A decade and a half ago, my grandmother-in-law hosted a gathering of extended family. Throughout dinner, she kept pushing seconds, thirds. If you said “no, thank you,” she pushed harder and repeatedly, until you said firmly, “NO. Thank you.” After dinner, your desire for dessert was assumed and one showed up in front of you. If that weren’t enough, she kept cutting and plating pieces, which I thought she was going to put in the refrigerator to save. But no, if you finished your dessert (my mistake), another showed up in front of you. At the time, I was dumbfounded, miserably full, and had a graceless reaction to this tradition. She has passed away now, and I regret that scene. She was from a different culture and time, in which food scarcity had made asking for seconds cultural taboo, so pushing them (and thirds and fourths) without an invitation was considered an act of caring and generosity. Moreover, that was before my weight loss, so her act of “fat blindness,” treating me just like the others, may have been kindness that I didn’t recognize at the time.
As Depression era people pass on, these situations become less common. I later learned from other family members that they just counted on feeling miserable after these meals and left it at that. I just couldn’t, and even now I wouldn’t. But now I hope I’d be more graceful. “No more, please. I’m done, thank you,” may have gone a long way. Especially if I’d just excused myself to the living room and left my dessert untouched. In any food exchange, lengthy explanations are unnecessary (and I have repeatedly tested this notion to my own dismay).
Our holiday challenges with food today are different than even fifteen years ago, yet they merit just as much forethought. Rich holiday food juxtaposed against a culture obsessed by obesity and fat hatred: is there anything more fraught with emotional baggage? We eat because it is customary and communal, but somewhere in the excess, the experience gets tarnished. We eat because sugar is compelling, some say addictive, then we feel overfull. We eat too much to feel comfortable in our own skins, even though we know that on January 2nd, we’ll feel even worse: logy, puffy and filled with a post-holiday malaise. So what to do?
I offer the following thoughts knowing that we all have complex and nuanced relationships with food. I have a control over sugars that many people lack; the mere sight of them doesn’t seem to trigger me to eat (or restrict) to the degree that other people must experience. This is one area where I think I am particularly fortunate. You may not be so fortunate. Nevertheless, here goes:
From Halloween through New Year’s Day, I eat mostly as I normally do, but I deal with treats guided by the idea that the purpose of special holiday foods is to better connect us to one another. When I eat them to serve that purpose, they taste better in my mouth and leave no guilt aftertaste. Most people who bake wish to please, delight and connect with others. And I want to affirm that, but I don’t need to destroy my sense of well being in the process.
During the holidays (actually, all the time), I feel no obligation to eat anything baked by someone whose last name is “Incorporated.” The Keebler elves have thick skins, and the cooks in my local grocery store’s bakery are none the wiser when I bypass their wares. Moreover, their recipes likely include additive obesogens that I just don’t want to test in my body. If someone brings purchased goods to an event, they’re letting me off the hook, and I appreciate it. Those treats are for someone who can process that kind of poison well, and wants to, not me. And no one is offended by this unspoken reality.
Now, homemade goods are a different story. If the baker is not present, the baked goods have been left in a break room, for example, I pass them by. If someone, in person, offers them, however, and they are big beauties, way over the calories I’d want to consume, my favorite phrase, and it gets me through 90% of all holiday “treat situations” is:
“Those look wonderful! Who will split one with me?” In this way, I extend the connection to yet another person – the baker, the splitter and me. I find many willing splitters. If the baker tries to push: “Oh, have a whole one. . . ,” I stop her quickly, “Ah, the first bite and the last bite will taste identical. How I’m going to feel later depends on how many bites I take in between.” This usually diffuses the situation and no feelings get hurt. If her platter features a variety of treats, I ask her to point out her favorite, then I choose that one to do my split. If she won’t commit, I still choose just one.
In another five percent of one-on-one treat situations, when I have eaten as many treats I care to, and there stands another lovely baker with her wares. Here’s the phrase that pays: “Those look delicious! I’ve already eaten too much to be comfortable, however. May I take one of those for later?” Then I take it home and split it with my spouse or child. If I don’t get to it before it goes stale, I throw it away quietly at home, and nobody’s the wiser, no feelings get hurt.
The other five percent of treats are offered at events, such as potlucks, where I know the bakers and their offerings. There I like to enlist the help of a young friend (the younger the better). “I think I would like three small treats. And I like the kind that are home baked – not from a store package. Will you help me pick them out?” That’s right, I blame a kid for my choices. And I have fun and connect with the child. “Oooh, that one’s awfully big. If I take half, would you like the other?” Then I cut myself a “small” half, and either share with the child or leave the other half behind if the child is not interested.
Now, as I finish this post, I can’t help but see how much, despite my disclaimer in paragraph four, it looks like a “tips and tricks” list from some women’s magazine. I apologize for that. I hate those. Take my thoughts or leave them. They aren’t one size fits all. On the other hand, they make it possible for me to arrive on January 2nd feeling alert and light-hearted. Hope they may for you too, or I’d love to hear your ideas. What gets you through the holidays in a decent mood? (And I will get to that post on endocrine science soon!)