Eating with intent: staying conscious about food in the gluttonous haze of the holidays

Updated Oct 12 2015
Go ahead. Have a foodgasm. Photo by The Intrepid Traveler, used under Creative Commons license.
I don't want to let food turn the holidays into an emotional battlefield, so let's huddle up and have a pep talk. I love food, and the holidays are ALL about food. That said, I totally don't love diarrhea, which is what can happen when I eat four-meals-worth of food at a friend's holiday potluck.

With avoiding those mornings of seasonal indigestion in mind, here are eight ideas for staying a bit more intentional and conscious about food during the holidays. Together, I'm confident we can all go into the season with peace of mind and come out the other side having focused on what we really wanted to enjoy: fun parties, family, and food. This isn't about weight or body image — it's about not leaving a party feeling sick to your stomach.

Take a moment for psychological clarity before you leave for the party — Think over what you'd like to eat in the evening. What's in? What's out? You don't have to know what food will be served; just take a moment to focus on what you're hungry for. It's hard to keep a goal when you don't know what the goal is! This tactic will also help you prioritize; "I'd really like to try the tacos, and I don't care if I miss out on the snickerdoodles, so that's what I'll skip."

Enjoy your food — Make noises. Say MMMMM and YUM and smoosh it around in your mouth. Stop talking for a moment. Think about all the flavors of your mashed potatoes — whether they came from a box or from your grandma's house. Slow down. Savor it. Chew carefully. Swallow thoughtfully. Don't just jam it in there.

Commit to honesty — If it's very important you stop eating at a certain point, follow this test: are you hungry enough to eat an apple? No? Then you're not hungry. This test has served me well. BUT KEEP IT HAPPY, PEOPLE. This test works for me because I freaking love apples. I am like a freakish consumer of fruits and vegetables. But you can replace "apple" with any food you enjoy that is probably a better choice for you than a fourth helping of pumpkin pie.

Get your nourishment at home, so that you can enjoy richer food for what it is — Take the edge off your hunger and keep your stomach from choosing your food for you. When you arrive at a potluck in a state of un-starving, it's easier to be thoughtful and measured in your nomming.

Use a small plate — It really does work to limit what you take. If you're at a sit-down dinner, you'll naturally pace yourself along with the rest of the party — but your small plate will be serving you well.

Don't hang out near the food — Ultimately, holiday parties are about your friends and family. Step away from the buffet for a few minutes, grab a beverage, and do some mingling and catching up! And speaking of beverages…

Keep a big glass filled — with whatever. Water is probably the best bet, but I won't judge you for filling a pimp cup with rum. Skip the carbonated bevvies — they just add to the too-full feeling.

If it's a potluck, make it your mission to bring a grazeable dish — It doesn't mean you should plan to show up with a bowl of cut celery, but if there's something tasty and not bloaty-making, bring it. Though I DO love celery, so that could easily be my party food.

So, these are my tactics for feel-good nomming all winter long. I'd love to hear how you plan to keep your relationship with food positive in this season of gastric indulgence.

  1. It's the same principle for why you should never go food shopping when you're hungry: you end up with waaay more than is reasonably advisable. I always eat breakfast, and our family Thanksgiving dinner is early (around 2 pm) so I tend to think of it as a late lunch. I usually get hungry again in the late evening, but I remind myself how much I had to eat earlier and force myself to go for a lighter, healthier night meal.I also try to stay awake long enough on Thanksgiving to digest and avoid the next morning food hangover.

  2. Since I'm from the south where food is our main form of communication, it's easy to get in the mindset that food=love. If I don't watch out, it's easy for me to over-indulge out of a sense of guilt/obligation, like this: "But if I eat Aunt Wilma's seven-layer bars and skip Aunt Mel's hand pies, it might seem like I love her more, plus my mom made peanut butter candy!"

    So, if I can remove some of the unnecessary emotion from food (not all the emotion, just the nonsensical stuff), I feel better both physically and psychologically.

  3. I stay away from casseroles. They're too creamy and salty, and you feel awful after eating some.

    I try and balance my plate. I make areas for everything, and make sure nothing over-powers something else. And make sure there are equal amounts of salad/steamed veggies on my plate as there are heavy stuffing, gravy, etc. I also try to not go for seconds.

    I also try and limit my drinks to wine and water. Juice, pop, beer or anything carbonated can make me feel bloated.

    And for desserts, I limit myself to a small dish, and only put a couple things on there (desserts at Christmas…since Canadian Thanksgiving has come and gone…are bite size and cookies only). Then if I still feel like eating more, I give myself a 20 min wait period.

    Playing games, instead of flopping onto a couch, afterwards can prevent that "OOO SO FULL" feeling too.

  4. Smaller portions! If you want to have some of almost everything, take a small bit instead of a full serving. You can always go back for more but it's hard not to feel guilty leaving food uneaten on your plate. Small tests also let you find out if you are not a fan of something you haven't had before whether it's at a potluck with friends or a family gathering with a new menu. Even if something is your favourite, unless you're going to skip something else, just take a little bit and then go back for more if you still need to eat more. 🙂 I learned this after a recent potluck with friends. I ended up with too much of "faves" and then ended up eating too much because I wanted more of things I hadn't tried before and ended up loving. (and at a family meal with a new host/menu when I ended up wishing I'd stuck with my usual faves instead of new dishes.) Also great for dessert. Just ask for a smaller portion like half a slice of pie or a smaller piece.

