Q. Mary, tell Reading Catholic readers more about yourself, your work and your family.
I’ve been a writer focusing on Catholic issues for almost 30 years. These days my passion is my blog, Not Strictly Spiritual, and my books. As I get older, I find myself focusing more on the spiritual side of Church and less on the “business” side of things, such as issues and news and events, which I covered for many years as a Catholic newspaper reporter. When I’m not writing, I’m usually driving my kids around or cooking or doing yoga. We have three children, ages 7, 12, and 16, so our home life is pretty busy. The dual vocation – Catholic writer and mom – can be a bit of a challenge, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Q. As I wrote in my review of Cravings, I thought you saved the best for last, and that the last two chapters were the most compelling. Did you have a favorite chapter or concept from the book?
It would probably depend on the day. Different chapters suit different situations, moods, seasons, struggles. I think as I was writing, whatever chapter I was working on was my favorite.
Q. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of people I know maintain health with various and contradictory food plans that have been popular in the last decade (vegan, paleo, low-carb). It strikes me that one’s diet (meaning general food choices, not a “diet”) is as individual as a fingerprint, and finding what works to maintain health is important for each individual to work out. Your thoughts on this, and how you’ve come to embrace a vegetarian diet as best for you?
When it comes to diet plans and food choices, I’m a bit of a rebel. I don’t like to stick to any one plan, and I tend to go against whatever the latest fad might be. Mainly I choose what feels right for me and what I know tends to work long-term. Yes, I’m a vegetarian, something I chose after my mother died of colon cancer at age 47, but I am not rigid about it. I think balance is the most important thing. We see, as you mention, all of these extremes – no carbs, mostly carbs, no meat, all meat. From one week to the next diet recommendations change drastically. Eat eggs. Don’t eat eggs. Drink wine. Don’t drink wine. So I think we have to stop listening to everyone else and listen to our own bodies and hearts and minds. We ultimately know what’s good for us, even when we don’t always do it. When we find a balance, enjoying what we love in moderation, we find we don’t need all these crazy diet plans. We just need to bring some common sense and some mindfulness to our meals.
Q. I am a (mostly) healthy eater, but I am not at all a mindful eater. Reading your exploration of that makes me want to give it another try, not just for myself but for the whole family. For those new to mindful eating, can you describe how that might look, especially in a family setting?
Well, mindful eating isn’t necessarily something you can do on a full-time basis, at least not if you have a houseful of kids. Try it on your own at first to get a feel for it. In our house there are certain things we never do during dinner: No TV, no phone calls, no texting, no computers. Dinner is dinner, with no outside interruptions allowed. So that sets the stage. Even when the dinner table feels more like a something out of a three-ring circus there are certain elements of mindfulness built in. The next step is to try to keep the mealtime calm – no fighting, no tension. This is not the time to start talking about things that will lead to arguments. That may not always be easy, but it’s the ideal. And last but certainly not least: prayer. We always start our meal with a blessing. Sometimes when we’re out at a restaurant, the kids will be the ones who remind us that we should pray. So something’s sinking in even when it feels like we are totally off course. Little steps. Don’t expect to turn your kitchen into a monastery if you’ve got kids. Again we need to be realistic and gentle with ourselves and aware of what we can and cant’ do. It’s when we hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations that the healthy food plans and diets often go out the window.
Q. What do you mean by a food ritual? How can it be beneficial?
Try to develop something that brings a sense of the sacred to a meal or snack. In Cravings I talk about my “mindful oatmeal” practice, where I clear the kitchen table, light a candle, pray before I dig into my regular oatmeal breakfast, and then eat in silence and with total mindfulness. It can really transform a meal into a meditation. Even something as simple as making a pot of tea with attention and intention can become a ritual. When you slow down the meal or snack or whatever you’re doing and bring some awareness to it, it becomes more satisfying. You really taste your food as opposed to eating without thinking or while you’re doing something else, and that makes you less likely to go looking for more food a few minutes later – because you’re feeding yourself on a deeper level.
Q. What is the one thing a person who is struggling with their relationship to food could do to make the new year healthier?
First, I’d recommend bringing even five minutes of prayer into everyday life. It’s amazing what that can do for your heart and head. Then I’d suggest keeping a food journal. When you write down everything you eat – and I mean everything – it really makes you aware of your habits and it allows you to see patterns and begin to understand why you might eating if you’re not really hungry. It’s really what makes programs like Weight Watchers work – you track every single bite, not to be obsessive about calories but to be aware. It’s not about counting fat grams or carbs but about understanding the reasons behind the food habits. When I keep a food journal, I’m much more accountable. And I’ll jot down whether I exercised that day or if I have any particular aches or pains or discomforts, even my moods. As a result, I can actually go back and notice where I was last year and whether I repeat certain patterns at certain times.
Q. You are a prolific author. Can you share any upcoming projects?
Right now I’m focusing on spreading the word about “Cravings” and about my other new book, “Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality,” which focuses on finding the divine in the mundane moments of our lives. So I’m hoping to do some retreats and workshops related to both books. I’d also like to have time focus on my blog, Not Strictly Spiritual. This past year I was so busy writing two books that I didn’t have a lot of time to blog, which I really love because it allows me to connect directly with readers and explore the spiritual journey day by day.
Mary, thanks again for answering all my questions about your book and letting me be the "grand finale" of the blog tour. Readers can visit this link to the blog tour to see all the prior stops, and don't forget to enter to win the $100 Williams-Sonoma gift card. Remember, if you leave a comment on this post, you can have an extra entry to win a copy of Cravings, that I will be giving away at the First Saturday gathering on Saturday, February 2.