The holidays are here! For many, that means indulgent dinners, special occasion snacks, and more cocktails, candy and other goodies than you might see at any other time of year.
Because you know you’ll be tempted by all kinds of holiday treats at home, at work, at the mall, at the grocery store, at the coffee shop, at your neighbors’ houses – seemingly everywhere! – it’s important to maximize your opportunities to make healthy choices.
For me, this means packing my own snacks, sticking to homemade options as often as possible… and even splurging once in awhile.
It’s true, I probably eat more cookies and other treats, and put more cream (or eggnog) in my coffee at this time of year than I usually do at any other time.
I also tend to be the one who’s making the majority of the tasty and tempting treats and sharing them with others, allegedly “ruining their diets.”
As a kid, my mom seemed to think it was a good idea to gain some extra weight during the colder months, in an attempted defense against the threat of colds and flus (probably to make up for the weight that might be lost during a bout of illness, or maybe even as insulation against the cold, thinking a chill might lead to the sudden onset of illness).
But, here in sunny Southern California where I live now, regardless of the veracity (versus the old wives’ tale-ed-ness) of this wisdom, I can’t really rely on that old standby (though I will be traveling to colder climes during the holidays, making my way through the crowded airport, and boarding multiple packed planes… a shock to the system against which a few extra pounds are clearly the only defense, right?!)
A Weighty Question
The truth is, many of us do tend to put on a little weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
What’s worse is that, as the years go by, a significant number of American adults do not shed an equal amount at other times of year. This means the pounds can start to add up.
Here’s the thing:
For me, healthy eating isn’t about a number on the scale, denying cravings, or practicing some weird form of asceticism.
What matters is that health isn’t just about weight (though that can eventually impact heart health), it’s about our intake of nutrients, which we can try to maintain with a balanced and varied diet.
I’d rather exercise more at the holidays (though, I’ll admit it, I probably won’t…) or eat more healthily at other times of year than deny myself the taste of a chocolate chip cookie that my grandmother lovingly prepared for me (or a basil smash that my brother lovingly prepared for me, or a cheesesteak that my aunt lovingly ordered for me…)
Okay, let me back up a second.
The Power of Tradition
For me, holiday traditions and visits home are in large part centered around food. These are foods that I can’t get at any other time of year, and they wouldn’t be as special if I could. Know what I mean?
The thing is, I’m not going to eat the entire tin of Christmas cookies, and just because a certain date has appeared on the calendar doesn’t mean it’s time for me to swear off vegetables either.
Get ready for it. Here comes the advice part.
My number one tip here is to keep your snacking impulses in check, people.
I know this can be easier said than done, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not impossible.
We go back to the same holiday traditions year after year because they feel good, but healthy habits can feel good, too. All it takes is a little practice.
Here’s a holiday mantra for you:
Whatever you do, don’t cut yourself off from enjoying those holiday foods completely. You’ll be more likely to overeat, overindulge, or maybe even clear out the cookie stash in one go, long before Santa’s sleigh is anywhere near your neighborhood.
So, take a taste. Have a cookie. Avoid guilt and remorse later by sampling the things that you enjoy, and including them as mere parts of an overall healthy diet, rather than the dominating factors.
I’m not an expert in disordered eating or binge drinking, but I believe these are behaviors that many of us at least dabble in at the holidays – we stress eat, we sometimes take the comfort found in childhood favorites to unhealthy levels, we drink too much, and we realize after it’s already too late that it is in fact possible to consume too much of a good thing.
Take a moment to consider all of this before you’re in full-blown holiday mode, and lay down some guidelines for yourself that will help you to stay healthy, or that will at least enable you to show a little more restraint than you usually might.
Baby steps. Tiny, little elf steps.
The following is a short list of a few potential guidelines, to give you an idea of what this sort of plan might look like.
I’ll admit, my list is a bit unconventional, it certainly isn’t foolproof, and by no means is it intended to help you to lose weight or actually improve your health.
Instead, it’s meant to help you to maintain balance. A healthier holiday is the goal here. Not necessarily a healthy holiday with a medical professional’s seal of approval, but a healthier one.
Maybe these aren’t the right guidelines for you, so I encourage you to adapt this list, and make it your own.
1. Switch out every other cocktail
If you’re at a party or some other gathering where you plan to indulge in more than one alcoholic beverage, try to switch out every other cocktail for water.
Some say the water helps to fill them up, but I’ve seen firsthand that this isn’t a barrier to continuing to drink for most people. At the very least, it will slow you down.
