In the presence of once-a-year holiday treats and the pressure to be jolly, it’s easy to fall prey to one of two extremes: plunging into overindulgence or retreating into deprivation. Is it possible to navigate the holiday food environment in a way that allows you to take pleasure in holiday favorites while staying true to your health goals? Yes, by setting boundaries and cultivating awareness—but not by creating rules. Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” take a more meaningful approach by incorporating some mindfulness + intuitive eating into your holidays.

Make conscious choices

Often, food regret happens because we eat on autopilot, pulled along by momentary impulses and other people’s decisions and desires (“Oh, they’re having seconds, so I will, too” or “I guess I have to try this pie…they made it specially”). A few reflective questions to ask yourself: What are the holidays about to me? What foods do I look forward to each year? What foods do I always seem to eat that in hindsight I really could care less about?

A habit worth cultivating is, before each meal or gathering, asking yourself how you want to feel when it’s over. Then consider what foods look good, will taste good, and make you feel good. Once you have consciously chosen what you want to eat, honor your right to enjoy it guilt-free, even if friends, family or co-workers raise an eyebrow as they chatter about the new diet they plan to start January 1.

Know a craving from an impulse

A true craving—like when you are yearning for a favorite dish that you haven’t enjoyed since the holidays last year—is a slow burn, whereas a food impulse comes on suddenly, often simply because you see or smell a tempting food. Another difference: a food impulse is generally “of the moment” and will fade away if you let it, while a craving lingers or keeps returning.

One technique for dealing with an impulse-type craving is to “surf the urge” rather than trying to block it. Imagine your craving as an ocean wave, and watch as it builds, peaks, then dissipates. What doesn’t work? Chasing or “eating around” a true craving with foods you deem more acceptable. If what you truly crave is a sugar cookie, trying to satisfy it with an apple or cinnamon rice cakes won’t work—plus, you may end up eating more than if you had just let yourself enjoy the cookie.

Develop a plan for food pushers

Are you a people pleaser? Does this extend to food? While most food pushers mean well, you’re under no obligation to eat food you didn’t plan for, aren’t hungry for, or simply don’t want. So how do you enforce your personal boundaries without stepping on toes?

A good strategy is to start with a smile and a compliment. “Wow, that looks delicious” or “That’s so nice of you!” Next, deflect. “Too bad I’m not hungry right now,” or “Wow, I wish I hadn’t just eaten lunch…I’m stuffed!” If you know the pusher won’t be checking up on you, you can say, “I’ll have some in a little while.” If they offer to send some home with you, agree. You might really want it later, or you can simply discard it.

Show yourself compassion

Do you find the holidays to be more stressful than special? It’s hard when you seem to be the only one who’s not happy or merry. Family dynamics being what they are, the holidays can bring a lot of heavy emotional baggage with it, just as comfort foods—sweet and creamy or crunchy and salty—are close at hand.

If food is your primary—or only—way of coping, this holiday season is not the time to pull the blanket out from under yourself. Instead, consider making 2021 the year to get the help you need to develop a more robust set of coping skills that you too choose from.

More food for thought
  • The holiday season can be hectic (yes, even this year), making it easy to skip or delay meals. If you have a history of dieting, you might be skipping meals to “save” calories for a holiday gathering? This can lead to food choices that you don’t feel good about in hindsight. Honor your hunger by planning and eating regularly spaced meals.
  • Instead of falling into the all-or-nothing trap—guiltily deciding that “anything goes” because you’ve already “blown it” by overindulging—use curiosity and compassion to reflect on what happening. Stress? Mindlessness? Lack of boundaries? Extreme hunger?
  • Don’t arbitrarily fill up on celery sticks before dinner, but do listen to your body. You’ll likely find it craves some lighter fare—like vegetables—to balance richer holiday delights. Maintaining healthful eating habits in your day-to-day eating during the holidays helps bookend those meals that are intended to be special and unique to the season.

Although the modern food environment gives most of us year-round access to almost any food we might desire, the holidays are still special—plan to enjoy them, thoughtfully.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!