We look at the challenge of eating well over the Christmas season.'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, there was food packed to the rafters and an over-fed mouse'
Christmas has become a time of excess, with food and alcohol topping the list. We tend to hoard food as if the shops will be closed for weeks and stock up on enough booze to set our livers quivering. But does feasting like kings have to lead to a guilt-ridden January?
Christmas is about celebration, not deprivation, but it is possible to make it into the New Year without feeling like every piece of clothing has shrunk in the wash. There are situations at Christmas which researchers have found encourage us to eat more: long spells of eating, such as parties; easily accessed food, when the fridge is full of leftovers; and plenty of opportunities for eating with others. If Christmas was confined to just one day, the advice would be to indulge and enjoy. But as the festivities drag on, making a few small changes to what and how you eat can help to make January guilt-free. Whether it is a traditional family lunch or the office party, there are ways to enjoy this hectic social whirl of engagements without feeling regret.
Christmas dinner – it's just another meal
Well no, at Christmas this is often not the case. It might be the one time of year the family is all together, or you might have friends visiting from overseas, so it's time to make that extra effort. Surprisingly though, much of our traditional Christmas fare is really healthy and low in fat and kilojoules so it is possible to put on a good spread without it dripping in fat and sugar. For example, there's nothing unhealthy about roast turkey, salads and new potatoes.
However, you are likely to feel less in control if you're a guest in someone else's home for Christmas; worse still if you have several relatives to visit in the same day. With generous hosts it's easy to offend, so be discreet. Pace yourself; go easy on each course to leave room for the next one. If you're doing the rounds to different homes, remember who makes what dish particularly well, and make it your focus. Avoid the extras that are all too apparent over Christmas, but unnecessary on such food-filled days. The culprits include bowlfuls of nuts lurking on every surface, chips and dips, oily dressings and cream, or chocolates with coffee (unless homemade; it would be rude not to!)
Research, as well as experience, tells us that dimmed lighting and soft music may seduce us into lingering longer at the dining table. If you decide to pass on dessert at the start of the meal, stick to your guns or have a coffee or tea instead. Even if the 'Christmas special' includes three courses, skip entrée or dessert – it's only you who will lose out by eating the extra course. Suggest paying separately from others so you can eat exactly as you please.
Party drinking tips
- When you refill your wine glass, alternate water with wine.
- When you go to the fridge or chilly bin for another beer, grab a glass of water too.
- Offer to drive sometimes – you're sure to be popular.
- Use diet mixers and soft drinks to keep the kilojoules down but not the flavour.
- Enjoy an alcohol-free punch for a change. You might find a gem for a future party of your own.
- Always ask for water with a meal in addition to a drink.
- Choose a tall, thin glass rather than a short, wide one. We focus on the height of a glass, not the width, so the tall one always looks fuller!
- Try and put your glass down between sips; you'll drink more slowly.
Easy, healthy Christmas alternatives
Here are some favourite Christmas foods with tips on how to keep them delicious, not decadent:
- Smoked salmon – try serving on crostini or pumpernickel bread with lemon juice and freshly ground pepper or dill, rather than spoonfuls of mayonnaise or cream cheese.
- Seafood – prawns are perfect for the barbecue, and make good kebabs. Delicious and easy, they're a good alternative to the old-fashioned prawn cocktail. Also, whole fish work well on the barbecue or oven-baked, and are surprisingly easy: wrap in foil with chopped fresh herbs, spring onions, lemon juice and a drop of oil.
- Barbecued meats – look beyond sausages and drumsticks. Butterflied leg of lamb is a favourite nowadays – all meat, no bone, and the fat is easily trimmed. Or try a fillet of beef – it may seem a bit pricey, but it's lean, there's no waste and it goes a long way.
- Whole ham – another easy, low-fat option when feeding a crowd is the traditional ham. Don't forget to trim any fat around the edge before popping it between two slices of crusty bread with your favourite pickle or chutney.
- Turkey – still the old favourite in some homes, turkey makes a seasonal change to everyday chicken. Without the skin it's very low in fat, but take care with the trimmings like stuffing, gravy and sauces.
- Fruit – endless varieties of fruit are available at this time of year, so make the most of the season's best. Peaches and nectarines, berries and cherries, apricots, melon and pineapple. All delicious on their own, so don't drown them in cream and ice cream. Try stone fruit baked or barbecued, with a berry sauce and there's little need for anything else.
- Vegetables – cook on the barbecue, or separately from the meat in the oven with a little oil. Steamed, fresh greens, beans or snow peas make a light addition to a barbecue or roast.
- Salads – the options are endless without having to involve mayonnaise or buckets of dressing; a few fresh herbs or toasted seeds add an unexpected flavour boost.
