Fall has arrived. That means there will be one opportunity after another to overindulge, until January 1 rolls around and it’s time to resolve to “eat better” and “lose weight.”
I’ve been living with type 2 diabetes since 1999 and have been exploring and writing about food and diabetes for more than 10 years. One thing I’ve learned over those years is that you can stay on track during the holiday season.
Here are some of my key strategies for success.
I’ve found that planning drives success with most things in life — diabetes management around the holidays included.
Having a plan not only helps me navigate food choices but also keeps my stress levels in check and allows me to sleep better, both things that affect my blood sugar.
I’ve learned that I can enjoy my favorite foods, like mashed potatoes and Mom’s world-famous dressing, simply by planning ahead.
To get my fill of mashed potatoes, I’ll sometimes make a 50-50 mix of potatoes and cauliflower. Or I’ll make regular mashed potatoes for everyone else and Parmesan cauliflower mash for myself. (The recipe can be found in my book, The Diabetes Cookbook for Electric Pressure Cookers.)
For Mom’s dressing, I just watch my portion size and consider which other foods I’ll want to eat during the meal. Personally, I’d rather have the dressing than pumpkin pie!
On the holiday itself, I eat a healthy low carb breakfast and then enjoy our feast around 3 p.m. I eat only two meals that day and don’t snack before bedtime. This is actually a form of intermittent fasting that works well for me, especially to keep my next-morning blood sugar number down.
Still, I’m not perfect, and sometimes I eat more than I should. When this happens, I get back on track immediately. I don’t let one “bad” food day be an excuse to overeat until the New Year.
One of my most effective strategies for enjoying the holidays is offering to host the meal. If I’m the host, I pretty much control the menu.
I don’t have to do all of the cooking myself, but I can decide the balance of proteins, fats, and carbs — and make sure there are lots of nonstarchy vegetables on the table.
For Thanksgiving, I build the meal around the turkey, a tasty, healthy protein. If I’m cooking for a crowd, I always brine the turkey to keep it juicy.
When it’s a smaller group, I might serve turkey roulade with quinoa, Swiss chard, and prosciutto, a recipe I came up with one year when my husband and I spent Thanksgiving alone at the beach.
If any of my guests follow vegetarian or gluten-free diets, I might offer lentil and sweet potato shepherd’s pie as our main course. The fiber in the lentils is really good for people with diabetes, too.
I usually serve green beans or roasted Brussels sprouts as sides.
Regarding cranberry sauce, most are loaded with sugar because cranberries are naturally quite tart. I haven’t found a diabetes-friendly version I like, but I just discovered this low sugar cranberry sauce from Cooking Light and I’m dying to try it. (I usually love their recipes.)
Desserts and leftovers
For dessert, I prefer pumpkin mousse over pumpkin pie or choose something fruity without a crust, like a low carb apple crisp. I also save my turkey carcass so I can make bone broth later, another benefit of hosting.
When I attend a party, I always expect to see a lot of starchy foods and sweets. If I’m fairly certain there won’t be many diabetes-friendly options available, I eat a light meal or snack before I go.
When I arrive, I follow a few simple steps to keep my eating on track:
- Head straight for the appetizers. I load up on raw carrot sticks, broccoli, cauliflower, celery sticks, tomatoes, and bell pepper strips.
- Check for a charcuterie board. I can usually find cured meats, hard and soft cheeses, olives, marinated artichokes, nuts, and fruit. Sometimes I get lucky and find shrimp!
- Look for leafy green salads. If I’m still hungry, I look for salads and scope out the healthiest protein I can find to put on top.
- Don’t stand near the buffet. If I stand near the buffet when talking to people, I continue eating mindlessly and end up having more than I’d planned. Instead, I put a few things on my plate, then step away from the buffet.
- Drink plenty of water or unsweetened iced tea. This helps me stay hydrated and feel full and energized throughout the evening.
- Choose fresh fruit for dessert. As a rule, I try to stay away from the sweets table.
Focusing on being with my family and friends instead of on food helps a lot. I suggest spending time doing other activities like:
- playing a board game
- throwing a Frisbee
- taking a walk after the meal
- watching a sporting event or movie
Sometimes I bring a few icebreaker questions to motivate fun conversation.
Once, I put the questions on strips of paper and had each person draw one out of a bowl and answer it. I learned so much about my family and friends.
My husband actually surprised me for Christmas one year with a trip to France because of what we talked about during this activity!
Whenever I’m invited to a potluck, I bring a tasty nonstarchy vegetable dish or a low sugar dessert that I know will fit my meal plan. I actually ended up starting a blog because so many people asked me for recipes.
Whenever I want to host a holiday meal that doesn’t include turkey, I opt for a seafood buffet.
My husband and I once attended a Feast of the Seven Fishes event at a local restaurant, and every year since, Christmas Eve at our house has featured a seafood dinner with at least seven types of seafood and fish.
Everyone, including the kids, gets an apron and must help with at least one dish. My brother always makes his famous spiced steamed shrimp and homemade cocktail sauce, and my Dad usually cooks clam chowder. We’ve also had:
- crab cakes
- seafood sausage gumbo
- seafood casseroles
- lobster dip
- smoked salmon spread
- many dishes featuring halibut or tuna
One of our favorite sides is this honey mustard Brussels sprout slaw, but any slaw will work. The great thing about a seafood feast is that it’s heavy on protein and light on carbs — and everyone tends to love it.
Holidays that fall in late autumn and early winter usually offer many opportunities to eat more than you’d like, but there are simple things you can do to manage your diabetes and stay on track during the holiday rush.
Planning ahead for shared meals and having a strategy to navigate parties are just a few ways to support healthier holiday eating.
Shelby Kinnaird is the author of The Pocket Carbohydrate Counter Guide for Diabetes and co-author of The Diabetes Cookbook for Electric Pressure Cookers. Founder of Put on Your Apron and Diabetic Foodie, she hosts fun cooking experiences online, in person, and in destination locations. Shelby is a passionate diabetes advocate who runs two DiabetesSisters peer support groups in Richmond, Virginia.