It’s Holiday Season! Are you filled with the joys of this time of year? Or dreading the parties and family get togethers.
Big, special, seasonal holidays such as Christmas are probably the biggest minefield you can face when your diet deviates from the ‘standard’.
Whether you are gluten free, paleo, autoimmune diet, vegan, or whatever iteration you choose, a holiday that is primarily about people getting together and eating is clearly going to be tricky! Throw in family – who can sometimes be a mixed blessing – and travel, or stress, and you have the perfect storm for something that becomes more drama than celebration.
When a celebration is so centred around food, having restrictions on what you eat can be especially hard, and make you feel like you’re not sharing in the same enjoyment as your friends and family. This can lead to feelings of isolation, and some inevitably see it as an invitation to comment on, or even criticise, your health or food choices.
Not only have I heard it all in clinic, I think I have also experienced every single nightmare scenario to do with food and family celebrations myself over the last 15 years. In fact, for a while there I actually started to really dread the holidays. I found the whole thing really stressful. Not just the social interactions and conversations about ‘my food’, but also the worry of getting sick because either I didn’t advocate for myself properly for fear of being a pain, or just inadvertent exposure to something that would tip me into an autoimmune flare.
So it’s with seasoned experience that I have compiled what I personally do, and my top tips for not just surviving but thriving this holiday season.
Here are my top tips to handle eating a restricted diet at Christmas, or any other holiday:
Host, or Get Involved
This tactic is my favourite for sure as it put me in the most control of my own food environment.
Now, I’m not saying you have to become Martha Stewart, or even Nigella – you definitely have enough stress to deal during the holidays without adding planning an elaborate party. But do consider hosting, getting involved with the big family celebration, or proactively inviting a group of friends over instead, of going out for a big meal. By hosting or co-hosting you can avoid the pushing of food and drink by others, or coming across as picky, as you work the crowd, pouring out drink refills and offering around party food and treats. While this behaviour may seem sneaky, it’s great if you’re tired of having the same conversations over and over with well-meaning family members.
My favourite is hosting Christmas completely at my place for the family and just having everyone over. I specifically know I am safe from cross contamination or unexpected sources of gluten, dairy etc and I can plan an entire menu that the kids and I can eat. I find all the work of hosting less stressful and less work than taking out own food to someone else’s house for example.
Make New Versions of Old Favourites
Something I really enjoy doing this time of year is going on Pinterest or similar websites, and checking out all the excellent recipes that are great substitutes for holiday favourites. There are gluten free, paleo and keto, vegan, and low-FODMAP options. The photography is glorious, showing that permitted foods don’t have to be dull!
There’s bound to be a version of your favourite holiday food, whether it’s gingerbread, stuffing, Christmas cake or mince pies. Yes, it might be a bit more work than buying it ready made from a shop, but this way you know what’s exactly in the finished dish, and you can enjoy it guilt free.
Over the years I have crafted many of these for myself and they are all up on my website. So if you are looking for a brilliant GF and vegan gingerbread recipe, I have that for you. Delicious allergen free Christmas pudding? Got you covered. Roast turkey with ALLLLLL the fixins? I have that too.
Incorporate No-Food Related Treats and Traditions
Christmas is often criticised for being too commercialised. Whatever your feelings are around buying, giving, and receiving gifts, you can’t deny that food marketers have brought it to another level entirely. There are limited edition prepackaged foods you can only buy around Christmas, and many brands and supermarkets deliberately display normal foods in limited edition wrappers. We’re encouraged to buy an excess of food, and here in the UK it feels like we have an extra day devoted to eating leftovers – Boxing Day!
But there are other ways you can bond with family and friends over the holiday period:
- Carol singing – there are usually a number of services, and not all of them take place in a church.
- Helping out a charity – there are many charities working to put together care packages for vulnerable people to enjoy during the holidays. Why not get involved?
- Attending a craft workshop or creating Christmas gifts or decorations at home – children love making their own crackers and tree ornaments!
- Ice skating – not just for kids, ice skating is a fun way to relax.
Ultimately, what are you and your loved ones going to remember about this Christmas in five years time? The tin of Quality Street?, or getting to pet a reindeer? A box of biscuits in front of the TV, or making baubles for the tree? There are so many opportunities for making memories that lasts much longer than the leftover turkey.
Eat Before You Go
A simple solution that takes the sting out of the tail when it comes to your thoughts and feelings about food. Let’s face it: food can be a highly charged subject, and feeling hungry while being surrounded by food you deem unsuitable is a sticky situation. But if you eat something you’ve prepared for yourself before heading over to your friend’s party, or the buffet your aunt has laid on, you’ll be more likely to be clear minded about the selection there, and less likely to struggle from food anxiety.
I personally NEVER go to someone else house hungry or even a meal out, hungry. I try and eat a proper meal before I go with protein and veg, leaving enough room for a little something extra so that I can partake lightly as appropriate. That way I can focus on enjoying the company of my loved ones with little to no concern about whether I eat. Because very often there may be limited options, or cross contamination issues etc.
Remember You Don’t Have to Empty Your Glass or Plate
If your upbringing involved having to finish your plate as a child, you may pale at this – but it’s okay! There is absolutely no need to clear your plate, especially if an overzealous host is hovering with a tray of food. And if you’re avoiding alcohol for any reason, such as autoimmunity – let your host top up your glass. You haven’t entered a contract stating you have to drink the glass of wine! Sometimes the illusion of enjoying food and drink can be easier than explaining your choices over and over.
Relax Your Standards
I know: easier said than done. And I’m obviously not advocating a sudden dip into eating meat if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or to take a big chance if you’re gluten-free! But the holidays are a time to enjoy the emotional and social aspects of food, but as with surviving travel, I encourage you to work out where the hard lines are and where you can be more flexible.
In my case, I never eat gluten or dairy no matter the occasion. However, I definitely eat a lot more sugar around the holidays. Do I feel guilty? No, ma’am!
Make Conscious Choices!
There’s little point in eating foods that stop you feeling completely healthy unless you get real enjoyment out of them. The holidays are a time for the joy of eating and sharing food with loved ones – it’s not a time to eat a pre-packaged mince-pie that tastes like cardboard. You want to choose exciting, quality foods that make you happy and blissful, and think “Mmm, this is delicious – and totally worth the sugar hangover tomorrow!”
Hopefully I’ve given you a few methods to navigate the holiday season. But if you’re not looking forward to the festive period because you feel like a lot of different foods make you feel sick, why not sign up for The Foundations of Health. My program helps you determine what foods work for your body – tailored to you and your needs.