Surviving and Thriving During the Holidays: Let's Get Real About the Food

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It’s that time of year again. It seems that as soon as November rolls around, we get thrown into full on holiday mode.

I’m not sure what the holidays mean or signify for you. Sometimes it means spending time with family and friends, enjoying delicious food, reveling in the lights and decorations, and cozying up by the fire. Unfortunately, that’s often not that case for a lot of people around the holidays. Even if you get to enjoy some part of “the holiday spirit” so to speak, most often I hear about how the holidays bring up painful memories, difficult experiences, and overwhelming anxiety.

Holidays sometimes mean dealing with pain surrounding family dynamics; experiencing burnout from throwing too many parties, buying too many gifts, and taking care of everyone around else;  longing for departed family members or friends; and of course, worrying about food.

I’ve already seen the barrage of articles and TV segments talking about what to eat at holiday parties, how to avoid holiday weight gain, how to cook things so that they are “healthy,” etc. etc.,  blah blah blah.

So, I want to get real about the holidays in a few blog posts.  I want to give you some perspective and ways to think about how you can best care for yourself during this season, survive the painful parts, and maybe even enjoy some of it (if accessible to you at this time).

Today, I want to get real about the food.

There are SO MANY holiday parties and gatherings. You have work parties, family gatherings, parties with friends and acquaintances, school parties, etc. There are holiday cookies galore, holiday desserts, appetizers, beautiful spreads of warm yummy food. There are leftovers and favorites.

Here are my 10 best tips for dealing with these holiday gatherings, decreasing panic around food, and actually enjoying yourself:

#1: Legalize ALL the food

I can’t say this enough: ALL FOOD IS GOOD FOOD. This means that ALL HOLIDAY FOOD IS GOOD FOOD!  You don’t have to follow any rules this holiday season. You don’t have to eat “healthy.” You don’t have to watch your weight. You don’t have to buckle down and watch every bite. You don’t have to make “healthier” versions of food you actually like. You can eat holiday food. You have my permission. No food is good or bad.

When we put food in categories such as “healthy” and “unhealthy” or “good” and “bad” we create a dangerous deprivation zone. The wonderful and powerful thing about our bodies and minds is that when we are deprived, we are driven, well, to not be deprived.  Our minds start dispensing unrelenting thoughts about food. The entire menu starts to look good. We experience increased hunger, and our bodies actually help us binge so that we aren't deprived. This isn't a "willpower" thing. Our incredible bodies are trying to protect us from restriction and deprivation! 

When we make food illegal, we become panicked, resentful, and hungry. Food is not illegal. Food is not a moral issue. Food is not “sinful.” Food is just food, so consider reevaluating your laws about it.

#2 Let go of shame and guilt surrounding what you eat, no matter how much you eat

If shaming ourselves worked to help us change, I believe we would all be perfect human specimens. So many of my clients tell me how much they beat themselves up after eating a particular food, or after they have eaten a certain amount of food. The problem is that shaming ourselves, beating ourselves up, or telling ourselves how we’ve messed up doesn’t really help us develop a friendly relationship with ourselves and food. Consider how you can let go of that shame spiral following eating. What is your compassionate response to yourself?

#3 Expect to overeat sometimes

This is true all the time, but maybe more true around the holidays. Overeating is a part of normal eating! Feeding ourselves in a way that is intuitive, loving, and kind is not a perfect science and sometimes we’ll feel too full. Trust that your body is very capable of recalibrating, and that it will get hungry again. You don’t have to control that.

#4 Watch your self-talk

I often ask my clients what they say to themselves before, during and after they eat. What I most frequently hear is comments such as “I shouldn’t be eating this.” “I need to choose something ‘healthy.” “I’ve been so bad today.”

I want you to try a few different phrases:

  • “I am hungry. What do I want to eat? What sounds good?”
  • “This food is SO delicious! I’m so glad I chose to eat it!”
  • “This food isn’t hitting the spot for me. What do I really want?”
  • “That meal was awesome! What else is going on today?”

#5 Eat regularly

Do not fall into the trap of restricting your food intake so you can eat more of the holiday meal later. This rarely works, and results in the dangerous deprivation zone mentioned in tip #1. Eat breakfast. Eat lunch. Eat snacks. And eat the holiday meal!

#6: If a food is calling to you, EAT IT!

In our culture, we seem to have such a penchant for taking the pleasure out of eating. We believe that if we want or crave a certain food (be it that yummy cheesecake or those creamy mashed potatoes) that we have to squash that desire. It's like saying "ok, you can enjoy your cake but not too much." I find that ridiculous. Food tastes good for a reason, and we are allowed to make full use of our taste buds. If you want that cookie, just eat that cookie. Enjoy the cookie, or the 2,3, 10 cookies. Taste the chocolate chips, the buttery texture, the crunch when you bite into it. Try saying to yourself “this cookie tastes SO good! Yummy!”

#7 If you have a special and yummy dish in mind that you had growing up, or one that you’re looking forward to, make sure you get it during the holidays.

This is a part of reclaiming pleasure when eating, and is a part of enjoying the holidays! Make sure this dish will be at a party or gathering, bring it yourself, or just make it for yourself on a Sunday afternoon! You don’t have to have a party to eat it. I strongly recommend avoiding trying to "make it healthier" either, unless switching the recipe will actually help it taste better to you. This is about relaxing and enjoying ALL the food the holidays have to offer.

#8: Remember, it’s about the food and it’s not about the food

Food is a wonderful part of the holiday season. Absolutely cherish that and enjoy it. And also remember that there may be wonderful conversations happening around you. Enjoy the party games. If the party sucks, leave the party. You get to choose what you enjoy and what no longer serves you.

#9: If you’re up to it, challenge diet talk and family commentary

When your Aunt Martha says that she “shouldn’t be eating this pumpkin pie” how do you respond? What if you told her simply that she SHOULD enjoy that cheesecake? What if you asked her politely to keep her opinions about food morality to herself? What if you told her any number of things that challenged the status quo?

Challenging diet talk and body talk at the holidays can be incredibly empowering and/or incredibly exhausting. Check-in with yourself, and see if you might be up for it. Know too that simply eating the food you want and refusing to engage in diet talk is quite challenging and empowering in of itself.

#10: Don’t go on a New Year’s Resolution Diet

You’ve heard it and seen it: “Ugh I’ve gained x amount of weight, and my New Year’s Resolution is to lose it!” Unfortunately, New Year’s Resolutions rarely result in lasting change. In addition, they create the “Last Supper Mentality.” Many of my clients describe this as a time where they eat everything and anything because they know they won’t be able to have it come January 1st. What if you knew that you could still have Pecan Pie on January 1st? And as much as you want? Let’s take the deprivation mindset out of our New Year, and maybe instead commit to treating ourselves with compassion, respect, and understanding.

My last reminder is this: it's totally okay if you gain weight during the holidays. Truly. It’s okay. Relax. Tune into your body, trust that it will settle where it needs to settle. Recalibrate, take a breath, and again, relax.