How to Celebrate Healthy and Happy Holidays in a Pandemic

Preparing and sharing a family holiday feast provides comfort and meaning across so many cultures. This year, getting together feels more important — and more difficult — than ever as we keep all gatherings small. In addition, financial pressures and personal demands may be added sources of stress, anxiety, sadness and loneliness this year.

Remember, your feelings are normal and natural. You’re not alone this year, and there are successful strategies that can help you and your family find peace and even joy during the holiday season.

[READ: Celebrating Holidays on a Smaller Scale.]

Finding Joy in the Holidays

The most important thing to remember and practice this holiday season: how you celebrate is your decision. This year, choose traditions or create new ones that serve yourself and your family. You do not need to satisfy anyone else’s idea of a “perfect” holiday gathering or meal. Do the activities you love as a group, like a walk or hike, then come back to virtually share photos and stories over a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

Try these tips to keep your traditions festive, safe while making sure you’re taking care of your mental health too.

— Practice self-care.

— Start or maintain food traditions.

— Un-invite your inner critic.

— Healthy choices.

— Don’t worry about weight gain.

— Exercise for physical and mental health.

— Express gratitude.

Self-Care

A powerful place to start is by making a plan that includes consistent time devoted to self-care. This could be a solo, daily hike in the woods or space to draw, journal, color or otherwise create. Self-care includes dedicated family time to play games that you love, listening to music, daily yoga, meditation practice or a walk with the dog.

Food

Food has always played a central role in connecting us to our family, culture and community. For many, food expresses love, and serving food to others expresses caring. Most people look forward to the time-honored tradition of sitting down with an expanded circle of family and friends, sharing favorite dishes and eating together. Despite the need for social distancing, you can still trade recipes and share plans for shopping, cooking and baking with family and friends by phone or online. You can exchange or deliver food while wearing a mask and mindfully maintaining six feet of space from each other.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s no evidence that COVID-19 is spread by handling or eating food.

Even in these times of social distancing and limited gatherings, food can continue to be a great source of joy and connection — with a smaller roast and one pie instead of many. Virtual meals are a great way to show off cooking triumphs, continuing with beloved menus in various locations.

Another great way to connect to family around food is starting (or continuing) a tradition of donating to your local food pantry. For some, you might even be able to volunteer at the pantry or soup kitchen, donating food and time to others. 2020 might be the year to enhance your tradition of giving to others.

For something extra special, you could do a family scavenger hunt that includes the best gift you ever got, something (or someone) you love, something delicious, something spicy. Or you can stream a favorite movie or show and eat popcorn. Activities help people come together and naturally start conversation, keeping your virtual get-together going before (or after) sitting down to separate meals.

[READ: Finding Silver Linings When Things Look Bleak.]

Cross Your Inner Critic off the Guest List

The current wave of COVID-19 appropriately triggers health concerns, impacting the number of people who can safely gather together, especially indoors. As you are reviewing your holiday list consider un-inviting the worst guest at any event: your own inner critic.

That’s the voice that harshly judges, telling you what you ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do. Your inner critic says that you shouldn’t eat ice-cream with your pie. That voice can send you into a downward spiral of negative self-talk, when all you did was try to enjoy desert.

Sometimes a family member or friend might initiate the guilt-driven ‘should’ barrage: “Weren’t you trying to lose weight? Should you be eating that?” or, alternatively, “You should try Aunt Carol’s pecan pie. She will be so disappointed if you don’t.”

Focus and really decide for yourself what you want — and then revel in the decision. Whatever you choose, embrace it. Similarly, if you want to eat a lean meal, something you always do, don’t listen to the voice saying you shouldn’t because it’s the holidays.

Anything you do, enjoy it, as it’s your choice.

[READ: Air Fryer Recipes for the Holidays.]

Healthy Choices?

Good health involves cultivating connections between mind and body. The food on our plates, how we eat it and who is around the table all impact this connection.

Some food nurtures the body and some food nurtures the soul. Some meals do an excellent job of feeding mind, body, heart and soul. No food is in itself “bad.” So, unwrap the chocolate truffle without remorse and savor the moment.

Don’t Worry About Weight Gain

Research shows that actual weight gain during the holiday season is minimal and usually is limited to 1 to 2 pounds. You can’t gain that much weight from a single, indulgent meal (or even two or three).

What should you keep in mind? Feelings of shame about what you eat can have a profoundly negative impact on mental health. When we punish ourselves, restrict and then binge — the excessive emotional eating can lead to weight gain.

Exercise for Physical and Mental Health

Exercise stimulates the production of neurotransmitters called endorphins. This lowers your overall level of tension, elevating and stabilizing mood, improves sleep, reduces stress and improves self-esteem. Since even five minutes of aerobic exercise can produce anti-anxiety effects, why not plan that into every day.

Meditation and even deep breathing can also stimulate the body to produce endorphins, so think about ways to take that five-minute break, to breathe, exercise or meditate. Your stress level will decrease, and your body and mind will thank you.

Exercise also produces a hormone called irisin that travels through the body in the blood and changes fat storing cells (white fat cells) to fat burning cells (brown fat cells). A workout of low to moderate intensity can help you lose weight and leave you feeling energized.

Getting fresh air and exercise is more difficult in the winter. Colder shorter days with less light means less of the mood boosting effects of sunshine. Yet studies show that exercising in cold weather can increase the transformation of white fat, specifically belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning brown fat. So, eat. Then go for a nice, brisk walk outside.

If outdoors is impossible, find a favorite workout to include in the holiday festivities before you dine to give you a boost of energy. This strategy tends to give you a healthy appetite, improves your mood and lowers the likelihood of overeating. Better yet, ask family to join you.

Express Gratitude

Finally, research shows that expressing gratitude makes us feel happy. Find what you are grateful for now — in this moment — instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Start by thanking yourself. Next, thank others. Share the great feelings of thanks; it’s a natural mood enhancer.

Thank you, readers. Wishing you a happy, healthy holiday season!

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How to Celebrate Healthy and Happy Holidays in a Pandemic originally appeared on usnews.com

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