Sunday, November 20, 2011

Taking Charge: Practical Strategies for Enjoying Holiday Eating and the Morning After

Ready to take control?

You, my readers, are a diverse bunch. Some of you are overweight, perhaps higher than your usual and healthy weight. You struggle to have balance in your eating—to eat what you’d like, and to learn to eat just enough. Others maintain their weight in a healthy range, yet grapple with these very same issues. Just because you may look fine, doesn’t mean you’re not challenging yourself to improve your relationship with food. You, too, may be working on legalizing foods, moving from a diet mentality.

Many of you are underweight, as evidenced not only by the scale, but by your body’s function—your low heart rate, body temperature, or hormone levels, resulting from inappropriate weight loss, food restriction or over-exercise. You too may be trying to release yourself from the grips of disordered thoughts and behaviors around food, whether or not it is visible to those around you.

Yet as diverse as you are, it seems most everyone gets challenged around holiday and social eating situations. Social anxiety may add flames to the fire. But I’ll leave that to the therapist bloggers to better address.

Last November, I did a post on recovering after slips, such as after Thanksgiving. Now I’m realizing I’d better address prevention. Perhaps I should have thought of this sooner? It’s not too late! (For those non-US residents, plug in Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza or any other social eating situations not connected to a holiday celebration—the situation is the same.)

It may seem strange, but regardless of what end of the scale you’re on, or what your personal needs are— weight loss or gain or stabilization—these guidelines apply. Because we all want a sense of control over our situation—to eat what we’d like and eat enough of it—but not too much; to enjoy eating and feel entitled to eat, regardless of our size, in spite of the opinions of others; we’d like to free ourselves, discarding those useless rules around good food/bad food, appropriate times, and inappropriate times to consume food.

So here are my tips:

Maintain normalcy before the gathering.

Don’t skimp on your eating beforehand or you’ll be more vulnerable at the event. All too often I’m told of a client’s attempt to prevent overeating. What do they do? They eat less before the meal out or the function, figuring they’ll save some calories. Then they arrive more vulnerable than anticipated. As a result, their resolve to mindfully select their food, or to pace themselves through the afternoon of eating goes out the window.

The sensory stimulus doesn’t help.  The pleasant aromas and visual displays of appetizers through desserts calls to us. Their strategy backfires, and they feel a sense of hopelessness with getting their control back.

Using your head to maintain the necessary balance
Or like my patient, Shari, you restrict before the event, eat fine or over eat at the event, then restrict again afterwards. Hmm. Does this make sense? Somehow, when you hear it told about Shari, it’s clear how senseless this is. Yet my clients believe that somehow they are different, that the rules don’t apply. They are smart. They get it. I know they do. Yet I frequently have to remind them they are not special; lovely individuals, yes. But not so unique that the system doesn’t apply to them.

Get informed. Ask questions.

"What will you be serving?" "What time will we be eating?" It helps having a sense of what to expect. Going to a friend or family’s home? Ask what you can bring—not if you can bring something. Perhaps you'll contribute something you really enjoy and feel good about eating. A lighter dessert? A favorite vegetable dish? An appetizer you’re comfortable eating?


It starts with inquiring about what’s being served. For some, it’s necessary to think through your options in advance. If you are dining out, consider checking the menu online, to be less overwhelmed with the decision making during the gathering. Going to family for a holiday meal? Hmmm, they’re serving 6 different starch choices, including mashed potatoes, stuffing, winter squash, sweet potato casserole, biscuits, and pumpkin bread. Which ones can I get at any time? Which ones are my favorites? Which ones should I just pass on, without regret?

Remember, it’s not your last chance to eat.  So if cranberry sauce is a favorite, plan to buy it and keep some at home. Add it to turkey sandwiches or make a turkey with the fixings, even when it’s not Thanksgiving or Christmas.

You don’t need a dog for a doggie bag. Plan to bring a piece of pie, or a package of leftovers for a later time. Perhaps you’ll get hungry again later that evening. You’ll better appreciate the leftovers when you are less full anyway.

