Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new Food Freedom habits, and figuring out how to make a healthy, sustainable lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m walking you through a holiday party strategy designed to keep you healthy and keep your host or hostess happy.
We’re coming up on end-of-year party season, and I’m going to use the holiday tips in Food Freedom Forever to help me navigate the treats, sweets, and festive drinks during Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know you talk about making sure these foods are “worth it” and applying the “One Bite Rule,” but this can be hard when the hostess is offering you something, standing right there waiting for you to eat it! Help me stay healthy and in-control in a way that doesn’t hurt my host’s feelings. -inspired by Brenda H.’s Facebook question
These situations aren’t always easy, but thinking about them ahead of time and creating a plan of action will help you feel far more relaxed at these events, and ensure you strike the perfect balance of sticking to your healthy eating plan while being a gracious party guest.
The Spotlight ISN’T on You.
The first thing I want to remind you is that no one actually cares what you are eating. You are at a holiday party. People are mingling, talking, enjoying themselves. No one is paying a lick of attention to what is (or isn’t) on your plate, I promise you. It may feel like the spotlight is on you, but how realistic is that?
After you’ve been at the party for a few minutes, ask yourself, “Did I notice which foods my boss/friend/Aunt Sara declined to eat?” Spoiler: you didn’t, and nobody else will either. Doesn’t that feel like a little less pressure?
Now, let’s talk about if someone (like the host) does approach you with a party treat and will notice whether you accept or refuse. Based on my Food Freedom holiday plan, here’s how I’d handle this one:
Know Your Off-Limits List
Before you even arrive at the party, remind yourself of your off-limits list; the foods or drinks you KNOW are never worth it, or definitely won’t be worth it, given the upcoming holiday festivities.
For me, that’s any form of dairy; it’s so disruptive to my digestion that any food with dairy in it would ruin the rest of the night. Maybe yours is red wine (the headache tomorrow morning during your work day—not worth it); gluten (the skin breakouts for your party this weekend—not worth it); or too much sugar (the fire-breathing Sugar Dragon that will awaken—not worth it).
If you don’t have any strictly off-limits (or off-limits given the context) foods and beverages, just move onto the next step.
Make Sure You Know What You’re Eating
When offered a food or drink, if it’s not totally evident, make sure you know what’s in it so you can accurately evaluate. You can do so politely with questions like “That looks great, what is it?” or “What kind of filling is in this?” It’s better to ask than take a bite of a bacon-wrapped-something, not knowing if it’s stuffed with goat cheese.
If It’s On Your “No” List
Politely say “Oh, no thank you.” If you feel the need to follow up, just say, “I can’t do dairy, sadly.” Literally, that’s all you have to say, but feel free to change the subject to something pleasant. “No thanks, I discovered gluten isn’t my friend. But that Ranch dip was amazing—did you make that?”
Otherwise, Is It Worth It?
Gluten isn’t a big deal for me; I know the effects of reasonable amounts are pretty negligible. Still, I don’t like pie or brownies that much, so if offered, I’ll pass. If it’s not worth it or you don’t want it, JUST SAY “NO, THANK YOU.” It really can be that easy. If you feel the need to follow up with an explanation, you can always say, “I’ve been munching all night,” or “I’m saving dessert for later.”
If it does seem worth it (CUPCAKE), I’ll evaluate on the spot whether I really want it, and whether I’m willing to accept the consequences. If I need to buy myself some space and time here, I’ll say to the host, “Not right now, I just finished (fill in other food), but those look delicious. I’ll come back around in a few.” (Refer to In the Moment Success Strategies on page 87 in Food Freedom Forever for more techniques.)
FYI, What I’m NOT going to do is get all flustered and accept something without even stopping to consider whether it’s worth it or I want it. I have a Food Freedom holiday plan. I’m going to follow it. The end.
When You Eat
If it’s worth it, I’ll accept a small portion or piece. (This is the beauty of most parties—it’s usually small appetizer-sized portions or shareable bites.) If it seems like the host is waiting to see what I think, I’ll take a bite and compliment him or her. Yes, even if I don’t absolutely love it. It’s about their effort and intention, not the food itself, and you can still do this honestly by saying, “You’re such a great cook,” or “The crust is so light and flaky.”
If I really don’t want to eat any more, I’ll try not to without being rude. I’ll engage her in conversation while holding onto my food or excuse myself to mingle with other guests, and then I’ll see if someone else wants to finish what I have.
If that’s not possible for whatever reason, I’m going to finish what I took. I’ve already decided that I’m willing to accept the consequences of this particular food or drink, and I’m not going to hurt my host’s feelings. No, it’s not actually worth it, but that’s not as important here as showing some grace.
This is NOT license to say, “What the hell, I’ve already messed up, let’s dive-bomb the entire dessert table.” Finish what you’ve eaten, choose your next food or beverage just as carefully and deliberately, and continue working your Food Freedom plan throughout the rest of the event.
If This Seems Like Overkill
Finally, I recognize that many of you will read this and think, OMG Whole30 lady, this is INTENSE. It’s just a piece of baklava. Lighten up.
Agreed, you guys. This is a whole lot of plan for what might amount to a one-hour holiday party. It might sound exhausting. It might sound extreme. And if you don’t need this kind of robust step-by-step to stay in control, happy, and healthy during the holidays, SWEET.
But for my Whole30’ers who really DO need a detailed road map for social situations, this is going to be really helpful. One person’s information overload is another’s reassuring playbook, so don’t judge if your friend writes this holiday checklist on her hand before your office party. We’re all trying to find our own version of food freedom, and for the right person, this plan will help you find small victories throughout the season, bringing you more self-confidence and even happier holidays.
Best in holiday health,
Got a question for Melissa? Submit them here.
Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.
Melissa Hartwig is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom; Food Freedom Forever; and The Whole30 Cookbook (coming December 6, 2016). She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT.
Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography