How to eat mindfully during the holiday season

November 22, 2021

Image of people holding their champagne glasses over a holiday meal.

Nutrition professors at La Salle offer tips on enjoying holiday meals without a side of guilt. 

The holiday season means a time for celebration and—oftentimes—an indulgent meal. However, there’s no need to feel guilt or shame for enjoying a little more than you usually would.

Laura B. Frank, Ph.D., R.D, associate professor of nutrition at La Salle University, recommends mindful eating, and not just during the holidays, when the practice can be especially helpful when encountering an excess of food.

“Mindful eating means that you’re paying attention to what you’re eating and why you’re eating it,” Frank said. “It means that you spend the time while you’re eating to really enjoy what you’re eating.”

Mindful eating, Frank said, is a technique that requires you listen to your body and eat only when you’re sure that you want the food. As you eat, take slow, conscious bites to enjoy and savor the meal. Don’t eat in front of the TV or with other distractions. This helps your brain and stomach work together to notify you when you’re satisfied.

“Your ability to note whether you are full or satisfied takes up to 20 minutes from the time you start eating before the nerves in your gut come back up to your brain and say, ‘Oh, we’re full now,’” Frank explained.

Heather Krick agrees.

“When we allow ourselves permission to feel good about enjoying foods we love, we can avoid the guilt and shame of overeating,” said Krick, a registered dietitian and an assistant professor of nutrition at La Salle. “The goal is to enjoy the event as much as possible and limiting negative thoughts about food and eating habits is a great way to reduce the typical holiday stress.”

Image of friends enjoying a holiday meal.

Frank and Krick shared five tips on practicing mindful eating through the holidays. (They note, importantly, that anyone with underlying medical conditions should speak to a physician or registered dietitian for more information.)

1. Give yourself permission
When it comes to holiday meals, recognize that this isn’t your normal daily food intake and it’s OK to over-indulge for this short period of time.

“There is no need to feel any guilt or shame for doing something that our bodies are designed to do. Pending any medical conditions, overeating on occasion is perfectly fine,” Krick said.

Be conscious about portions, Frank added, but don’t limit yourself to one plate if you want seconds—and dessert. Plus, prioritize putting the dishes you enjoy most on your plate so you’re not filling up on items that aren’t your favorite.

And remember to stay hydrated, Krick said.

2. Skipping meals is a no-no
Try to keep a regular eating schedule. Skipping important meals, like breakfast, can lead to feeling starved and cause you to eat more and more quickly than you would normally.

“Do not stray from your typical eating habits around a larger meal. Continue with your normal breakfast or lunch before a large dinner meal. This can help assess our hunger and fullness signals to avoid becoming uncomfortably full.”
—Heather Krick, R.D., assistant professor of nutrition

“Do not stray from your typical eating habits around a larger meal,” Krick said. “Continue with your normal breakfast or lunch before a large dinner meal. This can help assess our hunger and fullness signals to avoid becoming uncomfortably full.”

3. Prepare for questions
While the holidays are a time to reunite with family, stress can creep in. Prepare for questions about why you’re not eating certain things or not eating more. Planning a response can help deescalate any family issues and save time for positive memories.

“If someone pressures me to eat food that I don’t really want, or to take second helpings or guilt me because I’m only eating a small piece of pie, people have to know that I am going to internally just say, ‘I’m doing what’s best for me,’” Frank said.

4. Be satisfied, not full
Eat as slowly as you can, so your body can tell your brain when it is full. For large holiday meals, it’s normal to feel a little bit more than satisfied. Try not to push it too far to avoid being uncomfortable, Frank said.

Gingerbread cookies in a bowl with hot chocolate and a candy cane in the background.

“I am still going to eat more than I normally would. I can guarantee you that I’m going to probably feel full rather than just satisfied,” Frank said. “Satisfied is what we usually aim for in mindful eating, not stuffed. But I’m going to end up at the end of the meal feeling pretty full, but not, ‘oh, no, where’s the antacids? Help, I can barely get up,’ because then I’m not enjoying it anymore. That’s the whole point, that you want to enjoy the meal.”

5. Return to mindfulness after the holidays
Once the new year arrives, many try all they can to get back on track. But going from one extreme to another can make you feel worse. Instead, Frank said, aim to practice mindful eating before the holidays, so you already have a plan to keep a healthy relationship with food.

“The key to returning (to normal eating habits) is to have the right thing to return to,” she said. “If you eat mindfully the rest of the year, then that’s where you’ll go back to. So, setting up long term habits, long term ways of relating to food is the best way to return to a good normal.”

— Meg Ryan