As the holiday season approaches, my excitement about the upcoming festivities is sometimes mixed with a little uncertainty. Halloween, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukah and Christmas: No matter which of these holidays you celebrate, they usually involve a whole lot of eating — and an endless stream of treats. For our family, with its unusual set of Indian, German and Jewish South African roots, this season seems particularly out-of-control because we celebrate all of these holidays, one after another. And if we’re not careful, we can easily end up suffering from a severe case of sugar shock.
Despite our strangely colorful heritage, I don’t think we’re alone. I hear parents all around me talking about their strategies for “surviving” the holiday season. The commonly used tactic of trading money or small toys for excess holiday candy can certainly limit our kids’ intake of empty calories. But there may be an even better way to protect their health (and ours!) When we teach our children to practice moderation, we give them a really powerful survival tool. If they grow up understanding that no food is forbidden, as long as the amount they eat is reasonable, we set them free to really enjoy the holidays — treats and all! In a country where excess is the norm, teaching our children to eat moderately could really end up saving their lives.
Here are some practical tips for achieving this seemingly lofty goal:
- The power of the healthy alternative. Having delicious (healthier) alternatives on hand makes it easier to make better choices most of the time. Try crunchy vegetables with homemade dips or dressings, fresh or dried fruits and nuts.
- Actions speak louder than words. When kids see that their parents are able to enjoy a small treat on occasion — and then stop — they learn a great lesson: Less is more. A small treat, enjoyed guilt-free because the amount is right, is a true luxury. After all, that’s how treats were meant to be eaten!
- Go for homemade. Homemade holiday treats are the best kind, by far. When we make our own cakes, cookies and other goodies, the moderation is built right in. First, the ingredients we use will almost certainly be more nutritious (and fresher) than any packaged items. And unlike the makers of packaged foods, we care about the health of the people who are going to be eating those foods, so we’ll automatically go easy on the fat, sugar and salt. Finally, baking treats from scratch takes time and effort. This fact has a rate-limiting effect that naturally regulates the frequency of our indulgences.
Holidays should be happy times — and sharing delicious food with the people we love is a big part of that happiness. Our time with friends and family is just too precious to fret about the fruitcake. The truth is, that we can enjoy the holiday season, with all its delicious comfort foods, if we enjoy everything in moderation.
Maya Adam, MD, teaches child health and nutrition at Stanford University and runs Just Cook for Kids, a 501c3 charity that helps parents shift their family’s eating away from processed foods and back towards fresh, simple homemade meals. She is the lead instructor for the online course Stanford Child Nutrition and Cooking, offered through Coursera. Stay tuned for her next post on Healthier, Happy Lives, which will give more tips about how kids and families can learn moderation around the dinner table.
- Maya Adam, MD
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