When my husband, Matt, and I eat at a restaurant, his meal always looks better than mine. I'm not sure why, since we don't usually like the same kinds of food -- but within three minutes, my fork finds its way to his side of the table. If he happens to step away in the middle of a meal, my fork takes the opportunity to do some serious excavation on his plate.
The other night, it went too far. Matt returned to discover that half of his garlic mashed potatoes had disappeared. "Honey," he said, "we have a problem." I considered lying and telling him that he just didn't remember how much he had eaten before he'd left - but my mouth was too full. "I think you need help," he said. "it's time to take your own advice."
So I did. I recalled a step-by-step process that I thought would do me good -- a system for choosing foods that we really want instead of foods we suddenly decide we want when we see them, smell them, hear about them, or taste free samples of them at the grocery store.
Have you ever walked through a mall when you weren't hungry, smelled fresh cinnamon rolls, made a U-turn, and found yourself devouring a goody you hadn't been thinking about before you sniffed it? Have you ever spotted cake or potato chips from across the room and suddenly felt they were calling your name? Have you ever been totally sure of what you wanted to order in a restaurant and then, when the food came, been equally sure that what you really wanted was what your companion was eating?
You're not alone. We are so surrounded by food -- in our own refrigerators and pantries, on grocery shelves, on TV commercials, and on other people's plates -- that many of us lose our ability to determine what would feel good in our bodies at the moment we're ready to eat. It's a skill blunted by the abundance of our choices.
Psychologists Lillian and Leonard Pearson divide foods into two types: "hummers" and "beckoners." Hummers are the foods you know you want before you see them. You can imagine their textures, tastes, and temperatures when they're not in front of you. Hummer foods are specific: When you want cheese, a piece of carrot cake will not do. What you consider a hummer will change according to the time of day, whom you're with, how you're feeling. Foods that hum to you satisfy you both emotionally and physically because they fit the hunger of the moment. You don't need visuals or aromas to know that these are the foods you want.
Sometimes we want to feel full and warm, so proteins or spicy dishes hum to us. Sometimes we want to feel light and cool, so we choose fruit or an iced drink. When certain foods match certain moods or situations, they are hummers. Sometimes when I'm hungry and lonely, I want a baked potato; its fluffiness and warmth comfort me. My friend Sue eats meatloaf, peas and mashed potatoes when she's hungry and sad. Her mother often fixed that meal for the family when Sue was growing up, and now, when she's hungry and needs comforting, that combination of foods hums to her. "But it has to be frozen peas," she says, "like my mother used. Otherwise it won't work."
Note that I paired the emotions I mentioned -- loneliness and sadness -- with hunger. If Sue weren't hungry when she turns to meatloaf and mashed potatoes, she'd be bingeing, not choosing what hums to her. There's a difference. When you eat hummer foods, you're satisfying both your body and your mind. Once you're done, you're done. No risk of overeating because you've eaten exactly what satisfies you.
Then there are the beckoners. As the name implies, beckoning foods croon to you, call to you, draw you near, but because their allure originates externally and doesn't correspond to a particular need or desire, they are not satisfying. When you eat a beckoning food, like the cinnamon bun you smell at the mall, it's difficult to know when to stop because there wasn't anything but the sight or scent or taste of it telling you to begin. When the hunger for a particular food is absent, so is the signal that tells you what's enough. There is no "satisfied."
Beckoning foods are usually convenient and readily available; they require little or no waiting or preparation. When you stand at the toaster popping the bread out every few seconds, taking a bite, and pushing it back down, or when you're heading for bed and the sight of a leftover brownie bewitches you back to the kitchen, you're being beckoned.
Hummers and beckoners aren't classified according to calories or glycemic index or fat grams. It's far more personal than that. Dark chocolate doesn't hum for my friend Annie; she thinks it tastes like meatballs, whereas I think it tastes like heaven itself. And yesterday's hummer can easily be today's beckoner. The pasta and pesto that hummed to me on Tuesday (because I really, truly wanted it) might beckon to me Wednesday like a siren, enticing me because it just happens to be there.
Many of us eat beckoning foods most of the time. We're so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of available edibles, and by the food rules we've inherited or invented for ourselves, that it's difficult to listen closely to what we really want when we're hungry. If you've been living like this for a long time, it may take practice before your true food preferences reveal themselves. To get in touch with your true desires (and turn down the volume on the beckoners), try rating the foods you eat according to their humming and beckoning qualities. Divide a piece of paper into columns headed Item, Hummer and Beckoner. For two weeks, write down everything you eat at every meal (and in between), and decide whether each food gets a check in the hummer or Beckoner column.
The first week, focus on hummers: Under the check mark, rate the degree to which a food hums to you on a scale of 1 to 10. One is "barely a whisper"; 10 is "humming loudly." You might also jot down how you feel after you've eaten the hummers.
The next week, continue to designate all the foods you eat as either hummers or beckoners, but this time focus on rating the beckoners. (1 is "I thought about it beforehand, but I probably wouldn't have eaten it is I hadn't seen or smelled it," while 10 is "I wasn't hungry; didn't give the food a moment's thought until I smelled it, saw it, and ate it.") Notice how you feel after you eat beckoners.
If you find it difficult to figure out what hums to you, then as soon as you get hungry, ask yourself about the taste, texture, and temperature of what you would like to eat. Would you like something bland, spicy, salty, or sweet? Hot or cold? Then allow yourself to imagine the possibilities and see what food appeals to you most.
By the end two weeks, your chart will give you visual proof of how often you choose foods that hum or beckon to you. (And you'll notice that the same food can be a hummer one day and a beckoner the next, depending on the situation.) You will be much more aware of the times you settle for food that you don't really want, and of how that affects you and your body. Once you bring mindfulness to the way you choose foods, you will be better able to make a conscious decision about what you really want. Then the next step is to choose it, buy it, make it, and eat it. Although there'll be times when you won't be able to have exactly what you want (e.g., your local bakery is out of thick New York cheesecake and you're just not up for a creamier kind), there will be many more times when what you eat is within your control. Why not choose to live a life filled with satisfying hummers instead of disappointing beckoners?
I know you're probably saying, "Ugh. Keeping track? Writing things down? No way." But remember that the point of this exercise is not to make yourself feel guilty or wrong. This is about taking time to discover what hums to you. This is about understanding yourself, honoring yourself, feeding yourself what truly delights you. That's a good thing.
And what of my pilfering ways -- or what I now call A Bad Case of the Beckoners -- when I'm out to dinner with Matt? I've realized that I had been moved to thievery because either I hadn't ordered what hummed to me or I was getting carried away by how the food looked on his plate -- and forgetting myself in the process. Now, before I order, I go through the mental checklist of taste, texture, and temperature and ask for what I really want.
When I commit to choosing what hums to me, nothing beckons from my husband's plate; I'm no longer a garlic-mashed-potatoes thief. My straying fork stays put.