Written by Deborah Phillips, MS, LDN, CHES
How to Survive Holiday Food Anxiety

How to Survive Holiday Food Anxiety

We are entering the time of year when food takes on all kinds of new and different meanings. It is often a time of excess – too much food, too much fun. It is fraught with emotions, good and bad, and it is filled with traditions. All of this gets reflected in the decisions we make about food. In my experience, more people spend time beating themselves up over what they do and don’t eat during the ‘holiday season’ than they do enjoying the festivities. This usually starts when the Halloween candy goes on sale and doesn’t end until after New Year’s.

So, how do we cope?

The first thing to do is acknowledge that this time of year is filled with emotions and food (often not a great combo). The second thing to do is to be kind and gentle with ourselves.

If you have a favorite holiday treat, do not deny yourself. If you are making it for a crowd, have a piece, enjoy it and send the rest home with your guests. If you are just making it for yourself, make a small batch and enjoy one piece every day, until it is gone. If you can invite a friend over to share some, all the better. I once bought a whole cake for myself and ate one  piece each day until it was gone. It was not easy to convince myself that it was OK, that I deserved to have the cake I loved, and that I would not gorge on it. It was a sort of challenge of self-love. Challenge accepted…and I won!

With Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza or whatever festival of light that you celebrate right around the corner.  Emotions are high as we recall the good memories and the bad, and revert to childhood behaviors when we go home, or even resent that we are now the adults having to orchestrate it all. The desire to recreate happy family occasions, and the realization that it sometimes doesn’t measure up, no matter how good it is. The welcoming of new family and friends, the loss of some old ones. All of these things stir up food-related emotions in us. Add in the fact that there is always too much food and we have a recipe for disaster.

I’ve personally been through this and professionally, I coach my patients on how to cope every day.  So, without further ado, here are my trusted tips on how to get through this season with joy:

1. This is not the time for restricting. If you are spending a holiday alone, get yourself something special. If you are entertaining, it’s OK to go all out. Consider sending some food home with your guests so you are not faced with how to get rid of too much food. If you are visiting, don’t fret over what is being served. Eat it and enjoy the company.

2. If you have necessary food restrictions, volunteer to make some dishes to share or bring food that you can eat so your host doesn’t feel they have to do anything different. Eat before you get there so you can make do with the foods that you can eat. If you are making the meal, I can tell you from personal experience, you can recreate almost any traditional favorite and don’t need to tell anyone the gravy was made with gluten-free flour or the mashed potatoes don’t contain milk. It is OK to ask others to bring traditional foods that you don’t make or eat, or buy them elsewhere. It is important to remember that celebrating with family or friends is really more about the company than the food.

3. If you are faced with the plates of holiday goodies that show up at every work place, public office and some private homes this season, be prepared. Have something available to eat that is nourishing so you are less tempted by the treats and only allow yourself to have some if it is a favorite of yours. I always keep nuts and fruit, KIND bars and other healthier snack bars available so I am satisfying my sweet tooth without too much sugar, and with some nutrients, so I only eat the absolutely irresistible.

4. If you are going to a restaurant for an occasion, check out the menu. Think about ordering a lighter dinner if you know dessert is part of the celebration. If you are not in control of what is served, consider starting with a salad at home to make sure you get your vegetables and are less hungry when you get there. If you are allergic, make sure there are options for you or make sure you eat well at home so you don’t make yourself sick.

The most important thing to remember is that just because you allow yourself a treat (or two or three) today does not mean you have blown it for the season. You have allowed yourself to enjoy celebrating the season. And tomorrow, you can have some vegetable juice, have a large salad at lunch, cook a healthy dinner. Tomorrow, you can make vegetables and proteins the centerpiece of your meals and snacks. And tomorrow, you can drink lots of water and herbal tea.

Don’t forget to get plenty of sleep. Make time for exercise – walk a little farther, make a point of getting to the gym or pool if that is your usual exercise.  And meditate – you can find great guided imagery on an app called the Insight Timer that you can use anytime or anyplace to help you center and make decisions that you will be happy with.

Here are links to some of my favorite recipe sites where you can find great options for all your cooking needs this season – from the healthy meals you’re going to cook in between the special occasions, to the healthier homemade goodies you’re going to make for your celebrations:

www.eatingfromthegroundup.com – good homemade food

www.nourishingmeals.com – gluten and dairy free

www.elanaspantry.com – grain free

And here’s a dish that I am asked to bring to holiday dinners time and time again.  It’s super simple and delicious:

Roasted Broccoli and Cauliflower

Serves:  6-8

Ready in:  about 50 minutes

2 heads cauliflower

1 large bunch of broccoli crowns

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Step 1:  Preheat your oven to 350°F.  Wash and cut the vegetables into bite-size pieces.

Step 2:  In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower and broccoli with the oil, salt and pepper until coated evenly and spread on a large baking sheet.

Step 3: Place in the oven and bake until fork tender and lightly browned, about 45 minutes. 

Serving suggestions: 

  • I love this dish as is – I simply toss it in my favorite oven-safe casserole dish and serve immediately or place in the oven to keep warm until ready to serve.
  • If you’d like to add a little zip, this simple sauce is perfect:  Whisk together the juice of half a lemon, half an orange, and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in a small bowl until combined. Drizzle the sauce over the dish and add a little grated orange and lemon peel, along with some chopped fresh parsley (if you like) and serve!.

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