As we approach the holidays, we make space in our schedules — and our plates! — to celebrate, with the foods we love, in the company of those whom we love. I rest my work and life as a trained chef, nutritional biologist, and Nutritional Psychiatrist on the premise that food is both a source of joy and wellbeing, for I believe eating well is one of the greatest pleasures of life! 

However, as merry as we hope our holidays will be, they can also be fraught with stress: from shopping, to traveling, to spending time with distant relatives, some parts of the holidays may pose a challenge to our mental – and by extension, physical health.

One of my favorite strategies to combat holiday stress is the practice of mindfulness – nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness – and no, it’s not about sitting down and meditating all the time (though meditation has a vast array of stress-relieving and health promoting benefits!); rather, it’s about building the skills to tune into ourselves, and the moment, that help us to manage stress more effectively. 

Read on for practical strategies of mindful celebrating to best enjoy our holidays – stress free.

Mindful eating

For many, the prospect of having a ton of holiday dishes to cook, serve, and eat can be a source of distress! When it comes to eating around the holidays, I encourage self-nourishment, balance, and awareness. It’s not about “the three-bite rule” for desserts or depriving yourself of your favorite dishes. Rather, it’s about understanding — for your unique body — how foods make you feel physically and mentally, which foods you find emotionally comforting, and striking a balance that allows you to enjoy your favorites in a sustainable way. This reflects one of my foundational pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry, to tap into our innate body intelligence. Here are some of my tips to eat mindfully to bust stress over the holidays.

  • Practice tuning in. The act of preparing food, as well as eating, is indeed its own mindfulness practice — it isn’t an additional activity to add to our already busy lives. It actually serves a dual purpose in this way by feeding the body in the immediate sense while strengthening our mental fortitude through the practice of mindfulness. New to the field, and looking for a place to start? You may enjoy my collaboration with Headspace, with meditations centered around mindful eating.
  • Stay hydrated this holiday — did you know that water is necessary for nearly every chemical reaction in the body? Try sipping on some water flavored with slices of oranges, lemons, limes, or your favorite berry throughout the day. This is a great source of hydration along with powerful antioxidants from the fruit! Some antioxidants are known as adaptogens, which build up our body’s stress resilience. 
  • Love who you’re with. Enjoy the company of your loved ones while sitting down to enjoy your holiday meals. Much like the phrase “be where your feet are,” when we sit with our meals, we bring our attention in that moment of space and time to our meal, and the people with whom we’re so lucky to share it. The holidays can also be lonely for some so use technology to stay connected with friends and loved ones too.
  • Savor every bite. Make your holiday dinner plates like you would make any other healthy plate (lots of veggies, the rest with other foods), and relish each morsel. Follow a single bite from its start to finish. What are the sounds of cutting the food, the aroma as it wafts to your nostrils, the texture of the food as it is placed in your mouth, the flavors that change as you chew, and the feeling as you swallow your food. It starts with one step, or one bite. Research shows that mindful eating is actually linked with significantly increased satisfaction and decreased stress
  • It’s all about balance. While holiday treats can be enticing, sugary snacks and boozy beverages can actually increase symptoms of anxiety and stress in their wake. Remember my 80/20 rule (it’s one of my Pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry!) and don’t be hard on yourself for allowing for holiday flexibility. Enjoy your favorite dishes in moderation, drink with awareness of your mood and energy levels to make healthier choices and stay hydrated if you’re consuming alcohol. For alcohol or coffee, limit the number of added sugars, liquors, flavorings, sweeteners, and syrup which are empty calories. 
  • Remember that we’re all doing this together. If the holidays tend to stir up feelings of anxiety, know that you’re not alone. If, for instance, you find yourself waking up with a knot in your stomach, consider a mindfulness exercise (such as from Headspace!) or a quick run, jog, breathing exercise, online dance class, or treadmill session to ease that tension and release some endorphins. A prayer, meditation, or gratitude exercise — journaling or typing on your ‘phone just, 3 things that uplifted you today — are also great ideas. The simple act of penning or typing out 3 things that uplifted you today — as little or as big as they may seem — can help us to ground ourselves, relieving some of the anxieties that may come with the holidays.

Healthy Twists to Your Holiday Menu 

Adding in habits (and in this case, dishes!) which have a positive ripple effect on our bodies, and our brain, all our body to manage physical and emotional stressors with ease. As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, I feel that we are more emotionally nurtured by a feeling of abundance in “adding” new dishes than thinking about this as “excluding” foods. Try out news color, flavors, and add a plethora of mood-nourishing ingredients to the dinner table. Remember spices and herbs are an easy way to bump up flavors and calm your mind. 

  • Try tossing a fresh, folate-rich spinach and arugula salad with bits of antioxidant-rich strawberries, and omega-3 rich olive oil to fill up on fiber, antioxidants, and cognition-boosting fats.
  • Skip the traditional pie and try my chocolate avocado mousse!
  • Creamy sauces but make it brain-healthy: adding cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower puree, is a great, versatile option. Check out my healthy mac and cheese recipe which I shared with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his podcast. See the recipe link in the show notes.
  • Hummus made with relaxing, tryptophan-rich chickpeas, with added turmeric and black pepper, and including avocado for creaminess as an appetizer, with celery and rainbow radishes to dip offers you an alternative and a novel way to think about your appetizer table. While nurturing your gut microbiome with fiber and polyphenols!
  • Foods containing probiotics, which are foods rich in the live microorganisms that naturally colonize the GI tract, have shown promise in alleviating both depressive and anxious symptoms. Creamy unsweetened coconut yogurt with berries as a sweet treat, or perhaps low-/no-sugar-added kombucha to sip on, as an alternative to alcoholic beverages. More fermented food options are miso-glazed sweet potatoes as a side (Page 279 from my book, This Is Your Brain On Food). Use my marinade recipe for any roasted veggie you love. 
  • It’s also important to pay attention to the base ingredients in our cooking. For example, if soybean or vegetable oils are the basis of your dishes, you may be loading your food with pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids in comparison to omega-3’s — and research suggests an association between negative mood symptoms and increased omega-6/3 ratio. Swapping to omega-3 rich olive oil, avocado oil, or small amounts of grass-fed butter may contribute to a better, brain-nourishing balance of this essential fatty acid.

This holiday season, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for my BFF’s — my Brain Food Family, of course! — and the chance to get to share what I love most with those whom I love most. As we sit down to our meals, I hope that the joys of good food, meaningful connection, and nourishing ourselves and others help us to stay stress-free over the holidays.

Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard trained Nutritional Psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutritional biologist, and author of a new book, Calm Your Mind with Food, which is available for pre-order now. She is also the author of the bestselling book This is Your Brain on Food