How to create a positive relationship with food over the Holidays


It’s Holiday time….and it seems as though there is sugar and treats everywhere!

And of course, probably some wonderful dinners and fun parties with all the fixings. I love this time of year, but I know that it can be stressful for a lot of people who are working hard on eating healthier and establishing new habits.

I was having a coaching discussion with a client the other day about the relationship of food and celebration at this time of year, when there is so much food around and temptations are high. And of course, food celebrations are so intertwined into family traditions and spending time with people. She was concerned about how to handle this – or avoid it – as this was all new to her.

Especially when you are someone who is in the midst of making lifestyle and dietary changes, this time of year can feel extra challenging. It is a common response to feel like food is the enemy over the holidays, and that it would be easier if we just disconnected the two somehow…

But I don’t believe that avoiding food at celebrations is the answer to building a long-term healthy relationship with food that goes beyond just “sticking to a diet”. Sure, be wise about what you bring into your home – and it’s helpful to have a personal strategy that works for staying on track with your healthy habits as much as possible – however, life will always go on and we need to be learn how to thrive in these situations rather than try to avoid them or get stuck in a negative cycle around them.

We can’t control all the food and celebration and other people’s meal ideas 100% of the time. But that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It’s not all or nothing.

Here’s a few perspectives to help you create a positive relationship with food over the Holidays: 

1. It’s not the food that’s the problem.
Traditionally, enjoying meals together with others is part of the celebration of life and special events – “breaking bread together”, sharing in the abundance of life-giving food.

The real problem tends to be that we have conditioned ourselves to think of food celebrations as all-or-nothing. When we see these times as a free pass for a meal we might have otherwise avoided, we tend to focus more on getting our share of the food. This often leads to eating more food than we need to just because it’s there, and then regretting those choices.

Real, good food is to be enjoyed, but it doesn’t have to overtake the real reason for celebrating: enjoying the time we can spend with those we are with. 

We get so focused on the food that, that is what we end up celebrating. The food is not meant to celebrated – the food is a tool that brings us together and is a necessity of life. We get so caught up with the presence of the food, that we forget to be present ourselves in what we are truly there to celebrate.

Can you truly enjoy the people around you and offer them the best of yourself when you are stuffed, feel ill, and regretting eating way too much pie, getting intoxicated, or fighting over the last potato chip?

Food – even “special” foods – will always be available. Enjoying celebratory foods in a mindful manner that gives you the satisfaction of partaking in it, but not over-indulging to the point of regret, keeps the food in it’s proper place so it doesn’t consume *you*.


2. Focus on those around you so that your celebratory meal brings you back to a personal, connecting experience.
When we can truly enjoy the gift of food as something that allows us to give of ourselves, rather than taking all we can get and allowing it to take away part of our experience – then it puts the food back in it’s rightful place for our nourishment and satisfaction. As a result, we are more able to invest our attention and energy into those around us. It can be a refreshing experience to connect at a deeper level with people around the table – and often, when we change our focus to that, the food we are eating doesn’t feel so urgent.

Wondering how to establish some good conversation around the table? Think of a few topics or questions ahead of time that could easily include those at your meal. Write these “conversation starters” on small cards and place around the table. Ask everyone to read them before the meal is served, and then pick one to start with and go around the table so everyone can take a turn contributing. Possibly a great new tradition that everyone will look forward to next time!

3. The food doesn’t need to go away. The power it holds over us needs to go away.
If you are a chronic dieter whose goal is to avoid “bad” foods, then is this strategy setting you up for success or failure? I used to be one of those people who would have to muster up a whole lot of willpower the day of a special meal, so that I could convince myself that I was better off not eating any of it – and then restrain myself enough to only eat a small portion. I might even had gone as far as bringing my own “safe” foods with me just to be sure I wouldn’t mess up. The actual messed up part, though, was that this was never a good solution for me. Eventually, my willpower would deplete and I would be face first into something I was (by then) intensely craving. “Being good” for one meal – that was intended for enjoyment – by depriving myself, only furthered my problem with food in the end. And on top of it, ended up usually making me resentful that I “had to” miss out on celebrating like everyone else.

This is not an example of a healthy relationship with food.

If you have to rely on willpower to avoid a food (like Christmas cookies), then that food still has some kind of physical or emotional power over you. Often we are too fearful of our own cycles of behaviour, that we feel safer when we have strict rules for how we eat. Just like over-eating is about the food having power over our actions and emotions, so does over-restricting food. Both cause us to make food the focus, and usually takes away from being truly present in that moment.

You can take away the power from food. The key is to learn how to move from a place of willpower (which can be depleted over time and tends to label foods as good or bad) to a place of self-control (which is flexible over time and does not label food as the enemy). When you can do this, it is no longer about whether you can or can’t have a food at any given time – it becomes part of putting your priorities in place where food loses its power, so you can invest in the special moments and the people you are with.

Remember though – this takes practice! You may feel that readjusting your priorities at the dinner table does not go quite as smoothly as you would like. Habits take time to change. And over time, as you practice how to take the focus off the food and on to the real purpose for celebrating, you will find that your new habits start to happen naturally and feel good.

Give yourself some grace and compassion – we are all a work in progress and get to learn more about ourselves everyday!


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