The holidays can be a stressful time — whether you’re reveling in them or dreading them. Thanksgiving is over but now comes the busy social schedule, the end-of-year work deadlines, and the stress of trying to get everything ready for the holidays. On top of regular work and family responsibilities, you might be sending holiday cards, decorating the house, and trying to find perfect gifts for everyone on your list. It’s a lot to juggle.
And if your life isn’t seeming so perfect right now, the holidays can be an unwelcome reminder of what’s missing. When we are lonely, stressed or simply too busy, many of us turn to food — the chocolate that offers a short term sugar high, the meals on-the-go as a time saver, or the chips and dips at the parties.
But the holidays are also a good time to stop:
If you’re standing at a party and eating whatever is close by, it’s time to stop.
If you’re eating on the run, it’s time to stop.
If you’re eating in front of the TV because you just need to unwind, it’s time to stop.
We are over-ruling our natural instincts
I say “stop” because by not paying attention, we are over-riding our bodies natural instincts. We were all born with the inherent knowledge of what and how much our bodies need. If you try to give a baby a bottle when she’s not hungry, she will close her mouth. If you manage to force down more than a baby needs, she will throw it up. If you spoon feed an infant by tricking her to open up, she will also throw it up. Infants only need help getting to their food; their bodies know when they’ve had too much. Strong4Life advises parents that “your baby instinctively knows what nutrition she needs. So relax and let your baby decide to eat (or not eat), how much to eat, and how fast or slowly to eat.” They are just babies, but in some sense, they know better than we adults do.
As adults, many of us have learned to overrule some of these instincts. We have become addicted to foods like coffee and sugar, and are tempted by foods full of salt and fat (french fries are one my favorites). And we live in a society with cues to keep over-ruling our bodies, like those commercials that suggest you take a medicinal drink or tablet to help calm your stomach when it’s trying to tell you not to eat that double-bacon cheeseburger.
It’s time to stop
So it’s time to stop. Stop overruling your body. Stop ignoring what it’s trying to tell you. And then start listening.
I’ve just finished reading “How to Eat” by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s a tiny treasure. Reading it was like a breath of fresh air in a world overcrowded with food advice. Nhat Hanh’s advice is invaluable for the holidays and also year round.
Sit when you eat
Please sit when you eat. When you sit, that is a reminder to stop.
Imagine being a cocktail party and seeing a friend you’d like to chat with. Rather than just standing there, drinks in hand, perhaps grabbing any nearby snacks, you could ask him (or her) to take a small plate of food with you and sit at the side of the party, to catch up for a few minutes. You might even risk sharing this new thing you’re trying — sitting down to eat. For me, those few minutes catching up would probably be the highlight of the evening. And your friend might appreciate the attention. It’s nice to be noticed and appreciated.
While we eat, we can try to pay attention to just two things: The food that we’re eating and our friends who are sitting around with us and eating with us. This is called mindfulness of food and mindfulness of community.
Breathe and reflect. Then continue on
Or maybe your party strategy starts earlier, even before you go in. You you take a moment outside of the party — whether you’re in a hotel lobby or outside someone’s door. Pause, take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths, and center yourself (lots more about breathing here).
It takes only one moment to take a mindful in-breath and out-breath before your eat. Bring the mind back to the body.
What about every meal?
And it’s not just the holiday party. It could be a new pattern for every meal. Think only about the food and the people you are with:
Sometimes we eat, but we aren’t thinking of our food. We’re thinking of the past or the future or mulling over some worry or anxiety again and again. So stop thinking about … anything that isn’t happening right now. Don’t chew your worries, your fear, or your anger…just chew your food.
The good news? Eating mindfully is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves. When we are mindful, we are less likely to over-eat. When is the last time you ate in your car? Do you remember paying any attention to the food? Your were probably paying attention to the road since that would have been more important. But your body deserves more. It deserves to be treated better.
We don’t need to eat a lot to feel nourished, When we are fully there and alive for every morsel of food, we eat in a way that each bit fills us with peace and happiness. If we are full of this joy, we may find that we naturally feel satisfied with less food.
My no-nonsense party strategies
It’s taken me a long time to come around to mindful eating. Actually, I’m still working on it. And while I wholeheartedly encourage you to eat more mindfully, I know that overnight change can be hard. It requires a commitment that you might not just be up for … yet. So I’m also sharing my “bag of tricks” — the hacks that might save you from over-indulging this holiday season and feeling the worse for it. Here are my favorites:
- Eat beforehand. If you don’t know what options there will be, eat a large salad before you go out. Try dressing it with lemon juice and salt and pepper.
- Bring something “healthy” to share that you know you will enjoy and enjoy sharing
- Know what you’re drinking — the “special cocktail” looks good but is often high alcohol and loaded with sugar — ask for a low sugar or low alcohol alternative, or order what you usually drink (in moderation) rather than the mystery festive drink
- Alternate drinks and water – one for one. You’ll drink less, consumer fewer calories and feel better
- The first 2 bites are the best. If it’s a really indulgent food that you think you “shouldn’t eat” but really want to, take 2 bites and share the rest with others
- Eat your vegetables first — like celery and carrots with hummus dip – not the spinach buried in a bowl of sour cream
- Use mints to curb your appetite when you think you’ve had enough to eat but temptation lingers
- Move away from the food and find an interesting conversation to avoid mindless grazing
- Never sneak food.
But no matter the strategy, try eating with joy this holiday season (but not abandon). And as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Don’t chew your worries, your fear, or your anger…just chew your food.”