The holidays are a challenging time for eating. Between the parties and family gatherings it’s easy to become overwhelmed with food choices. And it’s the rare person who hasn’t seen their health initiatives go poof in the face of mom’s home-baked brown sugar yams or grandmother’s once-a-year pecan pie.

It’s no wonder that articles focused on health during the holidays are full of control strategies. And it’s no wonder that this focus on control leads to anxiety over the upcoming battle against your appetite and cravings. This sets up a stressful situation that not only takes out the fun, but also rarely works.

The predictable result is that you will be left feeling like a failure no matter how restrained you are. It’s unlikely the day will go by without your “slipping” and eating something you’ve tried to avoid. The extra stress of the food battle will also reduce your resilience to the social dynamics – making you more susceptible than necessary to telling Uncle Bob exactly what you think about his politics.

The resulting downward spiral can end in the opposite of what you’re aiming for – instead of feeling the love, everyone’s angry and you’re in the kitchen with your head in the potato cheese casserole. Over time the very idea of holidays may leave you in dread. You may start with good intentions and high hopes but it’s predictable that a focus on control will end in neither happiness nor health.

There is, however, an alternative that can bring back the enjoyment. This year rather than focusing on control, zoom out to the bigger picture and try these science backed positive psychology practices:

Include the Food in Your Gratitude

Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks and gratitude. It’s wise to keep this focus throughout the holidays. Among many other benefits, gratitude has been proven to enhance wellbeing, improve relationships, and reduce stress. It’s powerful stuff.

Instead of anticipating the potential eating and relationship challenges of the holiday ahead, consciously shift your focus to what’s good. Try to come up with new things you’re grateful for and new ways to express this gratitude. This doesn’t mean not to strategize about how to best deal with Uncle Bob or the dessert buffet. You need only to balance the negative focus with some positive

While you’re at it, don’t forget to extend your gratitude toward the holiday food. By doing this you’re likely to slow down and more fully enjoy the experience of eating. This relaxation allows your body to optimally digest. And it allows you to stay in awareness so that you don’t mindlessly overeat or over drink.

Savor the Meal and the Company

Savoring is a form of pleasure that involves anticipation, enjoyment in the moment, and reminiscing afterwards. Starting with the food, think ahead not about calories, carbs, or fat but rather about your holiday food memories and the love with which these dishes have been prepared. Think about how that special casserole connects many generations of women in your family, or how you learned valuable lessons together in the kitchen.

On the day itself be mindful of both the tastes and emotions surrounding the holiday meal – the love, family and friends present (or present in spirit), and the history of the traditions. Take this opportunity to ask questions, get the recipes, and show appreciation. Afterwards, spend time remembering the special foods and tastes, and reminiscing on the good times of holidays past.

Savoring has another advantage in that it allows you to determine what it is you most enjoy so that you can build in more of that (whether it’s food, relationship, or activity) and less of what you don’t enjoy.

Connect the Food and Rituals with Purpose and Meaning

Holidays are meant to be pleasurable times. Whether you’re with family and friends or alone, you can expand the joy by consciously connecting your holiday activities with meaning and purpose. This may involve taking time to focus on others – serving food at a homeless shelter or connecting with someone who is alone. Or it can involve focusing on the memories you’re making for children, the greater meaning of family, or participating in rituals that connect the generations.

There are many ways in which food connects with purpose and meaning, whether that’s eating foods traditional to your heritage, to your religion, or to your family. As you are feeling gratitude and savoring the special foods, think about the bigger picture of what place these foods have in the celebration.

This can additionally spark you to evaluate which traditions are worth keeping and which ones are merely draining. It may be that a cookie baking day no longer serves a bigger purpose and only causes unnecessary stress. Or that the big dinner or the extended family get together no longer work for you.

There are many ways that you can honor the spirit of the holidays. Traditions aren’t set in stone and need to evolve as circumstances change. If you find yourself eating in ways you don’t enjoy during the holidays, consider that this symptom may be letting you know that your holiday traditions need some updating.

The Happy Result

If you focus on gratitude, savoring, and connection with purpose and meaning, you won’t have time to worry about what you’re going to eat. And you won’t have to worry about it because the relaxation and positive mood that result from these three practices will naturally keep you in awareness.

You probably will eat more than on a normal day, but that’s ok. Having a satisfying day and satisfying holiday meal will go a long way toward reducing the need for future overeating or binging. By zooming out from micro focus on food and eating to the bigger picture of the love and tradition you can end the day feeling connected and fulfilled. And that’s what’s truly healthy at the holidays.

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This week I’m reading Talking to “Crazy” – How to Deal with the Irrational & Impossible People in Your Life by Mark Goulston. There’s no better book to help you through the holiday’s! Having a few of these strategies in your back pocket at a family gathering will take you far in preserving relationships and your own sanity.

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