Plate the appys.

Enjoy the appetizers. But know how much you are eating. Select what you’d like, and place them on a plate, together. This allows you to take note of what you are consuming. When we are simply grazing on them, without really seeing or acknowledging them, it is much easier to over eat.

Watch the alcohol.
Painting by Russell D'alessio, Bar Harbor, ME
I hope these women had eaten before their martinis!

Nothing decreases our awareness and inhibitions like alcohol. If you can drink responsibly, that’s fine. Best to delay your drinks until after you’ve had some solid food, though.

Be flexible*.

Maybe you decide you’d like something other than what you intended to eat. Or you ate more than you anticipated, even though you tried to be well prepared. The worst thing you can do is to beat your self up. Best to work on moving on. (Yes, it takes 3,500 surplus calories to gain a single pound.)

We may not be able to control senseless comments from those around us at family and social gatherings. And unless we are hosting, we can’t eliminate temptations. But we can certainly take charge of our own thoughts and actions. And in the worst-case scenario, remember it’s only one meal, or one day. So if you ate more than you needed and are sitting with regret, re-visit that old post on the morning after.

* Did you, like me, wish this subheading was left-justified, instead of over here on the right? It's the start of being flexible!

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Firstly, how can it be this time of year again already?!! Not that we do the thanksgiving thing here in Australia, but if we did, you know you'd be on my thankful list! xxx
    I think for me the most ingrained habit is the one around changing behaviours before and after the event. The whole "I won't eat breakfast so I can have a big lunch", followed by the "I'll need to go for an extra run to burn it off" has been my normal for so long that it's almost hard to remember to not think these things. Or at least to not act on them.
    Oh and as for being flexible...

  2. Yes, if this was my post, I would wish the 'be flexible' title was left-justified aswell! But that is just my perfectionistic side coming out ;o)

    Thankyou for all these tips...I am struggling to eat during the day, and hardly eat dinner really, so Christmas meals will be tough! And I usually do restrict before and after a get-together, but when the social gatherings are on top of each other, like Christmas, you do tend to panic! And schedule in extra exercise...

    I will try to remember your advice, and 'find some balance' in there somewhere...Much appreciated :o)

  3. This is a great post, Lori! Reiterates a lot of what you said to me this a.m. THANK YOU!

  4. I usually spend hours on the net reading blogs on various subjects. And, I really would like to praise you for writing such a fabulous article.I really like your way of information given.Thanks! ration MREs meals ready-to-eat

  5. Fessing up here...I don't quite understand what's wrong with Shari restricting before and after. I mean, I get that then she shows up at the event hungry and less able to resist overeating, but what's wrong with restricting afterward? Total calories in would be lower, right? I always call that my dietary penance, and it only lasts for a day (I still eat, but emphasize unadorned vegetables and low-fat protein). Is that unhealthy? It seems to work...

  6. Regardless of which group you fall into--overweight or normal weight and trying to manage your food, or struggling with anorexia, the restricting will fail you. For the first group, while it seems completely LOGICAL that restricting can help balance what you may be overeating later, you end up in an unfortunate place. You more than make up for the restricted calories--because you eat faster, have less impulse control, less ability to use mindful behaviors, etc. For some, this gets accompanied by negative self talk and destructive eating, while others can move on more easily. And while restricting and while overeating, we hardly feel our best!

    These addresses it well:

    For those caring to recover from their anorexia, restricting prior to the event, is rarely truly compensated for at the event. But it feels like an undesirable deviation from what should have been eaten. And so there is typically restriction again after the event. This may or may not lead to some overeating or binging, which then leads to restriction, and so the cycle continues.

    But the greatest point to make, is that in the big picture, we are trying to learn to respond better to our body and its signals. And denying food in preparation for overconsuming is a move in the wrong direction.

    1. I was also trying to master it and learn the basics. It took me time, but it's all worth it.