How to Survive a Holiday Meal

What We’re Afraid Of

It’s less than two weeks until Thanksgiving, and by now some of the more apprehensive low carbers among us and in full blown panic mode. “How will I make it through the holidays without cheating?” we wail. “How can I give up my mother’s famous stuffing, or her pumpkin pie, or her mashed potatoes? She’ll hate me! Oh, woe is me! I’m doomed!” And we pause to give ourselves time to gnash our teeth and rend our garments.

Or our lament mighty be this: “My family expects a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings! They simply won’t accept one without everything they’re used to having! They’ll hate me if I don’t serve it all! I can’t cope with this without cheating!” And we pause here to allow ourselves to sniffle tragically into our hankies and release a trembling sigh.

Whoa. Stop the tape. Let’s all take a deep breath and calm down.

First Of All, Get Real

We’re not talking about Armageddon here. We’re talking about one meal.

Granted, it’s a more complex meal both logistically and emotionally than most, but it is just one meal.

First of all, whether you are low carbing or not, holidays are always stressful. We as a society, have unrealistic expectations for holidays. We expect them to be nothing less than perfect. We should always have all the food prepared perfectly. The turkey should never be dry, the gravy should never be lumpy. The house should be immaculate. (This is primarily to fool visiting relatives into thinking that it looks this good all the time.) There shouldn’t be a single dust bunny in sight; there shouldn’t be a single grubby fingerprint on the door of the refrigerator. The candles should be lit and they shouldn’t drip onto the tablecloth, the silver should be shined and glowing softly, and the tablecloth should be ironed with nary a crease. Our friends and family should arrive in good cheer and should always, always get along beautifully with each other. Nobody should mention politics (especially this year!), religion, sex, or Aunt Ulma’s daughter’s seventh divorce. No one should drink too much, eat too much, or drop cranberry sauce on the new off-white carpeting in the dining room. No small child should quietly throw up into the punch bowl.

Get real. No holiday meal is going to go off without a hitch, Norman Rockwell not withstanding. Something is going to go wrong, someone is going to be in a bad mood (which has nothing to do with you whatsoever!) and Uncle Rudolph is going to loudly break wind in the middle of grace. It happens. Sail through it.

I’ve always thought that one of the reasons that Norman Rockwell’s holiday paintings are so idealistic is that he was probably never the one who had to prepare Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that he wasn’t the one who had to clean up afterwards either! Life isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting, no matter how much we would like it to be. It never has been, it isn’t now, and it never will be. Don’t expect it to be.

What does all this have to do with low carbing? Well, if we can relieve some of the pressure on ourselves by not striving to attain impossible perfection, our stress level will go way down. When our stress level is lower it’s easier to stay on our chosen low carb plan. When we don’t expect perfection of ourselves (or our families) in everything, it’s easier to achieve perfection in some other things.

Decisions, Decisions

There are a number of decisions to be made about low carbing, our weight loss/health goals, and how we are going to celebrate the holidays. They are best made before Thanksgiving or Christmas Days. Think about what you are going to do now while you still have some breathing room.

First of all, you need to decide if you are going to stay strictly on your chosen low carb plan for the holiday meal. Yes? No? Maybe? Yes and no are possible answers. Maybe is not. You need to seriously think about it now and make your decision.

Staying Totally On Plan

This is possible. I did it last year and didn’t shed a single tear. (I heaved a heartfelt sigh or two, but didn’t actually cry.) How? Well, Thanksgiving was easy. My mother-in-law doesn’t cook. I mean this quite literally. Nothing more complicated than heating water in the microwave for instant coffee or preparing a bowl of condensed soup is attempted in her kitchen. Gourmet cooking involves dumping a can of chicken and rice soup in with a can of tomato soup.

Thanksgiving dinner was and will be this year at a restaurant, and there’s nothing about a restaurant turkey dinner that tempts me. I had a salad, and extra vegetables in lieu of the potatoes and stuffing. I did miss the bread tremendously, so this year I will be taking my own homemade low carb muffins with me. (This is the reason God allowed mankind to invent oversized purses.) We traditionally have dessert back at the house, so I’m bringing up a low carb pumpkin pie and some real whipped cream. (I’ll have to whip it at home; God forbid cream gets whipped in her kitchen!)

