gimmick cooked up by Ichiran.
When I spoke to leading meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg several years ago, she insisted that the busy and overwhelmed could sneak mindfulness into their days in any of number of ways, even offering enjoyment of food and drink as one example.
"Maybe don't drink the tea while you're checking your email while you're on the conference call while you have the TV on mute reading the crawl underneath. Maybe just drink the cup of tea. It's not going to take hours, and you're not going to ruin your workday, but it's a very different experience," she suggested, describing this sort of intense focus on food and drink as a "stealth meditation."
Why everyone needs a savoring ritual
Even if your quest if less spiritual and more practical, setting aside at least some of your meals (or beverages) for attentive, solo enjoyment might be a good idea. The blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree recommends adopting "a savoring ritual," for instance.
The idea, according to the blog, isn't to attain some higher plane of consciousness, it's simply to quiet your mind and enjoy life a bit more. The post quotes Harvard professor and author Francesca Gino:
Think about rituals that you engage in prior to consumption experiences. What they do, they make us a little bit more mindful about the consumption experience that we are about to have. Because of that, we end up savoring the food or whatever we are drinking more, we enjoy the experience more.
Simply putting down your phone and really focusing on what you're putting in your mouth, in other words, can not only help you squeeze more pleasure out of your lunch, but also calm your mind and help you regain your focus in a crazy busy world.
Of course, that doesn't mean you should give up communal meals. They have their own huge pleasures, but it does suggest that perhaps once a day it would do your mental health (and your taste buds) good to engage in more mindful eating.