Mindful Eating: A Food Critic's Approach
Troy Johnson on how mindful eating changed his life as a food critic—and as a person
Illustration by Verónica Grech
Meditation is hard. Doing nothing is the most maddening kind of doing. I’d read all the benefits, how it turns the choppy lake of your mind into calm water. How it helps CEOs stay grounded in their responsibility tornadoes. How Oprah does it. I tried it intermittently for years. Each time, I’d turn on some new-age music that sounded like keyboards making very respectable love to other keyboards. Or water burbling through a pristine creek that didn’t have cigarette butts floating in it. I’d sit, cross my legs, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and freak out.
Once you close your eyes to meditate, it’s like an open mic for your inner Freud, and he’s drunk. That thing I said earlier today was kind of awkward. So was that thing from third grade. I need to rotate my tires. I should do yoga. Donuts are good. Justin Timberlake isn’t fair. It’s all there, just waiting for you to close your eyes and listen.
Anyway, one day, years later, I got it. The practice snapped into place. I was able to observe my internal monologue, let it float by, and sit there silently in the present. I was no longer chasing useless chatter. It made me a calmer person. It helped me focus on daily tasks. It tranquilized my ADD.
Now many mornings, but not all, I meditate for 20 straight minutes with no problem.
As I read more on the practice, the message recurred that meditation is really just mindfulness. Experts suggest you can do it with everyday activities to make them more vibrant and meaningful. If you’re washing dishes, you try not to think about your kid’s bad grade in English, and how you should hire a tutor or maybe try having another kid in case this one never gets it together. Just concentrate on scrubbing that coffee cup. The idea is that there is no stress in the moment. Thinking about the past unearths regrets; thinking about the future beckons anxiety. The present moment has no psychological baggage or stressors.
I’ve tried this. And it works.
I figured I would incorporate that into my job as a food critic. It’s my job to research, taste, analyze, and tell stories about food and restaurants. The only way to do that is to be fully present in those situations. Scientists observe cells under a microscope. I observe flavors and textures and scents and proper doneness and acid and umami and the infinite sensory expressions of food.
For self-preservation, I usually take only two bites when I’m working. I often order up to nine dishes at a tasting, so eating all of every dish would make me morbidly obese and short for this world.
The first mindful practice I do is smell the dish. I close my eyes, try to shut off the external stimuli, lean over the food, take a deep sniff, and focus only on what it smells like. After all, about 80 percent of taste is smell.
Then I take my first bite, not being particularly mindful at all, because that’s how most normal diners take their first bite. Most of us eat mindlessly, chew between conversations or texts.
Finally, I look at all the elements on the plate and try to see how the chef intended this food to be eaten. I build what I think is their perfect bite onto a single fork or spoon. I put it into my mouth, and close my eyes. I focus all my senses on the textures and tastes of that perfect bite. I try to notice every single nuance. The acidity of the tomato. The fat and zing of the mozzarella. The spices murmuring in the background. The somesthesis (a fancy science word for a food’s texture, temperature, burn, etc.).
I chew slowly. I let it linger in my mouth. Honestly, I look weird doing it. But it’s changed the way I eat. Mindful eating elevates the amount of joy I get from a good dish because I’m focusing on that joy. (Sadly, it also increases how much displeasure I get from mediocre food.) I also notice when I’ve eaten enough, milked the food for all its awesomeness, and each successive bite isn’t delivering as much pleasure (so maybe eating the rest of these French fries isn’t worth it). My understanding of what I like and don’t like has greatly increased. I’ve learned to pick out spices in a dish with much higher success. I also sniff spices in grocery stores to train my brain, but that’s another peculiar exercise of my profession. My understanding of why something is good or why something is off is deeper, more accurate.
Study after study in the digital age has come back with the same conclusion: Humans aren’t engineered to multitask. We’ve been engineered over millions of years to single-task. We do things better when we focus on them. Including eating.