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The Four Food Groups of Holiday Entertaining

By Karen Austin

Photo by Michael Coghlan via Creative Commons

Going to the grocery store between October and February is an assault upon my senses.  Holiday displays dominate, inviting me to buy the most decadent food.   Why would I spend my grocery money on kale, ground turkey meat, quinoa and soy milk when brie, cocktail wieners, stuffing, and eggnog scream from the shelves “Buy me! Eat me!”?

As hostess, I’m compelled to offer my guests the four major food groups of holiday entertaining: fat, sugar, salt and chocolate.   I remember bringing a healthy option chili to a church cook off years ago. Nobody wanted to eat meatless chili with chickpeas and tricolor peppers. I ate leftover chili for days. The woman who won had added sugar and chocolate to a chili whose primary ingredient was sirloin steak.

One Thanksgiving early in my marriage, I decided to create a healthy alternative to the traditional menu.  I did concede to a turkey, but I served a lot of vegetarian dishes featuring whole grains, fresh produce, and lean plant proteins. While I was feeling like I’d be very popular with the crowd at Whole Foods, my husband was extremely grumpy that day.

The next Thanksgiving, we invited a friend from church to join our little family of four. He just got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and his prognosis was grim. He has served as a cook in the navy and enjoyed food. But as a single man on a fixed budget, he rarely ate anything fancy.

Because I feared this was his last Thanksgiving (and it was), I created a menu stuffed with every unhealthy choice possible.  This man was going to get the most delicious meal of his life. Bacon, cream, sugar, oil, and butter were the primary ingredients.  And I made three times the food I usually make for that number of people.  I probably ate a month’s worth of calories in that one day.

When I stepped into the kitchen to get the whipped cream for our pies, my husband followed. He took me into his arms, bent me over into a tango dip, and gave me a long, passionate kiss.  I took that as a sign that he had finally forgiven me for the vegan-style Thanksgiving the year before.

As a midlife woman, I have the further complication of producing a lot of holiday events just when my metabolism is slowing down.   Most trim women I known who are 50 plus have all but stopped eating simple carbohydrates. These naughty foods are sometimes termed “quick carbs.”  Disappearing the diets of many middle aged women are crackers, cookies, pie, ice cream, white bread, sugar, noodles, rice, potatoes and corn. Juice and soda are on the “no no” list as well.  These types of foods seem to multiply during the holidays, and resisting becomes extremely difficult unless I just stay home with my celery sticks, bananas and boiled eggs.

Not only do I have a slower metabolism as a fiftysomething woman, I have a family trait for mishandling sugar. I got a diagnosis of hypoglycemia in my mid 40s, I have two family members managing diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2). A third family member has prediabetes. So 4 out of 5 of the people from my childhood family have to constantly manage their ratios of carbs, fats and proteins.  I’m constantly running numbers in my head. And if make poor food choices (or forget to eat at all), I end up having a headache, suffering from vertigo, growing grumpy, or feeling fatigued. If I’ve really blown it, I start losing my peripheral vision.

So what’s a girl to do?

How to I stay resolved to buy, cook, serve and eat healthy foods when there is so much pressure to be the great hostess, the cool mom, the one who brought the most-quickly consumed dish at the church pot luck, or the gal at book club who gets the most requests for her recipe?  And even if I bring decadent food to social events but stick to raw vegetables myself, I get the side eye from others.  I come off more like the emaciated Scrooge rather than that Jolly Old Elf with his ample waist.

As I wheel my shopping cart to the checkout line, I look in my selections.  I look a bit bipolar with the spinach next to the Italian sausage, the edamame next to the macaroni and cheese, and the raw salt-free almonds next to the peppermint ice cream.

I’m feeling a bit like a hypocrite when I notice the smiling face of well-dressed gal smiling from me from the cover of a woman’s magazine.  She’s wearing a form fitting, red dress, probably a size 4 even though she’s 5’ 7”. And she’s adorned with silver snowflake jewelry.

