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4 Tips for Happy, Healthy Holiday Eating

For people experiencing certain side effects, holiday celebrations can be a source of stress rather than joy. But they don’t have to be. With a little prep, you can relax and enjoy the holiday festivities. 

We all have wonderful memories closely associated with holiday foods. For some, it's a favorite dish made by a loved one. For others, it’s a special recollection of decorating cookies with the family. But during cancer treatment, visions of sugarplums may bring anxiety. 

When you're having trouble eating or keeping food down, the thought of holiday gatherings and meals can be overwhelming. The uncertainty of how you’ll feel and the stress of disrupting traditions may make you want to skip the celebration all together. However, the last thing you want is to battle feelings of isolation during the festive holiday season.

Here are a few things to help you celebrate the holidays without worrying about what you’ll put on your plate.

1. Food Safety During the Festivities

When you're going through treatment, you may have a weakened immune system, meaning it's easier for you to get sick. So, you’ll want to be extra careful about food safety to avoid foodborne illnesses.

  • Ask your doctor if it's okay to drink alcohol before you go to holiday celebrations, where you might be tempted to indulge.
  • Keep track of how long food has been sitting out. According to the USDA, cooked food should only sit out for up to two hours before being refrigerated.
  • At a potluck or buffet, identify foods that are able to sit out a little longer. These may include cheese, crackers, chips and salsa, biscuits, snack mix, mixed nuts, cookies and cakes.
  • Avoid meats, unless you know they’ve been cooked to a proper internal temperature.
  • Steer clear of undercooked and raw foods like homemade eggnog, sushi and desserts made with raw eggs.
  • When in doubt, don't be afraid to ask the chef what’s in a dish and how it was prepared.
  • You may also want to bring extra serving utensils—so people won't feel tempted to use their hands.
  • Choosing from the inside of the table at a buffet, where little hands (and their germs) are less likely to reach.  

2. Put a Little Prep in Your Steps

There’s a lot you can do to make holiday gatherings less stressful before you even leave the house. First, don't be afraid to tell people you aren't up to the usual celebration. If you’re feeling too ill to host a party this year, it’s best not to overdo it.

If you've already committed to hosting the party, start delegating tasks. People always want to know what they can do to help, so give them a specific dish to make or a duty to handle. Are you known for one of your own dishes? Focus your energy on that one dish, and let others take care of the rest.

Depending on your current health, cooking could be a challenge. If you aren't up to it, pass your beloved recipe to a friend or loved one for them to try. If you’re attending a potluck, offer to bring drinks, paper goods or a centerpiece for the table. To avoid the hassle of a big entrance, arrive early and find a quiet spot to sit, if you need to escape the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.

It’s also a good idea to eat before you leave the house. That way, you know you won’t be distracted by hunger. You may also want to pack a few snacks containing fiber and protein, just in case there aren't many options you can eat. 

3. Healthy Holiday Cooking

You don’t have to sacrifice flavor when cooking during the holidays. With a few substitutions, you’ll never know the difference.

  • Silken tofu is low in saturated fat and a great creamy substitution for cream cheese in dip recipes.
  • Use calcium-fortified orange juice to naturally sweeten your sweet potatoes.
  • Add horseradish or garlic to mashed potatoes for a flavor boost. And try chicken broth, rather than whole milk, to get the creamy consistency you’re looking for.
  • Spice up your stuffing with applesauce or pumpkin puree (in place of butter or margarine).
  • Add some sweet and spice to your winter squash with light (or maple) syrup, apple juice concentrate, fruit preserves, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

If you're looking for some holiday recipe ideas, we've gathered some great ones.

4. Know Before You Go

It's no secret holiday foods tend to be fatty, greasy and heavy. The aromas of these rich foods are usually pleasing, but during treatment, they can be overpowering. Physical symptoms like nausea and smell or taste changes can make even the slightest smells unsettling to your system.

If the sight or smell of food is enough to turn your stomach, move out of the area where food isn’t being cooked or served. Ask someone to bring you a ginger ale or hot tea to help calm your symptoms. Drinking a hot beverage or chewing mint gum can help mask the scent of food.  

Heavy foods can overpower a sensitive stomach. If this is the case for you, avoid dishes with cream sauce, gravy or a mayonnaise base. Cooks don't tend to hold back at the holidays. So unless someone tells you otherwise, it's probably safe to assume everything was made with full-fat ingredients, which may cause indigestion. Look for baked or steamed foods if you’re worried about upsetting your stomach.

If you feel your traditional family side dishes will be too rich for you, offer to prepare some basic fruit or vegetable dishes instead. Some good options include:

  • Rice
  • Noodles
  • Turkey breast
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Green beans
  • Roasted potatoes
  • Corn bread
  • Yeast rolls 

All of these side dishes are simple items that shouldn't upset a delicate stomach. Plus, they’re all popular holiday foods that are sure to get eaten by almost everyone. 

The holidays are a special time. With a little thought, preparation and the right mindset, you can enjoy holiday meals and time with your loved ones.