Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sticking with Dietary Restrictions over the Holidays

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a blog of mine active from 2013-14.

Firstly, happy holidays!

Secondly, this week I wanted to share the difficulties I've found in keeping to dietary restrictions around the holiday seasons, plus some tips that have worked for me to make it easier. So which dietary restrictions am I talking about here?

My Current Dietary Restrictions

I feel like it almost goes without saying that processed/fast foods are off limits; they're hardly even a legitimate option in my mind of something to eat, which is huge progress from where I was at several years ago.

So my main answer to that question right now is that I avoid dairy. I simply can't digest the stuff, but surprisingly I don't miss it (still battling with chocolate, though). I've also been learning that dairy perhaps isn't as good or necessary for us as our country's food pyramid makes it out to be, which makes it that much easier to stay away from.

And one final restriction to add: Lately, especially since reading The Omnivore's Dilemma though, my diet is getting closer and closer to a meatless one. I haven't yet sat down and strictly decided to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, but I don't want to eat meat from industrial farms. So I haven't been buying meat from the grocery store, and I look for vegetarian options when out at restaurants, though occasionally I'll eat a bit of meat if one of my parents makes something and I'm so inclined to indulge.

Difficulties of Dietary Restrictions During the Holidays

The biggest difficulty for me has been the surplus of food at my house. We were six for just one night, and the numbers varied as my siblings came and went, so my parents cooked lots of full meals (which we honestly don't normally do), plus we hosted one of our family Christmases on Sunday.

On top of all the food, my mom made a batch of sugar cookies a few days before Christmas, my aunt brought a big tupperware of cookies, the neighbors brought over cookies, my sister and mom's elementary students gave them cookies and sweets... so basically I've been surrounded by Christmas cookies and chocolate.

I was actually surprised by how little I was tempted by lots of these sweets I would have devoured even a year ago. The Hershey's kisses don't even tempt me. Yay for progress! But I really don't like to waste food, and with so much coming in, I often thought that I had to do my part in not wasting said food.

So how did all of this come into play over the holidays? I'll fill you in on some happenings that went down while sharing tips for sticking with dietary restrictions during this time of year. And yes, I realize it would have been loads more useful to put this list together before the holidays, but you live and learn.

Tips to Sticking with Dietary Restrictions over the Holidays

Prepare healthy alternatives for yourself

If you know you're going to be surrounded by lots of things you can't eat, plan ahead and surround yourself with things you can eat. Even go ahead and spoil yourself with a healthy treat, which for me would be a Naked or something.

I had (and still have) dried mangos on hand, which have been my latest treat when I'm itching for something sweet, plus other fruits, hummus, and various good snacks.

Purchase substitute ingredients

If people around you are going to bake some traditional holiday recipes, they could easily substitute ingredients if you have them. So this is another one where it's easier if you plan ahead. Family members are much more likely to substitute an ingredient for you if you have the alternative right there in the kitchen, versus needing to run out to the store after someone's already begun cooking. 

This holiday season, my two biggest substitute ingredients I always had in the fridge were Earth Balance (butter substitute) and rice/almond milk.

Notify hosts ahead of time and make it easy for them

If you're going somewhere for a Christmas meal, talk with your hosts a few weeks ahead of time to find out what they'll be serving, and discuss your dietary restrictions. If you feel comfortable asking, see if the host is willing to use any of your substitutes when making any of the dishes, if you provide them, of course.

If the menu is not yet decided, you could recommend dishes that are safe for you to eat, and delicious for everyone else. A specific recipe would make it so much easier for the host.

Host your gathering or offer to bring dishes

You can go a step further, and offer to bring dishes to the gathering, as I did with one of our Christmases. My grandma was really concerned about there being things I could eat, so at first I mentioned two new recipes I'd copied from this vegan cookbook I had checked out from the library. As the event got closer, I decided to make the two sides at home on my own, and just bring them to our family gathering. This way, I knew there would at least be two safe dishes, and I saved my grandma the headaches of having to figure out what she could/couldn't make.

Bringing a dish or two is probably the preferred option when going to someone else's house, though I suppose each host has his/her preferences. If possible, you could also offer to host the meal/event yourself, which would put all food preparation under your control.

Bring your own meal or eat beforehand

If you're not as lucky as I am, and don't have understanding family/friends, you can always pack yourself an entire meal to bring to the event. Explain that you have special dietary restrictions, and you would never hold others to the same restrictions, so you've brought your own meal.

I'm actually going up north tomorrow for New Year's to stay with some extended family, and I'm bringing two tupperware of "safe meals" for myself just in case there are limited options for me based on my dietary needs. Plan ahead and help yourself make it easy to eat the right things. Depending on the gathering, you could also eat at home before you go, so that you're not hungry when you arrive.

Be grateful for your understanding relatives

Finally, be grateful for your understanding relatives. I was not home for the holidays last year, so this is my first year at home with stricter dietary restrictions. My family was really awesome about it this holiday! Check it out:
  • My mom used my Earth Balance spread instead of butter when she made sugar cookies and chicken pot pie (yup, that's one of the meat dishes I did eat).
  • My dad made a special non-cheese quiche with almond milk just for me at our Christmas brunch, with my red and green peppers I had left in the fridge.
  • My aunt always gives all of the grandkids chocolate candy and a $5 Culver's gift card, among other Christmas trinkets every year. This year instead of chocolate she gave me a bag of energy bites from nuts.com and $5 at Trader Joe's instead! It was so very thoughtful and considerate, and I loved not being tempted by the chocolate candy.
  • My grandma was super worried about what I'd be able to eat—both at Christmas and Thanksgiving—and was willing to make whatever I said.
All in all, it was a pretty successful holiday on the food front. Did I eat things I shouldn't have? Yes, for sure. Since my mom used "my butter" in the sugar cookies, I felt obligated to eat many of them. I had some Christmas cookies and a bit of chocolate and fudge.

But did I eat a million times better than any previous holiday in my life? Heck yes! Only ate one peanut butter cup cookie from my aunt this year (who always brings a boatload). Didn't eat any Hersheys anything. Didn't eat ham or sausage at our brunch, even though I was tempted.

So I'm definitely making progress, yet there is still a ways to go. Luckily, a fresh blank slate of hope and motivation is just around the corner with 2015 in sight.

How was your holiday season food-wise? How do you handle diet restrictions at this time of year?
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