As we head into the holiday season and a number of families center their celebrations around the table (and the feast on top of it), things can get pretty complicated.
Food is personal, after all. The ways we fuel and nourish our bodies, the emotional attachment we have to traditions, the scourge of diet culture — they cut to a lot of who we are and how we feel about ourselves at any given time. Pair that with the frustrations we might feel about our families and their seemingly bottomless (and not infrequently food shame-y) opinions, among all the other pressures of the season, and it becomes even more fraught.
SheKnows spoke with Donna Fish, L.C.S.W.-R., a faculty member of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy’s Center for Study of Anorexia and Bulimia’s Post Graduate Training Program and author of “Take the Fight Out of Food,” about how to approach these food-centric holidays in ways that respect your own needs and boundaries and those of the people you love.
First Off: Bring Positive Attitudes & Confidence to the Table
“Food is probably one of the most personal and emotional issues for all people. It is powerful. It can serve to bond us, represent us, become a cauldron for all emotional wrangling! Between ourselves and others of course,” Fish says. “So I always ask people this question: ‘What are you bringing to the table when you serve/sit down with/eat with others?’ We bring the actual food itself, but we also bring our own personal attitudes, beliefs, and strong convictions about food and many other issues.”
Those issues, according to Fish, include the dreaded food busy-bodies that you’re likely to find at any holiday table. It’s why your aunt is quick to tell you about XYZ diet she loved (bringing on a host of generational body issues), why your cousin scoffs at your decision to go vegan or your grandma has a running commentary about what you did or didn’t put on your plate. “I always try to help people separate out [those issues] from food itself and to respect the fact that eating is such a personal and inherent right for each of us to think/feel through on our own,” Fish says. “Every body is different and no one way of eating is best for everyone. That is a personal process and important to respect everyone’s way. “
The confidence you bring — from listening to your body and being sure that you are allowed to feel however you want about your food choices — will do wonders for dealing with any criticism, comments or plate-policing from (mostly) well-meaning family members or people with their own food hang-ups.
“If you aren’t confident about what is working for you, it will be difficult to manage any critical or judgmental statements about your food,” she adds. “Reinforcing that this way of eating, or these choices, are helping you to feel well, is the most important thing…No one has to believe/think/behave in the same way about food! There is no right and wrong or ‘should’s’ here.”
Added bonus, it sets a great example for your kids and younger relatives: “Let kids and everyone eat how it works for them and have a balanced attitude toward food. I always say that ‘No foods are Bad,’ they just do different things for your body,” Fish says. “We need to help kids stay connected to their bodies and to make choices about food based on common sense and their own bodies and what works well. That helps them to maintain or develop a healthy relationship with food.”
Mind Your Business & Expect the Same from Others
Let’s say this is the year you found the diet/nutritional plan/approach to food that works for you — you fell in love with your plant-based, paleo or keto lifestyle, you finally ditched gluten after a few talks with your doctor or maybe you decided that you were tired of the restrictive and messy parts of diet culture that made you have a negative relationship to food or your body. Regardless, if you found something that works for you (or decided some things definitely don’t!), it’s important to know that you are not being difficult by listening to your body and doing what is right for you.
“Stay connected to what you know works for you,” Fish says. “Try to avoid getting sucked into others trying to comment, judge or critique what is working for you right now. No need to justify, apologize or over-explain it. Have a matter-of-fact and lighthearted manner and you can joke about it too! No one probably cares all that much anyway — and if they do, that’s their thing.”
Likewise, you can make sure you bring that same energy and understanding to your loved ones and their bodies and needs. If you have a more specific list of things you’re eating or abstaining from, for whatever reason, do what you can to make sure that you’re handling your own needs without making your food and nutrition choices (or hangups) other people’s problem.
“It’s best to make sure that we know our opinions don’t necessarily work for others and that we have the right to eat in a way that works for us — and that One Size or Diet, Doesn’t Fit All,” Fish says. “Try not to inflict your food choices and decisions onto others. And ask for what you need or bring what you need! Focus on connecting, and not worrying what you or anyone else does or doesn’t eat.“
And, if you’re hosting and have boundaries about what you’re willing to prepare for some reason, you can always communicate with your guests (kindly) to make sure that everyone can be satisfied and made comfortable. And, if you’re heading over to someone else’s house, don’t hesitate bring along the food you need with minimal fuss or discussion. Just do you, and let everyone else do them!
Take the Pressure Off the Food (& Yourself)
If there’s generational and cultural differences at play, it might make it more difficult to just speak plainly about your needs and you may have a hard time turning down a dish that you know a loved one made with care.
Fish says, however, that there’s a real benefit to taking the pressure off the food — and the various other concepts and baggage we prescribe to it — and instead remember that the quality time connecting with your loved ones is the real holiday magic.
“It is so true for some families, food is love — meaning eating what someone cooks for them is an expression of love and family love. That is tough if you’re restricting certain foods,” Fish says. “That being said, love is love, and mostly, families just want their loved ones to be okay. So the more you reinforce that this is what helps you feel well …and reinforce positive connections and warmth in other ways, it takes the pressure off of the food itself. Use the dinner and family dinner time as a way to connect and laugh and feel the warmth and joy of the connection, and take the focus off of the food.”
And, when in doubt, be kind to yourself and make sure to enjoy what your body wants without getting hung up: “Good habits are not at all 100 percent of the time. We have to build in 20 percent relapse time to maintain good habits (Roughly!),” Fish says. “Perfect is the enemy of the good. So relax! It’s beautiful to indulge however you like — or if you prefer not to that’s wonderful too!”
A version of this story was published December 2019.