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Here’s how to count your blessings.

Want to be healthier and get in shape? Religious or secular, try blessing your food and having a communal meal with friends and family members.

Communal gatherings

Many of us remember with fondness the days when the extended family dropped by for Sunday dinner, and we were served a rich spread of our favorite foods. When I was a newly divorced single mother, I always created weekly dinners: my friends would come over with their kids to share in a potluck. It created a sense of stability in our lives, and we all looked forward to it. I continue to do this ritual today, even though my son is grown up and living 3,000 miles away. It is my way of creating community, and I love to invite new people into our circle of friends.

The power of communal eating

Clearly, these communal gatherings nourish more than our bodies. “The most important thing about a meal isn’t the food,” stresses Ruth Reichl, former food critic for the New York Times. “It’s that we sit down together, we stop and pay attention to each other, and we talk.” What a concept, talking to each other instead of texting!

In fact, research now shows that one vital ingredient for living a long and healthy life is our connection with others. Friendship is an essential ingredient in longevity and vitality. We are wired for social contact. When we value ourselves as precious and extend that to others, we tend to take better care of ourselves and make better choices in life. You become who you hang out with!

One easy ritual to incorporate into your life is creating a weekly or bi-monthly communal meal with friends. Add in some “mindfulness,” and you just may find that you have more joy, eat healthier and have a more positive relationship with food. And it can be fun. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” In other words, be aware of what you are doing. The opposite is sitting in a movie theatre gobbling down a giant tub of popcorn without even being aware that you are eating.

Research now shows that one vital ingredient for living a long and healthy life is our connection with others.

Bless your food

People of many religions say prayers and blessings over food, taking time to honor its sacredness.

Today more than 65 percent of our population gives thanks before meals, compared to 43 percent in 1947. Some cultures even eat in silence, in the belief that being aware of what you eat heightens your mindfulness toward the act of eating and of setting a clear intention to be nourished. By blessing our food, we literally encourage the nutrients to interact with our bodies and sustain us. We also tend to eat more consciously, making better choices about what and how much we put into our bodies.

Ritual

Set a specific time and date for this communal meal. It can be weekly, bi-monthly or monthly. Allow everyone to contribute in some way; deciding the theme, decorating the table or picking special dishes to bring.

The important thing is that you share your favorite foods and are open to trying new ones. If you have a garden, you can bring fresh-picked herbs and ingredients that remind you all of our connection to Mother Earth. Be mindful of people’s special needs (dairy free, gluten free, etc.) but be creative. I love sharing food from different cultures. And you might want to do special themes around global holidays or just do a “comfort food” dinner. Be creative. And most importantly, make it fun!

Begin with a short prayer of thanks for the food and friendship. This opens us up to more gratitude and appreciation for the Earth and the communal effort that allows us to enjoy this meal. I also like to light a candle to mark this meal as special.

For the meal we are about to eat,
For our friends and family,
For Mother Nature and all her gifts,
We are thankful.

Now eat and enjoy!

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