She’s surrounded by teasers for that issue’s articles: “Diet tips for surviving the holidays” and “How to host a cookie exchange party, complete with mouth-watering recipes.” This prompts me to laugh out loud.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

11 thoughts on “The Four Food Groups of Holiday Entertaining”

  1. I did my Super Bowl menu from the forks over knives cookbook (plant based). The pumpkin hummus was amazing, but I definitely had family members wishing for bacon wrapped sugar encrusted smokies.

    What is it with Mormons being super strict about every commandment except the word of wisdom??

  2. I have started showing up to events with a healthy dish so there is something I can eat. We went to a potluck where every person brought dessert. There was a main dish and dessert, that was it. So I bring salad, I bring veggies, and I'm more than willing to give dirty looks back. Now I have to go make some eclairs for a baby shower tomorrow.

    And mmm….bacon wrapped brown sugar lil smokies.

  3. From the time that I was a small child, my family tradition has been to bake and decorate cookies a few days before Christmas to distribute them to neighbors. I have continued to do this as an adult, first singly and now with my kids. We bake together as a fun way to celebrate the holidays and we give the treats to our friends and neighbors as a way to say we love them. Even though I intellectually know that some people can't or won't eat sugary treats, it's still hard for me to feel like some of our friends are rejecting our offering of love. But, my reaction is my problem not theirs.

    I know I have an unhealthy love of baked goods and comfort foods. For me, food=love and I have a hard time untangling that relationship. I have been baking since I was a preteen and love to bake–when I take the time to bake bread or make a pie for someone, it means I really care about them. I also love to eat vegetables and fruits and beans and many other healthy things too (and thank you M2theh for being that person who brings salad–despite my love of baking I often bring veggies lately so that there will at least be one or two veggies on the table). It can be so hard to untangle our emotional relationships with food, especially at the holidays.

  4. If you manage to have a healthy eating life style for 99% of the year, I see no reason you can not enjoy traditional Thanksgiving foods. If you have yourself in a strangle hold so you can not even have a piece of pie once a year without feeling guilty, I feel sorry for you. Be healthy, for sure, but (and I realize it is not easy for everyone to stop when it comes to treats) have a treat now and then and enjoy it too.

  5. I am a vegan in theory. For breakfast and lunch I am pretty strict about what I eat (I fall into that category of women you talked about with the list of what they don't eat anymore.) And most dinners are healthy. But Thanksgiving and Christmas are exceptions. And some nights out. And when we have a treat for family home evening, I have some too. I really think a plant-based diet is healthiest–but I allow for some cheats. 🙂 Tell me why you get vertigo when you don't eat well. I think I am developing something similar.

  6. I agree in moderation, so treats are permissible. I don't feel guilty. But I take one slice, enjoy it, and then I'm done. I definitely believe there's an unhealthy relationship between foods/eating/addiction in our culture. I have blood sugar issues that have led to clean eating in my family, and I have never liked baking, much to my family''a chagrin 🙂

  7. I read something somewhere a few years ago that really resonated with me. It said that in our culture we have lost the ability to feast. Through most of civilization people ate very simply most of the time but celebrate big events with a feast. When we can have whatever we want every day of the year what is the point of a feast at Thanksgiving or Christmas? So, I try to plan simple, healthy meals most of the time, but also try to acknowledge that feasting is a wonderful part of life and we should in no way feel guilty about it–we just shouldn't do it every day.

  8. Amos, that is exactly how I feel too! I really want sugar to go back to being a treat, and I want for someone to please for heavens sake bring me a broccoli and tomatoes Christmas tree instead of another plate of cookies!

    Karen I am interested in this loss of peripheral vision. That's happened to me (it's disappeared and it's turned into a kaleidoscope) and I looked it up as a sign of diabetes (because I have other symptoms like foot pain from sugar) but all I found was it's a sign of migraines. Is that a common symptom with sugar issues?

