The Secret to a Guilt-Free Holiday

Photo by  Brigitte Tohm  

Photo by Brigitte Tohm 

Huddle up close, because I’m about to tell you the secret to enjoying the holidays without guilt. I’ll tell you right up front, there’s no denial here. I’m not proposing a “just say no” diet. No strategies for navigating the holiday buffet or ways to lighten up the shortcake cookies. My approach to a guilt-free holiday is actually based on (gasp) pleasure. 

You see, we humans were actually designed for cycles of moderation and indulgence. Over the course of millennia, whether in the Middle East or Scandinavia or anywhere in between, you’ll find simple meals--made from freshly harvested vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and some sort of protein--most of the time. Then a few times a year where the whole community comes together to feast and celebrate. 

There are two distinct roles at play, and we’re nourished by each in different ways.

Photo by  Brooke Lark

Photo by Brooke Lark

When we’re letting ourselves enjoy simple meals prepared from real foods our bodies hum with nourishment and comfort, like cozying up beside a warm fire. That steady, warm glow sustains us from day to day and keeps us connected to that deeper place within ourselves, to one another, and to where our food comes from.

I think of the holidays more like fireworks. They’re the time to gather with loved ones and delight in the over-the-top. This is the time for butter and sugar and cream and cheese and chocolate. This is when it feels good to spend the whole day in the kitchen with a slew of helpers, warmed by the laughter and scents coming from the stove. 

To recognize a celebration as something lovely and fleeting is to give ourselves permission to enjoy the pleasure of it unabashedly.

I first learned this when I lived for a time in Greece. It was the height of the low-fat era and I was terrified of the olive oil that was poured with abandon on all the vegetables day after day. And at the village feast, I shied away from the indulgent foods.

Looking back, though, I realize that there were two types of meals going on, and both served their distinct purpose well. Most of our everyday meals were simple affairs with steamed greens or grilled vegetables doused with olive oil along with a little bit of grilled meat or fish (super healthy for our bodies, and utterly delicious to boot). 

But during a celebration -- a wedding or a saint day -- there would be whole lambs roasting on spits in the square, and all the villagers would cook up a storm, bringing dips and potatoes and wine and dessert. Everyone feasted with abandon--serving that part of us that needs to twirl and spin and sing out loud every once in a while--because it was a given that when the feast was over, everyone would return to the simple joys of the everyday. 

I finally learned that when I try to live by a common denominator between every day and celebration, I end up robbing myself of the pleasure of both. But when I allow each to serve its own purpose, I’m wholly nourished in a deep, sustaining way.

Photo by  Alex Munsell  

Photo by Alex Munsell 

So this December, I’m enjoying simple meals -- things like braised cabbage with avgolemno sauce and rice (a nod to my days in Greece); roasted carrots and sweet potatoes with a bit of roast chicken; and garlicky sauteed greens with lentils and chickpeas -- on the days leading up to the holidays. And I’m heartily looking forward to the beef tenderloin, potato gratin (which is in my book Nourished: A Memoir of Food, Faith and Enduring Love - with Recipes) and chocolate bread pudding we’ll be enjoying Christmas Eve.

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