12 Conscious Eating Tips for the Holidays

By Jennifer Malins, Integrative Nutrition Coach


When I ask people to describe their favorite holiday foods, I get a wide variety of responses, ranging from yeast rolls to persimmon pudding to dressing.  As we dig deeper, memories connected to each of these foods surface.  In my case, both my grandmothers made wonderful yeast rolls. I not only love the taste and smell, but this food evokes powerful memories and associations for me.  When I think about yeast rolls, my mind is flooded with happy memories of bonding with my cousins amid the deafening din of voices in the living room, a roaring fire behind us in the large stone hearth as we stuffed ourselves with these buttery delights.  Both my grandmothers have since passed, but when I smell those yeast rolls, it’s as if these memories of years gone by happened only months ago.  When I experienced a sudden gluten sensitivity last November, I nearly wept when I smelled the forbidden rolls baking in the oven at Thanksgiving.

Certain foods have a powerful hold on us due to our associations with them, such as the memories connected to them.  These foods are hard to resist because we feel as though we’re momentarily gaining a lost moment of the past.  We travel back in time to experience a period we perceive as being happier and more carefree, to be with loved ones who have passed, or to remember the person we used to be before the stress of life took its toll.

This is what makes holiday feasting so tricky.  We may overconsume foods, such as cookies and cakes, that are high in sugar or other unhealthy ingredients, or simply overeat to fill a void, using this time of feasting as an excuse to do so.  After all, if there’s one time of year in which it’s socially acceptable to overeat, it’s the holidays.

Knowing what the holidays have in store for us, we often give up trying to be healthy, and tell ourselves that we should just wait for the New Year.  The holidays provide a great opportunity for us to be more conscious of our habits, emotions and thought patterns, making this the perfect time to choose a healthier path by becoming more conscious of how certain foods affect us emotionally and physically.

Here are 12 conscious eating tips for the holidays:

  1. 1. Start keeping a food-mood journal. Write down the various foods you consume during the holidays.  Note how each one feels when you first eat it and then how it affects you a couple of hours later.  How do you feel emotionally?  What memories and feelings does this food evoke?
  2. 2. Incorporate mindfulness throughout the day. What are your moods throughout the day?  When are you most energetic?  Most depleted?  Most anxious or stressed or sad?   Notice your thoughts, the origin of these thoughts, and the resulting actions.  Knowing what we’re thinking throughout the day is key to overcoming bad habits and negative mental states.
  3. 3. Mitigate stressors throughout the day by stopping after each activity to re-center. Breathe deeply through the center of your chest and think of something that brings a feeling of peace or gratitude.  You only need about 30 seconds at a time to perform this activity.  I recommend performing it several times a day, especially before meals.
  4. 4. According to the science of Ayurveda, winter is the time for sweet, heavy, oily foods. By incorporating sweet foods, such as sweet potatoes, into our main meals, we are less likely to crave candy and cake afterwards.
  5. 5. Make healthier versions of your holiday faves. Use coconut sugar instead of white sugar, butter from pasture-raised animals, and organic flour.  If you are gluten-sensitive, there are gluten-free flours that serve as excellent substitutes.
  6. 6. Start healthy food traditions. Find at least one healthy but delicious holiday recipe and bring that to the dinner.  If your friends and family love it as much as you, make that the dish that everyone looks forward to eating each year by always bringing it.
  7. 7. Along those same lines, when attending a family dinner or pot luck, bring a few healthy dishes to share that you enjoy eating so that even if no one else brought a healthy dish, at least you have a few healthy items you can eat.
  8. 8. Don’t go to holiday parties on an empty stomach.
  9. 9. Focus on the environment and the company while eating the food. If you do eat a less-than-healthy food, savor it rather than feeling guilty.  You’re much less likely to devour a whole plate of it if you allow yourself to slowly enjoy each bite.
  10. 10. Eat your biggest meal at midday when your digestive fire is strongest. That way, you are less likely to binge on unhealthy foods in the late afternoon and evening when our willpower is weaker due to feeling depleted by a long, stressful day.
  11. 11. Budget your time: What can you say no to in order to say yes to spending quality time with loved ones or taking time to prepare a healthy meal?
  12. 12. Spend time with loved ones in fun or meaningful activities that don’t involve food. The holidays are often so busy in which we juggle many activities and time with friends and family we haven’t seen in a long time that we may feel we haven’t spent quality time with any of them.  We may choose to overeat as a way to fill the void.  Instead, focus on connecting more deeply with your loved ones and forgo activities that don’t facilitate these deeper connections.