Food, holiday, nutrition, healthy eatingTrue confession: I once ruined my family’s Christmas. I’m sure you are wondering what terrible act I could have committed to ruin the holiday; go full-on Grinch-mode and steal everyone’s presents, knock back too much eggnog and pass out under the tree, or reveal to my four-year-old nephew who his gifts were really from? No, my indiscretion in my family’s eyes was far worse: I attempted to make the holiday…healthy. I know it doesn’t sound that horrific, but I promise you that if you ever make this mistake (which I wholeheartedly hope you don’t) then you will understand.

It started innocently enough. Our family gatherings for the holidays have always included typical fare like roast beef, mashed potatoes, every kind of creamed dish that you can imagine and, of course, tins of cookies coated in green and red sprinkles. This standard, albeit indulgent, meal had served our family just fine for the first 20 or so years of my life until one year I got the bright idea to do a healthy holiday “makeover.” I was so excited to wow my family with how I could redo all of their high-calorie and high-fat favorites so I compiled recipe after recipe to sub in for the big day. Admittedly this is probably a sad commentary on my life that I could get that excited over healthy eating, but hey I’m a dietitian so you can’t really judge me for that one.

When the big day came, I was able to oust my grandmother and mother from the kitchen so I could take on the starring role of head chef without prying eyes. With my new recipes, I prepped a low-fat, low-sugar and low-calorie spread that would put Martha Stewart to shame. I was careful not to divulge the sneaky swaps to my family as I wanted to revel in their astonishment at how I was able to concoct such a delicious yet healthy feast. I smugly watched as the first bites were taken, anticipating the inevitable “oohs” and “aahs” of delight.

Suffice it to say that the anticipated reaction was not exactly positive. You would have thought I forced them to eat fruitcake (seriously does anyone really like fruitcake?).  I may be slightly biased, but I thoroughly enjoyed the healthy swaps. Sure, they ended up quite different from their “originals,” but what this truly came down to was not how “good” or “bad” the dishes were. It was simply that I had taken a long-held family tradition and messed with it without any warning or input on whether this would be acceptable to my loved ones. I had thought of everything when it came to ingredients, but forgot that food goes way beyond just calories, vitamins, minerals, fiber or even taste: it’s emotional. As much as we would like to think of food as just sustenance, we often have strong psychological and emotional ties to foods, especially those rooted in family tradition.

That is why, as much as it might strike you as odd coming from a dietitian, I encourage you to enjoy this holiday for everything it’s worth, including the food. One day of deprivation will no more help you lose weight or achieve optimal health than one day of indulgence will cause your weight to skyrocket. However, keep in mind that a holiday is a holi-DAY, not a week, not a month, but just one day. Enjoy your friends, family and traditions this holiday guilt-free, and if you are looking to fill another seat at your table, I will gladly accept an invite…my family still hasn’t invited me back.