I love the holiday season, and you will happily find me watching Christmas movies on repeat starting the day of Thanksgiving (but not a minute sooner). This time of year is filled to the brim with festive activities and lots and lots of gatherings centered around food.
I have personal experience recovering from disordered eating, and I now support others on their journeys to healing at Rock Recovery. When I was struggling with food and body image, I can remember the holiday stress I felt that was exacerbated by the food that surrounded me. I felt consumed with thoughts around what I should or shouldn’t eat, which distracted me from the people I love and the joyful experiences I desired. Now that I’ve found freedom and healing in my relationship with food, I gleefully anticipate holiday parties and all of the foods that come with them.
For many, the holidays can bring stress and uncertainty around how to cope with feelings that may arise. The mounting pressure we feel to make this time of year perfect coupled with busy schedules and lots of holiday foods surrounding us at every turn can feel overwhelming. The good news is, if you have a solid plan in place to help you cope with the stress of the holiday season, it can make all the difference for you. Here are five tips to help you successfully avoid stress around food this holiday season.
Practice flexibility and remove moral judgments about food
Many of us struggle with food mainly because we label foods as good or bad and try to limit foods accordingly. I am a big believer in Intuitive Eating and allowing myself to have the foods I enjoy when I want them.
In the past, when I’d restrict certain foods, I became obsessed with either avoiding them or indulging in them. This cycle of restriction and excess kept me from being able to honor my true feelings of hunger and check in with my body on what I was craving. When I learned to be flexible with my eating and allow all foods to fit into my diet, the power that food had over me dissipated.
Try to adopt a flexible approach to what and when you’ll eat depending on what food is available, your body’s needs, and what you really enjoy.
Make sure you are eating enough
All too often we go into holiday meals and parties having “saved up” all day to try to compensate for the rich foods we are going to eat. Just because you may eat a little more later in the day doesn’t mean you should skip meals or restrict your food intake earlier.
Your body still needs fuel and energy to function. Restriction can be a set-up for binge eating, and a stressful way to enter a gathering. When we get overly hungry it can be hard to know when we have had enough, which may leave us feeling uncomfortably full as a result.
Rethink how you view food and gatherings
There is a reason so much of our life is centered around food—breaking bread together is one of the greatest gifts we have. When we gather together for an event or celebration, food is a beautiful part of that connectivity that we get to experience.
Instead of focusing on the foods that you might be fearful of or concerned about overdoing it with, pay attention to the present moment and the people you are with. There is something connective about sharing from a communal bowl together (barring food allergies that prevent this from happening). Reframing how you think of parties and group meals can go a long way in removing the stress around the food that will be there.
Eat what you really enjoy without guilt
In my early childhood, I remember anticipating my grandmother’s magic chocolate cake (turns out—the “magic” was coffee and baking soda combined) and delicious Christmas-morning cinnamon rolls. As I got older and aware of my weight and shape, I began to feel anxiety about how much of the cake or cinnamon rolls I would or would not eat. It left me totally distracted and feeling guilty around these foods I used to savor and enjoy. More often than not, I would try to make the “good” choice of eating some bland “health” food, but still wind up going for a cinnamon roll later. Not only did I miss them straight from the oven at their prime, I felt like I had failed and didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have if I had let myself enjoy it sooner without the roller coaster of emotions and guilt. Now I plan ahead to enjoy the foods I really enjoy without guilt.
Take care of your overall and emotional health
We are much more than what we eat, yet sometimes if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we may make decisions around how we eat that don’t help us feel our best. By making sure we are getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water, and keeping our bodies active, we can help care for our overall health. It is important to not try to “burn the candle at both ends” and to focus on rest during this often frantic and busy time.
The holidays can also bring up painful memories or family dynamics that we need to devote time and space to processing and working through with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. While it can be normal to occasionally turn to food for enjoyment and comfort, if it’s becoming an unhealthy coping mechanism, we need to practice other coping skills and seek genuine community to help us navigate the feelings and stress that may arise during this season.
Allowing ourselves to have the foods we enjoy without guilt can remove a lot of the stress of holiday eating and help us truly enjoy what we eat. While we can’t go around eating cinnamon rolls at every meal, if we change our frantic pace, remove the food rules, and focus on our true needs and desires, we won’t want to. We will be better able to listen to our bodies and honor the foods we need to be well.
I remember the day after Christmas one year, I had the most intense craving—and it wasn’t for the leftovers in the fridge. It was for a spinach salad. It felt so satisfying to know I could enjoy those leftovers later if I wanted, but I was able to honor what my body really wanted and needed at that moment.
Keep in mind that life is full of seasons. While this current season may involve more cookies than usual, it won’t last forever. Try to savor every moment of joy and connection this holiday season and give yourself some grace for the rest.