    • This! It's important to me to try at least a bite of everything, so that means I take less of my favorites on the first pass. If I still have room after my first plate (and one glass of water!) I'll go back for seconds on my favorites. And if I don't have room for seconds…? Well, that's why I like the day after Thanksgiving as much as the day of. 😉

  5. I DEFINITELY like to make sure I eat a healthy meal BEFORE the big family dinner. I usually try to eat something with protein like a hardboiled egg or two, and a big kale salad, or oatmeal. That way I'm less likely to dig in to the appetizers (cheese, cold cuts, veggies with creamy dip, stuffed mushrooms, etc,.) that are calorie packed and offered before the meal, as well as eating less at the big meal itself. I also try not to drink too much booze….because, oh hey, booze munchies…AND after the meal, I force myself off the couch and outside for a walk around the neighborhood with some grudgingly willing family members. Helps to digest, and burn off some calories!

  6. That whole "are you hungry enough to eat an apple" thing is lovely in theory, but I'm always hungry enough to eat an apple. I freaking love apples.

  7. Oh, yum. that looks amazing.

    I definitely agree that we need to be taking the time to enjoy our food as we eat it, not just shoveling carbs into our pie-holes!

  8. This may not be as much of a concern in colder climes (particularly ones where Christmas falls in winter), but be aware of food safety. If that ham's been sitting out for a couple hours and it's 30C outside, you probably don't need to eat any of it.

    • This is a great point. I think especially Thanksgiving and Christmas it's easy to just leave food out and expect people to graze all day. In general, desserts should be fine, but casseroles and meat dishes need refrigeration! Microwaved food is better than food poisoning.

    • Great Advice! We usually have a time limit for the food buffett, then it's in the fridge, or on the porch (Which is a giant fridge!)

  9. Yes to this. Eating with intent is so much better. I'm not all that good at it (at least the part of portioning myself). But I will try to practice this coming holidays!

  10. I personally hate the "hungry enough for an apple" test. Sometimes if it's a choice between eating something I "should" eat that doesn't sound appealing and being hungry, I will just not eat. Even if my stomach is rumbling and I haven't eaten in hours, I can't bring myself to chew and swallow it. And that's definitely not healthy or food positive. So for me, part of having a good relationship with food is realizing that it is important to feed myself something I can stomach, and if the only thing that sounds edible is ramen then it's more important for me to eat at all than to eat well. This can also go the other way, there was one night that all I could imagine eating was plain zucchini, so that's what I had for dinner. Food is morally neutral. I agree with your main point there though – asking yourself if you're really hungry is important. And having a snack before you go lets you enjoy the food.

    There are also some incredibly emotionally significant dishes that get made only on/around the holidays, and I don't think that eating as much as I want of those is a bad thing. Holidays ARE also about food, that's why we're talking about it. I'm not saying that everybody should focus all around food for a while, but if it happens? No big deal.

    I'm a big fan of http://thefatnutritionist.com/ and her philosophy on healthy eating.

    • Okay, I totally agree with you — if you do not feel like I do about apples. That was kind of confusing in the post and maybe I'll add clarity.

      I fucking love apples. They've gotten really shitty in most Iowa groceries the last few years, but when I can get them from a local orchard, they are one of my favorite foods. The people of Rockethaus have a very real affinity for fruits and vegetables.

      So yes. If you do not think apples are a delicious snack, that's way not food positive. For me it's more like a distraction. When it comes to the list of foods I'd most like to eat at any given time, apples are at least above all but the very best cookies. Bad grocery apples are still…above a not-fantastic pasta dish.

    • And, to be honest — I definitely had trouble with this post. I'd say I'm usually very good about being food positive and keeping pangs of food belly sadness to a minimum, but I totally know how that feels, too. Outer me is going "MM! Thanksgiving! Mashed potatoes are the besssssst put them all in my belly" and inner me, every once in a while, goes "my god don't you realize you've been eating non-stop since the beginning of October? WHEN WILL IT STOP" and the two of them fight for a while.

  11. Great post! More hints that I will be using or have used:

    *Serve crudites and hummus or other protein (cheese, seafood) in small portions beforehand to let guests fill up a bit.

    *Serve from a buffet or sideboard so guests have to actually get up to get more food.

    *Someone suggested in the Traditions thread
    to go for a walk between the meal and dessert. Great idea!

    *If hosting, send guests home with To Go containers after the meal. (You can get paper ones at Smart and Final in the US.) That way they can enjoy the food the next day and don't have to worry about eating it all at once.

  12. Eh, I enjoy my food-coma on the actual holidays but I eat a restricted diet every other day. I'm lactose intolerant, there's a lot of things I can't eat without feeling like I have a stomach virus. I cut out dairy entirely 362 days out of the year, allowing myself a rich casserole for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I avoid cheese at all costs but cream is my guilty treat. I will eat and eat until the holiday is over, then I will curl up with a bottle of Pepto and nap. The pain's worth it just for a day.

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