How do you know if you’ve won the Healthy Holiday Gathering game?
- You truly enjoy the party.
- Your hosts are satisfied that you had a good time.
- You feel good about the choices you made.
- You’re happy about the effects on your body, the next day and long-term.
Is this even possible? I say yes! Of course it’s a challenge … like all worthwhile games. Let’s play!
Here are five strategies I’ve learned, which can be applied to happy hours, gatherings with family or friends, restaurant meals, or whatever may be in store for you this season. In the comments, let me know what you think of these, and what strategies you use yourself!
Strategy #1: Focus on the people, not the food.
I think this is the most powerful strategy for getting through an event with our health goals intact, while still having a great time.
What is Halloween without candy? Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? New Year’s Eve without champagne? Answer: They’re fun events! With friends, family, costumes, decorations, music, gratitude, dancing, laughter, (hopefully) interesting conversation, and more
The food is not the fun. The food is not the entertainment. The food is not what makes the event special. The people make the event special. Repeat as often as necessary.
Here are some tactics that might be helpful:
- Take on a social challenge (game style). We can set out to meet three new people, pay a compliment to everyone at the gathering, or find out a new fact about an old friend.
- Focus on non-food activities. Play with a baby. Take a group walk to see the holiday lights. Ask Uncle John to demonstrate his model trains. If you’re me, try to get people to play Codenames .
- We can use our networking skills to accomplish something useful. Find a new volunteer for the animal shelter, learn about a new local business, or pass along a job opportunity we’ve heard about.
- For those of us who dislike small talk, we can find another quietly deep person and see if they’re willing to teach us something fascinating about their favorite area of interest.
Strategy #2: Plan ahead to set yourself up for success.
The planning-ahead part of our brains has our long-term well-being in mind. The spontaneous in-the-moment brain module … not so much.
So at least 24 hours before the event, with our higher-level planning module fully online, we can think about the upcoming opportunities and pitfalls, and make a plan that is both healthy and realistic. (Not “arrive starving after work, and have only salad and water.”)
Sometimes the best choice might be not to go at all. It’s OK to prioritize self-care over social obligations! We have other plans. Our other plans are to stay healthy and happy.
If we do attend, elements of a good plan include the following:
- Feed our bodies. “When I’m hungry, I don’t want carrot sticks!” says my wise sister-in-law. I sometimes eat a protein-rich snack or even a meal before the event, and actively forage for nutrient-dense whole foods during the event (see below).
- Choose among the temptations. Chips, crackers, bread, cookies, cake, sodas, ice cream, alcohol … what will be available? (I like to check restaurant menus online in advance). Which “treat” is most important? Does consuming a moderate amount of it work for my body? Can I stick to a reasonable serving? If so, I make it part of my plan and savor it fully, without self-doubt (nice!). Riding on that guilt-free enjoyment, I can confidently skip the other temptations while filling up on nourishing whole foods.
- Be gentle but firm with our inner child. During the event, a little inner voice will likely speak up with all sorts of reasons to eat and drink more than we’d planned. It’s a special day! This food is a family tradition! Aunt B will be sad if I don’t eat her pie! I deserve a treat! Some call this voice “the saboteur,” but I think it’s more like an enthusiastic little kid who enjoys pleasure and isn’t thinking about tomorrow.
So I find that we can use the same kinds of strategies we might use when taking a toddler to the grocery store. Make sure she isn’t hungry — feed her beforehand, or pack some healthy snacks. Steer her gently toward better choices, And stay calm when she yells for candy at the checkout. “Sorry, we’re not buying that today. Can you find three things that are red??”
Wait a minute … doesn’t this whole line of thinking constitute an unhealthy, restrictive “diet mentality”? What about intuitive eating? Can’t we just tune into our bodies and trust them to ask for what they need during a social event?
There is evidence that we can happily practice intuitive eating at a buffet of whole, natural foods. But somehow it doesn’t seem to work with foods that were designed by humans to be extra-tasty and easy to eat. Our natural “stop mechanism” (check out my short video!) just doesn’t seem very good at handling eggnog, frosted gingerbread men and Rice Krispies treats. Our bodies evolved for food scarcity, not dessert buffets. We need to create artificial scarcity, or healthy constraint, in one way or another, just like we do when we don’t max out our credit cards.
