A journey into mindful eating

Anna Turns learns to slow down in the kitchen and talks to holistic cook Julia Ponsonby about how mindful eating can improve our experience of food, from sourcing ingredients to the speed we eat each meal.

For someone used to juggling deadlines with school runs, and photo shoots with household chores, cooking sometimes becomes purely functional. Weeknights, I quickly get the dinner on the table while multitasking, just so I manage to get the kids to bed on time. But that’s precisely where the magic gets lost.

I first learnt about bringing mindfulness into my home when I enrolled in a short course at Schumacher College in Devon a few years ago. On the first morning, my job was to peel and chop a rather large pan of potatoes. A daunting task as peeling potatoes is usually one of my most dreaded (and most time-consuming) chores. I was told to slow right down, feel the texture of the vegetables, sense how easily the knife cut through them and even appreciate where they came from (the veg patch just a few metres away). The key was to listen to how my body and my mind reacted to this process and accept that. My inner voice was in turmoil – ‘hurry up Anna, just get the job done and then you can sit down and have a cup of tea!’ it said.

I stuck with it and after a while my panic subsided and I started to enjoy the benefits of this new pace. There were no other demands in that moment, no need to rush, and I could enjoy the peaceful atmosphere around me as a group of us prepped dishes for lunch. When I looked across the workbench, I saw one guy creating an edible masterpiece on his chopping board. With the responsibility of cutting the celery into tiny pieces for a soup, he had become entirely absorbed in carefully arranging the slices to create the outline of a beautiful horse, complete with a swishing tail made from the green leaves. The celery was going to get eaten, so there wasn’t any rational purpose to it nor any lasting evidence of it, but it transformed my mindset that day.

So whenever my cooking, or eating for that matter, gets too speedy and I’m already thinking about what’s next, I remind myself of that celery horse. Creating space and time just by slowing down, being in the now and tuning in can, by its very nature, create exciting possibilities.

Modern mindfulness practice stems from the ancient Buddhist tradition of meditation, but brings the philosophy into our everyday lives in an accessible way. It’s not about sitting down in silence every day, it’s about waking up and being so much more aware, and we can extend that idea to becoming truly conscious consumers. Research shows that we spend up to 47% of our waking moments thinking about something other than what we are doing in that moment. If we’re too busy thinking about the other chores on our ‘to do’ list, or what we’ll do next, we won’t focus on what we’re doing in that moment and we’ll miss it.

Recent celebrity advocates helped bring mindfulness into the mainstream; Actress Goldie Hawn has been instrumental in creating the MindUP programme, helping children learn mindfulness in schools across the USA.  Ruby Wax discovered mindfulness when she sloped into deep depression and subsequently studied an MA in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford University. Her latest tour Frazzled this spring is a follow-up to her bestselling book Sane New World which brings mental health issues and mindfulness to a completely new audience.

It’s well-documented that stress has tangible, physiological effects on us, and mindfulness is regularly recommended by NHS doctors to people suffering from anxiety and depression, it can help with pain management and some cardiologists have even prescribed mindfulness to help improve heart health. In 2015, the Health Survey for England showed that 62.9% adults were classified as overweight or obese. So can mindful eating help us appreciate the taste of food a little more and ultimately eat better?

One well-known advocate of mindful eating, Julia Ponsonby, thinks so. The author of The Art of Mindful Baking, and head of food at Schumacher College, she believes that we can enrich our engagement with food by cooking and eating as part of a team in a sociable, relaxed environment. If people are eating on their own, they may not have the pattern of meal times which the body needs to make sure digestive enzymes are produced at regular intervals.

“Breaking that pattern makes it more likely to get eating disorders and bad nutritional practices, so chew your food slowly and learn to enjoy every mouthful. And if you put more of your energy into preparing your food, you will be more satisfied until the next meal,” says Julia. It takes the brain ten minutes to experience the feeling of being full and when we don’t listen to our own body, we lose the natural ability to regulate our metabolism. Endless social distractions can lead to a disconnect between us and the real food we need for energy and nutrition. When this gets really out of balance, we run the risk of unhealthy relationships with food. The best advice is to only eat when you are actually hungry, and savour every mouthful.


Julia applies the principles of mindfulness to the ethics of the farm to fork process – from growing organically, to sourcing local, seasonal ingredients to cooking and eating together. “We always buy whole foods and we cook everything from scratch so that forces you to slow down,” says Julia who also works hard to reduce her carbon footprint.

The Schumacher kitchen is vegetarian for ecological and practical reasons as Julia explains: “Consumption of meat often leads to environmental destruction, we want to avoid overfishing, and because we involve everyone in cooking there is far lower risk of food poisoning if we’re only handling veg.”

She has noticed a recent rise in veganism too. “I think people have been really moved by films like Cowspiracy, but of course meat production on a small local scale is less destructive and if you have to import your protein in the form of nuts or soya, what is that doing to the environment as well? I don’t know what’s best.”

Before moving to Devon 26 years ago, she worked part-time for Westminster City Council. Julia explains what inspired her to change career paths so dramatically: “I was getting more active in the Green Party at the time and I went to a course at Schumacher College where I met my husband and we were both inspired by Gaia theory and this idea that the earth functions as a living system. After travelling together, we settled at Dartington. I was always being asked to cook for events and so my role evolved at the college.”

Julia describes baking as a meditation: “Kneading and shaping the dough is therapeutic and it helps to create a hand-brain connection, plus there’s no risk of cutting yourself!” explains Julia. “Mindful eating is about enjoying the whole cooking process and letting it reveal interconnections that we often ignore, so we become more aware of our power as consumers.”

One of the Slow Food movement’s slogans is ‘we will win this battle with our knives and our forks’. Cooking real food and eating it together at the table is so important. There’s simplicity and sense to slowing down. And beauty. Just remember the celery horse.


Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree from Oxford University, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Week in September.