Plus, upping your water intake might at least help you to avoid a hangover the next day.
2. Snack instead of eating a meal
Under normal circumstances, I would say this was terrible advice. But at the holidays, our eating patterns tend to change.
Even the most steadfast of the solid three-squares-a-day-eaters among us might find ourselves brunching or snacking, or eating late into the wee hours of the morning during the holidays.
The solution here is not to eat your usual three meals a day in addition to these extras. Instead, be more flexible.
Consider whether or not you’re actually hungry, and don’t eat if you’re not (again, simpler said than done sometimes, I know – but mindful eating is healthier eating, at any time of year).
If you’re faced with a buffet of tempting snacks around dinnertime, I give you permission to sample away, but skip dinner on these days.
A low-nutrient meal that’s high in empty calories may not be the healthiest, but it may satisfy something in all of us that seems to come out at the holidays, and that has its own special importance.
I think it’s okay to satisfy this need, so go ahead and make those cocktail wieners and candy cane cookies a meal once a year. Just avoid doubling up and eating dinner, too.
Try to make up for your indulgent snack-meal by filling in on what you missed the next time you eat – try a big healthy salad made with leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fresh garden vegetables, and a lemon vinaigrette.
3. Eat smaller portions
Just because an entire plate of cookies is set before you doesn’t mean you need to eat the whole thing.
This one is worth saying again, and I hope you’re listening: you do not need to eat, or drink, the whole thing.
The same goes for giant slices of lasagna, locally sourced hoagies (I’m a Philly girl, what can I say?), and even bottles of beer. It’s alright to halve your portion and share it, save it for later, or give it away.
Whatever you do, try to remind yourself to take less to start, and you’ll be on the right track. Satisfying your craving isn’t the same thing as eating the whole thing.
I’m giving you permission to abandon the “clean plate club” forever.
More importantly, I hope you’ll believe me when I say that plates are usually way bigger than they need to be, but this doesn’t mean you’re obligated to fill them up.
Take less. It’s okay.
This tip also addresses the concept of “making a healthy version.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather avoid most comfort foods and holiday items altogether than settle in to a big plate of low fat, high fiber, sugar free whatnot.
Maybe this is just me?
Recipe adaptations for reasons of food allergies, intolerances, and other diet-related diseases like diabetes are one thing, but attempting to fool your taste buds into accepting a “healthy” variation on a holiday classic for the purpose of sticking to a restrictive diet for weight loss is ludicrous.
“Diet foods” and indulgence do not go together (despite what SnackWell’s and Skinny Cow would like us to believe).
Plus, crafting these concoctions often results in waste – a dish that just doesn’t taste as good is more often than not going to be rejected, especially when it appears alongside a bounty of full-fat sugary goodness.
Maybe this advice is unconventional, but my recommendation is to stick to the “real” thing – the traditional item made in its original form – but eat less of it.
Low-fat ingredients often have a bumped up sugar content anyway, in order to maintain their flavor, and sugar-free items are often filled with artificial ingredients.
Make those cheeseballs the way Uncle Jack taught you, and eat just enough to meet your nostalgia quota for the year.
Memories aren’t made of low-fat substitutes (though, again, they can be and often are made with lactose-free and wheat-free and soy-free substitutes – when a particular ingredient is going to potentially send someone into anaphylactic shock or bathroom hell, that’s a different story).
4. Eat more slowly
Eating more slowly and truly savoring our food is also important at this time of year.
It can start to feel like a contest to quickly gobble up as many once-per-year treats as you can while they’re available, but you’ll probably enjoy the experience more, experience less indigestion afterwards, and maybe even create a deeper memory of those special treats if you slow down a bit.
Eating less food over a longer period of time also gives your stomach more time to tell your brain that it’s happy and full.
The holidays are all about relaxing, so feel free to linger a little! (Also, if the holidays aren’t “all about relaxing” for you, try to relax a little – your relatives will go home eventually!)
5. Enjoy healthy comfort foods
This one sounds like a huge oxymoron, but hear me out: comfort foods at the holidays aren’t always packed with sugar, salt and fat.
For me, the item that immediately comes to mind is my grandma’s minest, or Italian wedding soup. She makes it with mini meatballs and egg, chicken broth, a little parmesan, and lots of escarole, a healthy leafy green that’s rich in vitamins A and C, iron and fiber.