  9. So, I am not the only one who gets dizzy when I don't eat right. That is often a challenge because I am allergic or sensitive to everything except cats and bermuda grass…I don't eat those.

    We had friends over one Thanksgiving, and they begged, and pleaded that there not be a big bird to eat. So, I got a very large serving platter and filled it with all kinds of cooked vegetables I could eat, and placed an itsy bitsy Cornish Hen in the middle. I serve seven courses on different shaped plates etc, all from my "can eat" list. It was a fun meal.

    It was a turning point in my feelings about the allergies. Even with my restrictions there is plenty to eat if I use my imagination.

    Oh Yah, one of the things that works as medicine for my headaches etc. is chocolate.

    See you later…time for my medicine ?

  10. Kristine A. I would have loved those choices. Yummy! Great question, too.

    M2theh. That's great that you bring a non-sugar option. Those with dietary restrictions (like me) are very grateful when people do this.

    Jessie: I agree that a lot of traditions (birthdays, holidays, etc.) include special foods — and it's never a leafy green but usually a baked good! I love, love, love the foods on my no-no list. They just make me ill if I eat more than just a taste. But I don't have many strong emotional ties to vegetables…yet!

    JP: Do what works for you. I'm not going to tell anyone what to eat or not eat.

    Ana of the 9+ Kids. When I start feeling sluggish, I drink green smoothies or kale in miso and that turns me around. I could always eat more plant-based foods. My body is happy when I do this.

    Amos and K34. Yes, I do think the wealth and convenience we have today makes it hard to really enjoy a feast. Good point.

    Maj-Len. I'm sorry that you have to manage food allergies, but it seems that you are using creativity to work around that and to still enjoy special foods.

  11. Ana of the 9+ Kids, K34 & Maj-Len. Here is a 2nd comment about what causes the hypoglycemia symptoms:

    For good health, people need to maintain a glucose level in their blood somewhere between 80 and 120. Diabetics soar too high. (And if they get on insulin, they can go too low if the medicine plus stress, cold or exercise "eats up" too much glucose in their blood.) It's very dangerous to have sugar levels below 60.

    After having symptoms for years, I finally told my doctor, who had me do a fasting blood sugar test, and my number was in the mid 60s, giving me a diagnosis of hypoglycemia. Low sugars rob the brain of food-rich blood, causing problems. If I don't eat every 3 or 4 hours, I have trouble functioning. If I eat a meal that is full of quick carbs, an hour later, I feel horrible.

    For example, a breakfast of pancakes, syrup, OJ, and hash browns will digest super quickly and then my sugars CRASH. I have to eat 30 grams of protein for breakfast (common choices: greek yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese, protein powder in soy milk) in order to get through my morning routine without feeling faint. I shoot for a ratio of 30% calories Fat, 30% Protein and 40% Carbs over the course of the day (preferably slow carbs: zucchini not rice, beans not cookies, a whole apple, not apple juice).

    I have to constantly think of energy expended and then eat foods that will take a long time to digest so that I don't crash. If I forget, it's a problem. I forgot to eat for 7 hours one day this summer, and I was shaking uncontrollably, thinking at first that I was cold (at a church campfire party). I finally figured it out and ate some hard candy someone had in her purse (my purse was far away in my car) to pop up my energy levels quickly while someone pulled the first foil dinner out of the coals so that I could eat some protein.

    I often show up for events where there are zero options for me. So I have to bring my own, eat before, or just stand very far away from the refreshment table (or I leave early if I'm afraid I'm going to cave and overdo it). I know all the other hypoglycemics and diabetics in my ward. We share tips on how to best manage. And we compare (and sometimes share) what snacks we keep on hand in case we're crashing.

    But if anyone suspects they have a problem with diabetes or hypoglycemia, see your GP and get tested. HUGS to all those who have to manage food issues, whatever they may be.


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