Can Holiday Food Be Good for You?

A friend recently described the latkes she makes for Hanukkah: “It’s a labor of love — hours in the kitchen. But they’re delicious, and the house smells amazing for days. Everyone eats until they’re full and then slinks away to nap.”

Food is a central part of celebrations. This year, the pandemic may make holiday fare more important, as it connects us to our families and cultural traditions even when we can’t be physically together.

People who shared happy holiday memories with us noted that regardless of what they celebrated with as kids — whether latkes, cookies or candies — they were never restricted or judged, and these foods continue to be part of their winter menus. Another friend, Cate, looks forward to her mom’s shortbread cookies at Christmas, while another, Shannon, has always made fudge with her family each December. Lorie described the stuffing recipe that’s been a part of her holiday since long before her grandmother taught her to make it.

There was little discussion of prioritizing Brussels sprouts, negotiating before dessert or feeling ashamed for feasting. Having this sense of freedom and joy around food is a tremendous gift, and it’s one our current diet-obsessed culture threatens to take away. Even small children are getting the message they should fear sugar, limit portions, and feel naughty for enjoying food.

Food-shaming messages abound all year, but they tend to ramp up during the holidays. Kids today hear relatives bemoan their love of babka while vowing to “cut carbs” in January. It’s nearly impossible to watch television without seeing an ad for weight loss. And social media posts promote New Year “resets,” “cleanses” and “fasts.”

Parents and guardians have an opportunity to reject the idea that celebratory foods are dangerous, sinful or require atonement. We want kids to delight in festive traditions during the holidays — and to enjoy food all year long.

To form positive memories, promote a healthy relationship with food, and get the most of their holiday celebrations, families can employ these simple strategies:

— Don’t moralize food.

— Don’t reinforce narrow definitions of “health.”

— Don’t place arbitrary limits on portions.

— Do call foods by their names.

— Do model enjoying a variety of foods.

— Do help others.

[READ: Food Rewards Backfire: What Parents Should Do Instead]

Don’t Moralize Food

Designating certain dietary choices as virtuous — and others as sinful — can harm not only children’s relationship with food, but also their self-image. To eliminate moral judgments from the dinner table, don’t describe something as “decadent” or a “guilty indulgence.” And unless you’re talking about a food’s safety or expiration date, steer clear of using the labels “good” or “bad.”

Don’t Reinforce Narrow Definitions of ‘Health’

Although certain foods are more nutrient dense than others, labeling foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy” is counter-productive. Most kids immediately understand these words as code for “good” and “bad.” What’s more, research suggests children may be less likely to try so-called “healthy” foods.

Categorizing foods can also lead to black-and-white thinking, which may trigger fear, restriction, fixation, binging and other unhealthy behaviors. Food is fuel, but it’s also so much more than that, especially at the holidays. Food is culture, connection, comfort, safety and love. None of that shows up on a nutrition label.

[See: Quick and Healthy Dinner Ideas From Nutritionists.]

Don’t Place Arbitrary Limits on Portions

When we trust kids to trust their own bodies, they learn important lessons about hunger, fullness and satisfaction — not to mention personal autonomy. Getting uncomfortably full once in a while is not only normal, but also an important part of becoming a competent eater.

Children need practice listening to their bodies. When we interfere, we rob them of opportunities to develop interoceptive awareness, the ability to feel one’s internal body signals. Trying to limit portions is also likely to backfire, and may drive a child — or anyone — to feel restricted and then binge later.

Do Call Foods by Their Names

If we want kids to have a healthy relationship with food, we’re much better off keeping all foods neutral — barring special circumstances, such as religious restrictions, allergies or other medical needs.

One way to avoid sending confusing messages is simply to call foods by their names: Cookies are just cookies (not sweets, fun foods or treats); Salmon is just salmon (not brain food, superfood or a “healthy fat” delivery system); S moothies are just smoothies (not raw fruit, liquid meals or part of a “juicing” regimen).

[SEE: Family Meals Using Pantry Staples.]

Do Model Enjoying a Variety of Foods

What we do is even more powerful than what we say. Want your kids to like vegetables or to expand their palate? Rather than lecturing about balanced meals or pressuring them to try certain dishes, teach by example. Demonstrate what it looks like to make choices focused on variety, satisfaction, and pleasure. By doing so, we set the table for a lifetime of relaxed, intuitive eating.

Do Help Others

Nothing puts concerns about nutrition into perspective like helping those who don’t have enough to eat. Food insecurity is traumatic and a risk factor for a range of health problems, including eating disorders. The pandemic has aggravated an already dire childhood hunger problem. If you’re able, consider contributing to a local canned food drive or making a monetary donation to an anti-hunger organization. You’ll help a struggling family and boost your mood in the process.

Winter holidays — focused on finding hope in the darkness — feel particularly meaningful in a year marked by uncertainty, fear, and loss. This festive season, make the foods you share a source of wholehearted celebration. By removing guilt and diet talk from our holiday feasts, we truly nourish our families with comfort, joy and love.

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