Reach back into the memory banks and see what you can find, among the cobwebs and nearly-forgotten children’s songs. Maybe it’s your great-uncle’s stuffed cabbage, or your meemaw’s baked beans.
There’s sure to be something that you loved way back when that you can bring back to the family table this year, that isn’t overwhelmingly unhealthy and guilt-inducing.
At the very least, I’m a strong proponent of making homemade cookies, cocoa, flavored coffee drinks, cocktails and other items rather than relying on the processed pre-made stuff that you’ll find at the mall, coffee shop or grocery store.
Sure, there might be a full stick of butter in that batch of cookies, but there’s almost always less salt, sugar and fat than you’ll find in mass-produced versions.
I think homemade treats that use real cheese and real sugar without added preservatives, artificial sweeteners and stabilizers taste better, too.
Next time you find yourself hit with a craving when you’re out on the town, when the Christmas music is playing and everyone’s bundled in their holiday sweaters and scarves, and the posters and advertisements are practically screaming at you to just buy one, remind yourself of how much better that homemade version is going to taste, and reach into your bag for those nuts and seeds that you brought with you instead.
6. Pack snacks
I know, I heard you. “What bag of nuts and seeds?”
At this time of year, when it seems like food is everywhere, I still think it’s important to pack healthy snacks.
Rather than caving in to a craving for something unhealthy when you’re on the road, something that might crowd out your opportunity to indulge in something else that’s truly decadent when you’re actually hungry later, try a fistful of almonds instead, a protein-rich smoothie, or a healthy green juice.
Having said that, I know green juice is not the same thing as a peppermint mocha whatever, and I may as well come out and tell you that I’m looking forward to ordering my cheesesteak whiz wit, within moments of landing in Philadelphia.
If that store-bought mass-marketed artificial stuff is your holiday indulgence, if that snack kiosk is the destination rather than a mere distraction that’s keeping you from your holiday shopping, go for it.
It’s only once a year, after all.
But don’t go out for pizza and hot fudge sundaes twice a day every day until your vacation is over, and always keep those healthy snacks on hand in case of emergency.
7. Cook with your relatives
I know this isn’t going to work for everyone, but like I said, I’m putting together my own list here to inspire you to create your own.
I understand that just the thought of gathering together for the purpose of creating something as a group, especially in a tiny kitchen that includes things like a hot stove and sharp knives, might inspire you to go hide under a blanket and refuse to come out again until spring.
This one isn’t for everyone.
But for me, at least part of the joy of holiday eating isn’t in the eating at all – it’s in the shared experience.
Preparing generations-old family cookie recipes together is something that I like to do with my immediate family every year, and the fact is, this time spent in the kitchen isn’t really about the cookies at all.
My brother and I didn’t grow up in a house where eating the batter was allowed (salmonella!) and a few of us have food allergies that keep us from actually eating many of the various types of cookies that we bake (don’t worry – we always make some gluten-free, lactose-free and nut-free ones too), so it’s not about snacking as we cook.
Instead, it’s about listening to music together, laughing together, and just letting everything else go.
Sure, we might bicker a little, but this is something that I think all of us have an unspoken agreement to avoid, for the greater purpose of just being together.
If cooking isn’t for you, maybe this shared experience could involve traveling to a special place to get your favorite kind of candy canes, or some other type of special holiday treat.
Or maybe it’s giving back to the community together, by volunteering at a local soup kitchen or food drive.
The holidays may be centered around food, but I think commensality is about more than the act of eating.
It’s about that time that you share with your loved ones, gathered around a table together, reminiscing about the past, carrying on traditions and making new ones, hopefully laughing a little, and building on your relationships.
This experience is just as important as satisfying a craving, or making those cookies or that gravy taste just the way you remember them tasting, back when your grandpa used to make them.
Alright, I’ll have just one more cookie…
Do you have any tips for a healthier holiday? Share with me in the comments!
About Allison Sidhu
Allison M. Sidhu is a culinary enthusiast from southeastern Pennsylvania who has returned to Philly after a seven-year sojourn to sunny LA. She loves exploring the local restaurant and bar scene with her best buds. She holds a BA in English literature from Swarthmore College and an MA in gastronomy from Boston University. When she’s not in the kitchen whipping up something tasty (or listening to the latest food podcasts while she does the dishes!) you’ll probably find Allison tapping away at her keyboard, chilling in the garden, curled up with a good book (or ready to dominate with controller in hand in front of the latest video game) on the couch, or devouring a dollar dog and crab fries at the Phillies game.