- New potatoes – this is the time to enjoy these creamy nuggets. New potatoes offer minimum preparation and maximum flavour; perfect to accompany a barbecue or cold meat and fish.
Parties offer the easiest opportunities for overeating. They have all those factors helping us to eat more – lots of time for eating, lots of food within easy reach, and lots of people with whom to eat it! It would be too sad to turn down invites or say no to the endless plates of goodies passing under your nose, so here are some ideas for surviving the party season:
- Compensate during the rest of the day. This doesn't mean not eating! It means choosing carefully, but not being so hungry you gorge at the party. Late nights and alcohol make good nutrition all the more important in order to avoid feeling drained.
- Go for small amounts. Try one of each canapé, eat slowly and enjoy. This is the season to be jolly but also the season to eat slowly.
- Beware of nuts. They are too easy to eat and full of fat. Try the unshelled varieties, such as pistachios; at least they take slightly longer to eat.
- Don't stand near the food. Remember easy access = rich pickings.
- At a buffet. Have more of fewer foods, compared to a little of lots. It's more likely you'll eat less overall.
- If it's your party, offer alternatives. Avoid too many pastries and cheeses. Include platters of vegetable sticks to accompany dips instead of chips. Chopped fresh fruit is a refreshing addition to any party, indoor or out.
Keeping it all in balance
It's not a question of being healthy or unhealthy, but trying to head into the new year in balance. Given this is almost certainly a time of extra eating, balance it out with some extra activity. While organised sports take a break over Christmas, it's still possible to walk, run, swim, cycle, visit the gym or enjoy activities with the family. If you are trying to lose weight, only aim to maintain your weight over Christmas as aiming to lose is setting yourself up for failure. Equally, don't give up altogether and blow all the hard work you've done. Special offers from weight groups and gyms come in their droves with the New Year, as they reel in new members determined to shed those additional kilos acquired as unwanted Christmas presents.
In New Zealand we are lucky to have a summer Christmas: it means barbecues, an abundance of fruit and salad vegetables, and being able to enjoy the outdoors. It's so much easier to eat well in hot, summer weather, while still enjoying some of the traditions. Why not enter the new year positively, without those well-worn phrases ringing in your ears: "I'm never going to drink again", "Don't show me another fruit mince pie", "I'm giving up chocolate" – and enjoy a new year without impossible resolutions.
Christmas should be enjoyed by sharing good food with good company. Enjoy this special time with friends and family without letting food and drink overshadow them. After all, we make time to eat and drink every day of the year; but the same is not always true for time with those we love.
Nibbles with drinks can be a fat trap, with cheesy, crispy and fried things becoming more tempting with each drink. If you're hosting a party, here are some ideas for tasty snacks that are healthy, too.
- Pumpernickel bread rounds with light cream cheese and smoked salmon are classic and yummy. Or try the mini pancakes (blini) which you can buy ready-made or make yourself.
- Slice cold waxy potatoes into rounds, and top with salmon caviar (find this where you get smoked salmon in the supermarket) and a dot of mayonnaise.
- Vegetable crudités are popular at parties; try them with tasty dips like hummus or bean dip from the supermarket, or try a zesty salsa.
- Instead of potato chips with your dips, use bagel crisps or pita chips.
- Mini bagels are cute and tasty. Top with slices of lean ham, a slice of mozzarella and half a cherry tomato.
- Raid the supermarket deli for dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) and different flavoured olives.
- Look in the freezer for falafels; serve on toothpicks with a yoghurt dipping sauce.
- For more substantial snacks, consider small lean lamb cutlets, skinless chicken drumsticks, or grilled kebabs. Serve with a tomato dipping sauce.
- If the party goes on a while, it's a good idea to have a stash of fresh wholemeal rolls, some sliced ham, mustards and chutneys on hand. Lay it all on a platter and let everyone help themselves. Goes down a treat.
Healthy dessert options
Indulging in a decadent pudding is a big temptation at this time of year. Make it easy on yourself with these healthier options:
- Mini meringues or pavlovas (see the bakery section in the supermarket) with fresh berries and a mixture of half low-fat vanilla yoghurt, half whipped cream.
- Use the same cream/yoghurt mix to lighten up a traditional trifle; use fresh berries instead of jam and make your custard with low-fat milk and you'll have a healthier pud.
- Poach summer fruit like peaches, nectarines, apricots and even cherries; try poaching in fruit juice or wine mixed with water.
- Panfo rte is a rich treat that will satisfy with a small slice.
- Fresh fruit goes down really well after a rich meal. Try a tropical fruit platter with fresh pineapple, melon, mango and pawpaw. Sprinkle with mint leaves and add lime wedges for squeezing.