Christmas was tougher, since we spent that day with my stepmother’s family and they’re all terrific cooks. But there were low carb appetizers available (deviled eggs and cocktail shrimp). The meat was by nature low carb, and there were several vegetable casseroles that fell in the low carb range. My assigned contribution was salad, and I brought a sugar free molded gazpacho salad (which was a big hit with everybody) and a low carb rendition of the family’s traditional frozen cranberry salad. (I didn’t tell anybody that I had altered the traditional recipe, and they didn’t notice – snarfed it right down without blinking an eye.) I also brought a sugar free dessert and let everyone know it was sugar free. I wasn’t the only one who chose to have it. Again, I missed the bread, though, so this year I will bring some for myself with enough to share.

“All well and good,” you say, “but what if I’m the one stuck with preparing the holiday meal and everyone expects the same traditional foods?” This is easy. Fix the traditional foods, and fix enough alternative low carbohydrate options to satisfy yourself. If mashed potatoes are what will tempt you, fix a small casserole of faux mashed potatoes (try the new Instant Mashers) ahead of time so that you can warm them up in the microwave just before the meal. Salads and vegetable dishes aren’t difficult to make low carb. Make some low carb muffins a couple of days ahead of time, and prepare a low carb dessert.

Going Off-Plan

You may make a conscious decision to go off-plan for the holiday meal. In my mind, deciding to indulge in your family’s traditional holiday foods for one meal is not cheating. It is going off-plan for that brief period of time. If you make the decision to do this, don’t feel guilty, but do prepare for the consequences. Go into it with open eyes.

You need to realize that going off-plan, even for one meal, may cause a bump in your weight. It very possibly will reintroduce cravings, and you will have to deal with them. It may even make you physically ill. This doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen to a significant number of low carbers.

Going off-plan is not an excuse to pig out. If you’re going to have some of the stuffing or mashed potatoes, have some. But don’t go back for seconds or thirds. Have a reasonable portion and them then leave them alone. The same is doubly true with the desserts. Have a piece of pumpkin pie. Don’t have an entire pie.

Remember, too, that when you are going off plan you don’t have to have something of everything. You can decide to have the mashed potatoes; it’s not required that you also have the stuffing, the sugar-laden Jell-O salad, or the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. Choose what you go off-plan with. Don’t graze.

It’s not the holiday meal, per say, that is people’s downfall, it’s the fact that because it reintroduces the cravings for carbs that it is the first step down the slippery slope for many. Do not under any circumstances extend the holiday meal into the day after the holiday – or even into that evening! If you decide to go off-plan for the holiday meal, do it – but then be done with it.

Do not under any circumstances bring home leftovers from a family holiday meal. If they are forced on you by well-meaning relatives, deposit them in the trash can on your way in from the car.

Your best bet to getting and staying back on track is to go back to induction at least until you’re back into ketosis, your weight is back down, and the cravings are gone. Don’t let your carb demon (and we all have one) gain the upper hand. Beat the little monster back into submission with copious amounts of meat, water, and low carbohydrate vegetables.

A Word To The Wise About Relatives

Holiday meals are not the time to invoke the name of Atkins (if that is the low carb plan you are following) unless you are absolutely certain that your family and friends will be supportive. No one else is going to explain or justify how or what they are eating; there’s no reason for you to. Just accept the compliments that come your way because of the weight you’ve already lost.

If relatives try to push food on you that you do not want to consume, you have several possible paths you can follow:

  1. You can put some on your plate and eat it. (Not advisable. It’s not a matter of the carbs, it’s a matter of your perception of yourself as weak.)
  2. You can put some on your plate and then not eat it. (Sit far enough away from the pushy relative so that they can’t see your plate.)
  3. You can stand your ground and say, “No, thank you” without any further explanation.
  4. You can stand your ground and say, “No, thank you” and explain why.

How you deal with it is up to you, and your decision may vary from person to person. But always remember that what you eat is your decision, not someone else’s.

The Choice Is Yours

In conclusion, let me remind you that you need to make a decision ahead of time about how you’re going to handle the holidays. What you decide to do is up to you. Make your decision rationally and with your eyes wide open to the potential consequences. Deal with the consequences with as much determination as you exhibited when you began low carbing, and you’ll be just fine.

And food isn’t everything. Have a joyous holiday season with your family and friends.

I always welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. You can contact me via email at [email protected].

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