Navigating Christmas Food: A Tale of Joy and Health

Christmas dinner table

Food is an integral part of the celebration of Christmas. Office parties may be out this year, but perhaps because of the restrictions this year, there may be even more focus on food at home this Christmas. I know that when my children have spoken to me about their disappointment at not being able to meet some of the people we usually do at Christmas or have some of our usual outings, I have tried to cheer them up by saying, “but we’ll still have plenty of lovely food at home.” Food to cheer us up, food to join us together with the people we can be with, food to provide a bit of brightness in the darkness. Festive food, party food, comfort food.

This is all good. Eating meals with the people we love is an intrinsic part of our human nature. Humans have always eaten together, and meals have always been a key component in celebrations. I can’t imagine what Christmas would be like without Christmas dinner. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m sure you have had other celebrations in your life that have been marked with special food.

However, if you have been doing your best to support your health this year using diet and lifestyle, you might just be approaching Christmas with some trepidation. This could be as simple as not wanting to put the weight back on that you have so successfully lost, or it could be more complex. Perhaps you are living with a chronic disease and you know that your symptoms flare up if you don’t eat a nutrient-dense diet that’s right for you. Perhaps you have food sensitivities and worry about reactions if you accidentally eat a food you react to. Being picky over food at Christmas doesn’t feel relaxed or fun, but dealing with symptoms such as an upset digestive system, joint pain, eczema or fatigue (all of which can occur if you eat in a way that doesn’t work well for your body) isn’t very festive either.

This is why it’s important to try to work out how you will navigate Christmas food; not to be a killjoy or obsessive over food, but so that you can find a middle ground of enjoying yourself without being in pain or discomfort.

Have a plan

As with so many things in life, planning is key. Decide in advance what sort of Christmas you want to have in terms of food, including an honest view of how that will make you feel. If you want to have a lot of treats so that you feel you can really relax with your family, then that is absolutely fine if that is what you want to do. If however, the thought of eating a lot of sugary food or gluten fills you only with worry about how you will feel afterwards, then it is unlikely that eating these will bring you joy. Decide on what your limits are and stick to those.

What brings you joy

I always tell the story of how for years, my youngest son and I have made mince pies together in the week before Christmas. We usually start talking about this around the time the clocks go back in October. “The evenings are dark now.” “Yes, but that means it’ll soon be Christmas and not long until we make mince pies.” That sort of thing. It’s a lovely, family Christmas thing to do that carries an emotional charge. I mostly try to avoid eating sugary snacks, but the mince pie tradition is so important to me emotionally that I wouldn’t give it up, nor would I miss out on the pies we make. It’s a yes to homemade mince pies for me.

Eating half a box of Quality Street, on the other hand, would just give me a headache and regret. I wouldn’t feel more Christmassy or joyous afterwards, so the Quality Street gets a no from me. You will be able to make your own judgment calls on the treats that bring you joy.

chocolates in wrappers

When you eat or drink the treats that you have decided to, make sure you really enjoy every mouthful. Eat slowly and mindfully and be aware of all the tastes. This is what you have been looking forward to after all, so no guilt or regrets!

Make your own

There are recipes online for sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free etc versions of just about every traditional Christmas recipe you can think of, from stuffing to mince pies. Making your own can be fun if – again – you plan ahead.

Go prepared

Maybe this applies less this year than others, but if you are going to a party at which you know there is going to be lots of tempting food, don’t go to the party hungry. Eat some protein and (ideally) veg before you set out and you won’t be so hungry that you will eat anything. If you’re worried that there won’t be any food there that meets your dietary requirements, why not bring a dish with you? And if you load up your plate at a buffet and regret your choices halfway through, remember that you don’t have to clean your plate.

Every day doesn’t have to be a party

Just because there is a lot of food around at Christmas doesn’t mean that you have to eat a lot every day. I think of Christmas as containing “big food days” and “in between days”. On the in between days, make sure that you start your day with a meal rich in protein (eggs, nuts/seeds, pulses, fish are all good options), and eat plenty of brightly coloured vegetables. Remember that lots of traditional Christmas foods are a good choice in this regard: turkey, smoked salmon, leftover veggies.

Smoked salmon, avocado and greens

Try not to graze endlessly, although of course if there are lots of treats around it’s not realistic to say not to snack – it is Christmas after all!

And finally, if you do end up eating or drinking differently or more than you meant to, then don’t catastrophise – you can always start again the next day.