But we can make it a positive, self-affirming kind of scarcity. I’m fully enjoying this one treat without any guilt at all, and happily skipping the rest. I’m enjoying whole foods to take great care of my body. I’m having just one drink so I’ll feel great tomorrow. I’m doing all this because I want to stay active for many more decades!
Strategy #3: Use your hunter-gatherer skills.
Take the primal whole-foods challenge: hunt for the lean meats, the fish, the nuts, the seeds. Gather a full plate of every vegetable on the buffet. Forage for hummus and salsa with real veggies, not chips. Sink your teeth into ripe whole fruit. Feel the Earth’s life-giving nutrients soak into you.
Another great hunter-gatherer skill is finding ways to ditch the decadent food of civilization :). In my case, I might eat the filling of a pumpkin pie and quietly seek out the kitchen trash to dump the crust. Yes, it is totally OK to waste pie crust (and cake frosting, and half-eaten bags of chips, and the rest of your kid’s sandwich). Having this stuff go into your body instead of the trash does not make the world a better place.
Strategy #4: Be relentlessly, stubbornly, irresistibly positive.
Clients often tell me that they would make perfectly good choices for themselves, but people at events pressure them to eat and drink, and they cave in.
The problem is that we’re worried about being rude if we don’t consume and enjoy what is offered. But our hosts’ priority isn’t really to ensure that we eat or drink a certain amount — it’s to give us pleasure and enjoyment. So the answer is have lots of pleasure and enjoyment, and make sure it shows!
I love the strategy that is often identified with British culture: to cheerfully ignore something inconvenient (a rude question, a fart) and respond politely on another topic. That’s a great approach when people try to get us to eat or drink something that doesn’t fit our plan. They cannot force the food or drink past our lips, and they cannot shake us from our relentless polite positivity. Let’s try it!
Host: Have a homemade chocolate-lava-bomb cookie! It’s a special family recipe. I spent all afternoon baking them, because I especially wanted you to try them.
You: Wow, you worked really hard, and you’re sharing your family recipe with us. You are so generous! The cookies smell great, and they’re perfectly shaped, how did you do that?
Host: I spent hours shaping the dough just right, and I even burned my hand on the hot filling, see the blisters? Come on, try one!
You: (taking a cookie in a napkin) I’m so perfectly satisfied right now, after the delicious buffet. The ham and brussels sprouts were fabulous! And I learned so much about antique clocks from your brother. Where did you get that hilarious light-up reindeer necklace? I love it!
Host: Just try a nibble of the cookie now, while it’s fresh, so you can tell me what you think!
You: You’re such a considerate host; you want to give your guests the best of everything, I’m so honored that you invited me to this party. And I really like the music you’re playing, where did you get the playlist? Is it Spotify?
Host: Please try the cookie!
You: (Smiling) I will! I’ll have it with my coffee in the morning, and it’s going to be the best breakfast ever!
(Note: in this case I would take a little nibble of the cookie the next day and send a message about how great it was… )
Negative statements like “Sorry, I’m on a diet” or “I can’t have that” are downers for the host and will likely inspire pushback, like “Come on, it’s a special occasion, just a little won’t hurt!” But we can try combining a breezy negative with positive statements: “Oh, I had to go gluten-free, so I’ve got to skip the cookies, but those mini-sausages are fantastic, I’ve had seven already! Where did you find them?”
Strategy #5: Always have something in your hand (especially water)
It’s important to our hosts to keep us well-fed and entertained. Seeing us empty-handed or with an empty plate is a signal to them to push more consumption on us This is especially true for drinks — so we can make use of a secret weapon: water! Especially sparkling water if it’s available. With a slice of lemon or lime it looks extra festive. I like to refill my wine or cocktail glass with water after the first drink; mix wine with sparkling water; or just start out with sparkling water in the first place. I keep it refilled and keep smiling! If I carry around a couple of baby carrots on a napkin in my other hand, my hosts feel satisfied that they’re taking good care of me.
So … Focus on the people, make a plan, be primal and forage for whole foods, be unswervingly positive, and keep something in your paw.
(Ha, I got a P-word in all of them!) These strategies have served me well since my habit-change year in 2014. I hope you find them useful as you navigate the temptations and pressures of upcoming holiday gatherings. Let me know how it goes and what strategies you use most!
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