6 healthy eating lessons for the holiday dining playbook

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! …and yet, for most of us, the holidays ignite a wildfire of panic:  How am I going to get through this without gaining weight?

While the holiday season is often viewed as a threat to our waistlines, the truth is, the holidays have a lot to teach us about how to eat healthier. Here are 6 healthy holiday habits we should consider putting into practice all year long!

Holiday Lesson 1:  Home-cooked meals.  The holidays roll in and suddenly we rediscover that we can actually cook!  Preparing your own meals is like being your own personal bouncer or bodyguard for what ingredients are allowed into your food and ultimately into your body.  Studies have found that those who cook at home have a better diet quality (consume more nutrient-rich foods and drastically less salt, sugar, processed oils, and preservatives) and thus, maintain a healthier weight, and live a longer, happier life.

Make it a habit:  Make cooking a priority all year long, and not just a holiday fling.  Start small and begin at your own personal starting line. If you are someone who rarely cooks during the week, rather than pledge to cook everyday, aim to cook 1-2 times per week.  Choose simple recipes that require no more than five ingredients and a short cooking time. After a few weeks, you’ll become a more confident and efficient cook.  Soon home-cooked meals will become less time-consuming and more convenient than ordering take out.

Holiday Lesson 2:  Eat from a plate.  Why do we wait for the holidays to make the effort to sit down to eat a real meal off of a plate?  This may sound trivial, but let’s face it, nothing good can come from mindlessly munching directly out of a bag of you-name-it.  It’s nearly impossible to collect enough willpower to put the bag away before polishing off the whole thing.  The act of plating food brings your consciousness to the present moment and requires you to make a mindful decision about what and how much food goes onto your plate.  With a limited surface area, plates act as a built-in portion control system.  Even if you go back for seconds, eating off of a plate gives you the opportunity to have a conversation with yourself (“am I still hungry?”).  Yet, when we eat out of the bag, there’s no time to pause and listen to hunger and satiety signals. Plates also serve as a feedback loop, providing you with a real-time visual or “print preview” of the food choices you make.  This holds you accountable, promotes healthier choices, and provides positive reinforcement that supports a domino effect of healthy choices throughout the rest of the day.

Make it a habit:  Ditch the out-of-the-bag (or box) eating.  Instead, use a plate as an opportunity to turn a blank canvas into a colorful, well balanced, and thoughtful meal that you can feel good about.  Tip:  The size of your plate matters – choose smaller plates to make portions appear larger and more visually satisfying. 

Holiday Lesson 3:  Sit and eat.  We eat more meals standing, driving, or on-the-go than we do sitting down.  Think of some of your favorite meals – I bet none of them take place in your car or standing at the kitchen island on your way out the door. When we eat on-the-fly, it becomes tangled up in the web of our daily chaos – and stress eating is born. Sitting down to a meal helps create structure to your eating schedule, separates food from emotion, and protects your meal time from the stressful hustle and bustle of life.

Make it a habit:  Map out your day and set aside time to sit down and eat.  It doesn’t have to be a long and time-consuming meal – even five minutes will do.  The key is to slow down and eat the majority of your meals in a calm and relaxing environment with no distractions.

Holiday Lesson 4:  Eat with people, not computers.   Have you ever found yourself reaching for another bite during a working lunch to find that your entire meal has disappeared?  How did that happen?  Did you even enjoy it?  And why do you still feel hungry?  Well, studies have found that in order to feel fulfilled from a meal, we need to feel satiated not just physically, but also emotionally, and mentally.  This means that we can’t expect to feel fulfilled from a meal consumed while drafting proposals, crunching numbers, or catching up on emails.  Your mind isn’t fully present, and before you know it, your meal is gone and you don’t even remember eating.  Similar to the famous pondering question “if a tree falls in the forest and no one heard it, did it really fall?”, your brain is questioning, “if a meal was consumed but I wasn’t really paying attention and I didn’t enjoy it, does it really count as a meal?”

Make it a habit:  Send yourself a reoccurring calendar invite for lunch everyday.  Try to escape the office environment (cafeteria, break room, park, café, etc.) and dine with friends or coworkers.  Have a particularly busy day and no lunch dates to be found?  That’s okay, these kind of days happen, but at a minimum, put your screen on sleep mode and swivel your chair around to face your meal and only your meal.  While our multi-tasking eating habits stem from intentions to save time, countless studies have found that regular breaks away from the desk actually increase productivity and cultivate creativity.

Holiday Lesson 5:  Take a moment.  Whether it’s giving thanks, saying grace, or making a toast, the practice of taking a moment to pause before a meal to think, reflect, and rejoice should extend beyond the holiday season and become a daily ritual at mealtime.  These moments of gratitude and reflection remind us to stay rooted and appreciative of what’s most important, and make that first bite taste even better!  

Make it a habit:  Take 30 seconds before your meal to take a deep breath and have a moment of gratitude.  There’s so much to be thankful for, whether it’s showing appreciation for the food on your plate or for the people in your life, these positive thoughts will make your meals and your life richer and more fulfilling. 

Holiday Habit 6:  Love those Leftovers.  For some reason, during the holidays we welcome leftovers with open arms, but any other time of the year leftovers are viewed as subpar, sloppy seconds, or scraps for the dog. Take note at how awesome it is to not have to think about dinner every single night, or how convenient it is to have a fridge full of leftovers to pack for lunch all week long.  It’s time to ditch the leftover stigma, leftovers are lifesavers! 

Make it a habit:  Steal a page from the holiday playbook:  Try to batch cook once a week and enjoy leftovers all week long.  So many dishes actually become better the next day, as their flavors intensify over time:  think casseroles, chilis, soups, lasagnas, etc.  Roast up some chicken or lean protein and keep it in the fridge to add to salads, stirfry’s, or burrito bowls throughout the week.  When it comes to healthy eating, the best defense is a great offense.

There’s a reason why we look forward to the holidays so much – the food experiences are so much richer when we are the creator of our own food and we take the time to sit down to share a meal with special people.  This holiday season, cast away the fear of weight gain and instead, let holiday meals remind us that healthy eating is not just about what we eat, but how we eat.

This article was originally published on Philly.com’s Goal Getter column.