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Enjoying The Holidays Guilt Free

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I’ve seen a lot of posts lately about how to maintain your healthy eating goals during the holidays, and it got me thinking about my personal strategy.

The simple answer is, I don’t have one.
In the past few years my ultimate goal has been to work towards a healthy balanced lifestyle that allows me to NOT have to think when I eat. 
Meaning that I don’t mentally count the calories I’m putting in my mouth. I don’t visually check my plate to make sure I have X amount of vegetables, X amount of starches, X amount of protein. I don’t bargain over whether I want a dessert now or later, or at all. I didn’t deny myself a slice (or two) of pie, or a scoop (or 3) of macaroni and cheese on Thanksgiving. And I certainly don’t believe in micromanaging my food over the holidays, or skipping some of my favorite indulgences, in order to prevent gaining a few pounds.
I just eat.
It’s a great freedom to enjoy, but I realize that it takes a little structure at first, and definitely a little a lot practice. Over time you have to retrain your brain, and your taste buds, so that you are no longer thinking of foods as “good” or “bad,” and so you are actually drawn (and even crave) the foods that will not only taste good, but will also make you feel good. And by feel good I mean physically (giving you great fuel for your body), but also mentally and emotionally. I think there are few people in the world that don’t have some sort of emotional attachment to food. In my opinion, denying yourself, especially of holiday specialties that most likely carry a slew of memories with them, not only reinforces an attitude of distrust in yourself, but it also affects the pleasure you feel during what is supposed to be the happiest times of the year.
But if you are looking for a healthy strategy for the holidays, these are my general rules of thumb. Or guidelines if you shall. 
If you are the cook: There is no easier way to set yourself up for success, than having the control over what is being served. Whether I am hosting the whole meal, or just bringing a dish, I always try to find recipes or create dishes that are both tasty, but also provide a healthful option for me and the hubs. Since we don’t eat a lot of meat I try to bring dishes that offer a combination of good protein as well as plenty of vegetables, with the idea that if it was all I ate I would be satisfied. It’s also easy to find some great substitutions and lightened up versions of traditionally fat and calorie laden dishes. I tend to look to my favorite healthy living blogs, and magazine sites such as Whole Living, Clean Eating, Vegetarian Times, and Cooking Light for fresh, and healthier takes my favorite dishes.  I also want to add in here, as with our Thanksgiving meal, striving to include healthy dishes doesn’t mean that I don’t include some richer ones as well. For Thanksgiving we had a great balance. Our brussels sprouts were pretty light, flavored mostly by the browning from roasting and the tartness of apple cider vinegar. The stuffing was made using a hearty whole grain loaf, fresh vegetables, and low sodium vegetable stock. And our chicken was an all natural, roasted, lean protein. All three would have been perfectly fine on our plates any day, holiday or not. We balanced these with two sides that we don’t normally fix, which were mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. 
 On your plate: I generally like to try a little of everything, with an extra spoonful or two of my favorites. Most health-minded people will tell you to aim for half a plate of veggies, a quarter of starches and a quarter of protein. If your family is like mine though, by the time you load up your plate there are like 20 mini sections of food, including lots of casseroles, and who the heck knows how to categorize those right? I say, don’t worry about creating a perfect pie chart on your plate. Just eat. One meal, and even three days of heavy meals, won’t bust your diet permanently. Yes you might gain a few pounds, most of it will probably be water weight from the influx of sodium, but once you get back to your normal eating and exercise routine, it will most likely even back out in a week’s time. The most important key here is to listen to your body. It’s one thing to just enjoy some special treats, and another to eat to the point you just feel sick. I’ve done this more than once, and at that point, you aren’t enjoying anything, because the thought of food makes you want to upchuck. It can be a difficult balance to find, but I generally try to get some veggies on my plate, definitely partake in my favorite dishes, and then if I still want more after, I go back for seconds, but I try not to over stuff myself as much as possible.
Regarding exercise: It’s not always realistic to keep up any version of a workout routine over the holidays. If you aren’t a morning workout person, by the time the day sets in motion you are often hard pressed to even find twenty minutes of free time. If I’m feeling extra spry I will try to get a short run in first thing, but in general I put exercise on hold for a few days. I may try to go for a walk or something after a meal to help digest a little, but I think that’s the biggest workout I can recall having done on any holiday in the past few years. Instead I try to make sure to get my workouts in leading up to the holidays, and start back full force afterwards. This Christmas I have already contacted a crossfit gym back in NC and plan to attend classes there at least three times a week while I’m home, factoring in the 22nd through the 25th as off days.
Getting back into routine: I think for most this is the biggest challenge. It’s so hard to allow yourself a few off days and not fall back into skipping workouts for just one more day, or scooping up another cookie because they have to be eaten. I think I can speak for both Husband and myself that we sort of mentally segregate our mentality around food and exercise when it comes to holidays versus the everyday. We generally take home a few leftovers (like a meal and a half’s worth), but for us, once the holidays are over, the indulging is over as well. I try to get rid of the heavy food and desserts as soon as possible. Whether that involves politely refusing to take leftovers, taking those tempting cookies to the office so they are out of the house, or actually just throwing it away, my theory is I can’t eat it if it isn’t there. More often than not, before our vacation time is even over we start discussing our plans for a good detox week of healthy foods when we get back (lots of fresh vegetables, and light meals to help our stomachs shrink back to normal). Since we usually get back on a Sunday, Sunday night is often a good soup that is still hearty and filling, but light, and helps up to wake up on Monday not feeling so weighed down. And Monday we are back in the gym. It usually only takes getting there the first day to get you back on track. I’m a big fan of starting back immediately. The longer you postpone it, the harder it is to get back to it.
Most importantly: Just enjoy the holidays. Give yourself a break. Give yourself a chance to prove that you are trustworthy enough to enjoy a few days without guilt or stress, and then get back to it! Life, and especially healthy living, is all about balance. And sometimes a cookie is good for you, even if it is just healthy for your mentality 🙂

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