How To Make Eating A Spiritual Experience

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My friend Jeffrey Zurofsky, culinary visionary and co-creator of the restaurants Riverpark and 'wichcraft, has a unique dinner party tradition: He serves the meal family style, and guests aren't allowed to fill their own plates. Instead, they pair off and serve each other, taking the time to pay attention to one another, to the food he's prepared for them, and to what they're really hungry for.

"The person doing the serving has to displace their own perception and pay attention to someone else," Jeffrey explains. "There's a bonding and a knowledge of each other that gets created. And each person also has to think about and express what they want to eat."

I love this story because it's a perfect microcosm of Jeffrey's culinary mission: to nourish people on all levels—not just to use food as entertainment, as so many restaurateurs and chefs do. That's why I invited him to help craft a philosophy and values that embody the belief that he and I share: that how you produce, prepare, serve, and eat your food is just as important as the nutritional content of the food itself.

That starts from the moment the seed goes into the ground—and, preferably, you've planted it in the soil yourself. At Newport Academy, we've created a farm-to-table culinary experience. Our teen residents—who are healing from mental health issues, eating disorders, and substance abuse—are intimately involved with the process of growing the food they eat, in our gardens and greenhouses. It's the first step toward reversing a national epidemic of disconnection from the source of what we eat—an epidemic that can't be addressed by elitist foodie culture or by companies splashing meaningless "100 percent natural" slogans on highly processed packaged food. In Jeffrey's words: "Putting a picture of a cow on the label doesn't get you on the farm."

The next vital pieces of the healthy-eating puzzle are the preparation and service of the whole foods you've grown or sourced (preferably from local, organic farmers). "When you prepare a meal for somebody else, it changes the nature of your relationship with that person and with yourself," Jeffrey says. Research shows that giving to others increases neural activity in the parts of the brain associated with positive emotions. Jeffrey also talks about the importance of restoring the sacredness of our relationship with food—examining how the way we interact with our environment and the resources it provides for our survival enhances or decreases our humanity.

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Then there's the state we're in when we actually sit down at the table. According to psychiatrist James S. Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and a former researcher at the National Institutes of Mental Health, stress inhibits the body from effectively digesting and using nutrients. So, even if you're eating food you raised from the ground and cooked with love, you won't get the benefits if you're carrying all the tension of the day with you as you take your first bite.

That's not to say that what you're eating doesn't matter. "Foods that are pesticide and chemical free can enhance the healing that needs to occur in recovery," says Dr. Rachel Fortune, an expert in the treatment of eating disorders. She emphasizes that a healthy diet—with lots of vegetables and no sugar—can address a wide range of emotional, physical, and mental imbalances. "Many [of my patients] have been abusing their bodies through drug use, or neglect of general health secondary to depression and/or anxiety, as well as eating disorders. We aim to teach that, through healthy eating, we can make our minds clearer, aches and pains can be relieved, and futures can be brighter." That holds true for everyone.

Here are three simple ways to start nourishing—not just feeding—yourself and your loved ones:

1. Look inside for answers to what your body needs.

Despite what you hear, there's no single formula for healthy eating; it's different for everyone, depending on age, gender, genetics, circumstances, etc. The only way to find out what works for your body, Jeffrey says, is to observe how you feel in connection with what you eat. If it's safe for you (consult with your doctor if you're not sure), he recommends fasting for 24 hours and making note of whatever cravings, anxieties, or other emotional or physical reactions arise. Then let that information inform your food choices. Every behavior change, he says, begins with awareness.

2. Eat a wider variety of foods.

Jeffrey says there are hundreds of bioavailable nutrients in our food (that is, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, etc., that the body is able to absorb and make use of)—and we eat only a tiny percentage of them. Shop at farmers markets and pick up a vegetable you've never seen before; then spend time researching and preparing it.

3. Begin each meal with a mindful pause.

"Take a minute or so to reflect on the food or the people you're with," Jeffrey says. "Observe the colors, textures and smell of what you're about to eat." Or take a leap and try his dinner party ritual. You might be surprised by how good your food tastes when it's not just about what's on the plate.


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