Finding Balance at the Holidays

Fennel and Citrus Salad

The holiday season can easily become one of overindulgence, whether we feel it in our wallets or in our waistlines. And behind that urge to splurge – particularly on food or drink – there is often an emotional trigger.

To help manage the holiday stressors that can lead to excessive eating or drinking – and for some practical tips to reduce the caloric impact of holiday gatherings – we spoke with Aron Steward, PhD, Chief of Psychology at UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, and with two of our seasoned nutritionists, Anne McIlhenny, Chief Clinical Dietitian at UVM Health Network – Alice Hyde Medical Center, and Britt Richardson, RD, a Clinical Dietitian with the Adolescent Eating Disorders Consultation Clinic at The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.

Why Are the Holidays So Hard?

Steward notes that the holiday season brings high expectations, sentimentalism and family gatherings – which can be a recipe for big feelings. And the seasonal change – with its reduction in daylight – doesn’t help.

“First of all, most of us don’t get in front of our feelings in terms of the seasonal change,” she says. “In November, many of us have this sense of dread that a long dark winter is approaching,” which puts us in a depressed mindset from the start.

Then, holiday gatherings bring up old familial patterns. “Roles are defined in families, and holiday get-togethers can put us back into those roles,” Steward says. “We may have grown up or moved beyond those expectations, but our family members may not have caught up or adapted.”

And finally, when families get together for the holidays, they often have big, nostalgic expectations, which don’t always materialize. “They think it’s going to be wonderful and amazing. Then the conversations turn to stressful topics like politics, or money, or who you are and who you’ve become, which causes discomfort or disagreement,” Steward explains. “And one of the ways we soothe big feelings is by eating.”

McIlhenny agrees. “We build things up, and it doesn’t always turn out that way. We don’t like to be disappointed. And sometimes we turn to food to cover that up.”

How Can I Manage Better?

Steward contends that the antidote to emotional eating is practicing good self-care. Specifically, she encourages people to manage their expectations, practice identifying troubling feelings and plan in advance for how they’ll address conflicts with family members.

“Try to stay present as much as possible with your feelings, so you can soothe them rather than numb them” by turning to food or drink, she says. “Determine where your boundaries are, and be prepared to say, ‘I’m not going to continue to talk about X.’” She notes that invalidation of feelings is painful, while acknowledging feelings and setting limits is self-honoring.

“And finally, think about who, at that gathering, might be a like-minded buddy who can validate you or soothe you if big feelings come up.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Table

While Steward focuses on how to keep things lighter emotionally, McIlhenny offers some nutritional tips to lighten things up in the kitchen.

  • Remember the veggies: If you’re hosting, remember to include vegetables, and the simpler the preparation, the better. “So often during the holidays, the veggies are there, but they’re covered with extra sauce or loads of butter,” she says. She recommends roasting vegetables and flavoring them with herbs and spices, and perhaps a bit of olive oil, rather than with a heavily candied sauce.
  • Limit the sugar: Think about lower-sugar alternatives for holiday favorites. For the sweet potatoes, go easy on the marshmallows. If you’re baking a pie, consider single-crust rather than double. And beware of cranberry sauce, which is usually loaded with sugar. But low-sugar recipes do exist, such as those that include orange flavor to temper the tartness. 
  • Bring your own dish: If you’re headed to a gathering, offer to bring a “safe dish” that fits into your meal plan.

Richardson adds that, if you’re looking ahead to a big meal later in the day, resist the tendency to skip breakfast or lunch to “save up your calories.”

If you skip meals, she says, “Your mood and your blood sugar will suffer as a result. Plus, undereating earlier in the day often leads to binge episodes or eating past fullness, due to extreme or ‘primal hunger.’”

And when you get to the event, McIlhenny and Richardson both encourage you to enjoy your favorite foods. Instead of trying to deny yourself, just listen to your hunger and fullness cues, advises Richardson. As McIlhenny says, “Enjoy, but don’t break the bank.”

What If I Blow It?

If you do overindulge, McIlhenny says, remember that tomorrow is another day. “Don’t just say, ‘I’ve blown it, so I’ll go off my diet entirely.’ You can always get back on track.”

And Steward emphasizes the need for self-compassion, rather than adding “one more thing to do” onto a long societal list of “shoulds.”

“We have a narrative in society that ‘people overeat during the holidays,’” she says. “I wish we could change that to: ‘it’s hard sometimes to be disappointed and around your family, and we should be kind to ourselves and our loved ones.’”

Fennel and Citrus Salad

YIELD: 6 Servings


  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • Juice of one orange
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 2 heads of fennel, cored and thinly sliced
  • 2 oranges, peeled and sectioned
  • 1 grapefruit, peeled and sectioned
  • 1 blood orange, peeled and sectioned
  • ½ cup pomegranate seeds
  • 1 small red onion, finely diced
  • Salt and black pepper to taste


  1. Place olive oil, vinegar, orange juice and mustard in a large bowl, whisk until well incorporated.
  2. Add sliced fennel, oranges, grapefruit, pomegranate and onion, toss well.
  3. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with some of the fennel frond.

Sharp Cheddar Cheese Crackers

YIELD: 24-36 crackers


  • 4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons cold water


  1. Add butter, cheese, salt and pepper to a bowl. Mix well with hands until combined.
  2. Add flour and water. Knead until the mixture forms a ball.
  3. Divide dough in two and wrap each disk of dough with plastic wrap.
  4. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  5. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  6. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough very thinly.
  7. Cut into small squares and dot each cracker in the middle with a fork.
  8. Place crackers on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes.
  9. Allow to cool before serving. Enjoy!

Spiced Candied Walnuts

YIELD: 2 cups


  • 2 cups walnuts, rough chopped
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. Place walnuts into a bowl. Toss with melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, cayenne, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
  3. On a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, spread nuts evenly.
  4. Cook until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
  5. Let nuts cool before serving. Enjoy!

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