Ten Tips for Managing Food during Special Occasions

It is hard for most of us to maintain healthy balance with food through the holidays, but parties and celebrations come up throughout the year.  Any social gathering can be a time of challenge and has the potential to end with regret over some level of over-indulgence.  Therefore, here are ten strategies to help you enjoy the food and good times, without going too far and feeling badly afterward.
1. Keep your focus on the experiences that will be treasured memories in the future, rather than on the food.  Enjoyable time spent with loved ones easily qualifies as "treasured memory" material, but food can't, because it's just food.  You won't be lying on your deathbed someday, fondly remembering the Thanksgiving turkey of 1998, the Christmas ham of 2006, or the cake at your 37th birthday party.  If you think back on anything about those times, it will be togetherness and fun with people you care about.  When you keep your primary attention on the people instead of the food, you'll create more of those special memories, as well as feeling less compelled about the food at the time.   A good strategy is to think of food as something that is simply present when you get together with your loved ones, rather than food being the reason to get together with them.  It also helps to purposely create some non-food activities to share (contact me if you need help with ideas).  
2. Put anything you wish to eat on a plate, no matter how minor the item may seem to be, such as a few munchies.  Granted, not everything you eat will require a plate, but use one anyway.  By doing so, you will force yourself to be more mindful of your choices, and will therefore be in more control.  If the food item is not worth the trouble of getting a plate, is it worth eating at all?

3. Use the smallest dishes available.  This will help you with portion control, for obvious reasons.  It will also help you psychologically, in two different ways.  First, research clearly shows that people consume more when a greater quantity is put in front of them; put another way, the more food you see, the more you will be triggered into eating excessively.  Therefore, a smaller quantity automatically means you will eat with more control.  The second psychological edge has to do with how we perceive the amount that we are eating.  Most of us are geared toward the units of food that we consume, rather than the raw quantity.  What this means, for example, is that on some level, the fact that you had a serving of dessert is more significant than how big the serving was.  When you use small dishes, you satisfy your desire to have "one" of something, while actually consuming a lower volume of food.  The use of small dishes may be the biggest freebie in food management that there is, so take full advantage of it. 
4. Take very small portions.  Most social events involve a wide variety of foods.  Research very consistently shows us three things about how we chooose food: First, the more we see, the more we eat.  Second, the more choices we have, the more we eat.  Third, we chronically underestimate how much we have consumed.  It is therefore necessary to try to undershoot so you have some chance of ending up having about the right amount of food.  This may mean literally having only a couple of bites of each of many choices -- it won't seem like much as you're eating, but you'll still be quite satisfactorily full when it's over.  If by some chance you actually manage to undereat and end up hungry, you can always go back for more (but always wait a few minutes to be sure, first).
5. Be assertive; maintain control of your portions.  If you are at an event where some food item has been pre-portioned, don't be shy about taking a smaller amount for yourself; the remainder that you leave behind will usually  be greatly appreciated by someone else who wants a smaller amount as well.  Never let anyone pressure you to eat more than you want, no matter how good-humored the approach may seem to be ("Aw, come on, live a little...").  This is more a call for conformity than an expression of interest in how much you are enjoying yourself.  You tend to hear such statements from others who would like you to match their behavior so they won't have to feel accountable about their own eating.    
6. Consider eating with your "other" hand, at least part of the time.  You'll probably find this somewhat annoying or awkward, but that isn't the main way it helps you with food management.  By using the hand you're not used to, you will be very aware of every move you make and therefore, every choice you make.  This will greatly reduce your mindless eating, so you'll be making more conscious choices and benefiting from more conscious enjoyment of your food. 

7. Focus on eating small bites slowly and with conscious appreciation.  This will benefit you in several ways.  First and foremost, you'll get much more enjoyment out of the food, because you're paying attention when you eat.  Your portions will last for longer periods of time, which means you'll get more enjoyment out of less food.  In order to eat more consciously, it is best to minimize your eating while involved in lively conversation, because any food ingested at such times is unnoticed, so you get all of the calories and hardly any of the fun.  What's the point of eating something if you don't even register the experience anyway?  
8. Socialize away from the food supply.  Perhaps you have noticed that the less physical distance between you and the food, the harder it is to make rational decisions about what to have and how much to eat.  You may not know that this is due in part to the fact that the sights and smells of especially tempting food activate parts of your brain that set off a craving to eat (which is frequently mistaken for actual hunger).  You greatly increase your ability to maintain control if you keep as much distance as possible between yourself and the food.  Your best bet is to make your decisions about what to have from another room.  Then go to the food table, get what you decided on, and promptly leave the table.

9. Drink water through at least part of the event.  This will keep your hands and your mouth busy, as well as helping you to pace your consumption of food through the event.  Water is your secret weapon when you want to have a bit of some especially tempting food, but are worried about your ability to maintain control once you have a taste of it.  Once you've had a portion of that food that you feel completely good about, immediately have a couple hearty swallows of water; better yet, swish it around in your mouth a bit before swallowing.  What this will accomplish for you is to flush away the triggering taste of the food that remains in your mouth after you've swallowed the last bite.  With the triggering taste gone, the urge to keep eating will decrease dramatically, and may even disappear altogether.  This is another strategy, like using small plates, which is deceptively simple, yet quite powerful.
10. Be careful if you drink alcohol.  There's the obvious issue of empty calories, but perhaps more importantly, your ability to choose food wisely will be reduced if you are at all impaired by alcohol.  The 200-300 calories in an alcoholic drink itself will pale in comparison to the many hundreds/thousands of extra food calories you consume if you get a bit buzzed and lose your concern about managing food well.
These ten strategies are certainly not all there is to know about dealing with food during special occasions, but they should give you a running start.  Using strategies such as these will position you to enjoy yourself to the absolute fullest -- this means getting the most out of the good times when they happen, and having no regrets the next day.  Good luck!
Copyright © 2007, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.
Related articles:

Are You a Compulsive Eater?  Test Yourself and See...

Basic Strategies for Managing the Urge to Eat

Fat: Important New Findings

Loving Each Other to Death with Food

Managing Holiday Food 

Raising Kids to be Emotionally Balanced with Food 
Risk Management: The Overlooked Key to Finding Peace with Food

Why You Love Exercise, but Don't Know It 

Your Weight May Not be the Problem 


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