Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD
In any given day, you generally make more than 200 decisions about food. During the holiday season, this number likely only goes up. After all, ’tis officially the season of food-centric events.
When it comes to influencing food decisions, we often recommend people structure the environment to make the healthy choice the easy or default choice. Don’t buy sugary cereal, keep a bag of spinach in your fridge always—that kind of thinking. But with so many holiday social events, you often can’t change the environment by avoiding or adjusting it (I mean, you’re not really going to skip any of your three Friendsgivings … or the real one, are you?).
My advice? Pause. Craft a plan. Having a solid foundation is the first step to navigating a new season in a way that can support your goals and your wellness.
Here’s how to prepare yourself for enjoying holiday festivities … while keeping your wellness front and center.
1. Don’t go super hungry.
Have a balanced snack (think fiber and lean protein) before you go to your party. Stay hydrated too. This will help you feel more full and satisfied before you even arrive. Skipping meals or snacks before (so you can eat more at the event) can cause your body to feel the need to balance out your blood sugar levels. In other words, you’re physiologically setting yourself up for a bee-line towards the pastry puffs.
Purposefully planning to restrict yourself before the event also indicates you may be working from a mindset of scarcity. You focus on “cant’s” and “shouldn’ts” and thus, adopt a perception of “limited supply” which can impact decisions you make about food later.
2. Be honest about what’s hard.
This doesn’t have to come down to a game of willpower. It’s important to be honest about what’s challenging so you can make a plan to support yourself around it.
Knowing yourself as only you can, reflect on what feels most challenging about the holiday season. Is it season-specific food items or alcoholic beverages? Appetizers before the main course? What if your challenge isn’t specifically the food, but rather the company you are with (although perhaps well-intentioned). Your aunt pushing seconds on you, someone commenting on how you should finish your plate, or someone else urging you to just have one more piece? Maybe it’s something within yourself that feels challenging. Do you eat when you are bored or nervous?
Whatever it is, call it out. And then make a realistic plan for how to respond.
3. Reflect on the foods you love.
So, here’s a secret. You absolutely CAN enjoy the holiday foods you love and still stay on track for your goals. We all have our favorite holiday dishes, and there is nothing wrong with that. Mine are lamingtons my mum makes for special occasions and jam dot scones my brother and sister-in-law make on Christmas morning.
Take a moment to identify one to three foods you look forward to the most and what you love about them.
A store-bought apple pie is not the same thing as your secret-family-recipe-only-once-a-year apple pie. What would you enjoy more? If you’re saving yourself for that favorite dish, it’s easier to resist other temptations.
4. Bring your own healthy option.
One way to take care of yourself (and be a favorite of the host or hostess) is offering to bring a dish or two to a holiday gathering. If you bring your own dish, you guarantee there WILL be something you can eat and enjoy … even if every single other person brings Snickers Pie (Google away, it’s a real thing).
BYO even presents you with the opportunity to be a positive influence and example to those around you. “Who brought the amazing cranberry broccoli slaw salad?!” You did. Go you.
5. Do the rounds before you eat.
Observational studies show that in a buffet-style setting (like a potluck or holiday gathering with lots of options) surveying the lay of the land before filling up a plate seems to provide a mental advantage for making positive choices.2 This is a particularly valuable way to approach food at your next party if you have personal goals related to food choices or quantity.
So before dishing up (and you should dish up), make sure you take some time to look over and think about the offerings. Don’t settle for just a first look.
6. Dish up a plate and focus on balance.
Pick a small plate (ideally 9 inches), and then, focus on balance.
After you browse the spread, fill half your plate with leafy greens and vegetable options. Next, go for the lean protein. You’ll still have some space and wiggle room to go for the thing that looks the most appetizing, but not a lot. Be mindful of your portion size in selecting whatever this final, delicious item might be. Remind yourself of abundance and all the things to celebrate about your journey and choices.
Your choices can be strongly influenced by your social environment and the choices people around make. Take note of any self-comparison chatter that might creep in while you are reaching for strawberries and a small dollop of whip cream (because you are saving yourself for the better cake tomorrow) while someone else is going all out. You are on a unique journey and so are they.
7. Enjoy it, mindfully.
Tune into the food you’re enjoying. Focus on the texture, smell, temperature, and flavor.
Chewing well not only allows you to slow down and really experience how good (or realize how not so good) the food you’re eating is, but it gives your body and brain some time to pick up on how much you have eaten and how full you may be. This clever signaling process takes around 20 minutes to happen, so holding off on immediate seconds is worth a wait. Ask yourself, “ Am I truly still hungry?” and “What do I need right now?” The signal may not be as strong for everyone, so relying on external cues—like plate size, portions and balance—may be valuable for you to get a sense of whether or not you’re done.
Food is not the only thing at your event. Look around for all the things you can soak in and enjoy that aren’t just food. Creative decorations, good hugs, the laughter of someone you love, or a meaningful, heartfelt conversation. There’s a lot to find satisfying.
Remember to be kind to yourself no matter what journey you are on. There will be ups and downs and back ally detours, but what matters most is that you remember you always have a choice. Your choice does not make you either good or bad. We are all perfectly unperfect just as we are. Your goals matter and they can fit into a joy-filled balanced life, it just takes some extra planning.
- Wansink, Brian and Jeffery Sobal (2007). Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 106-123. Doi: 10.1177/0012916506295573.