The presents, the parties, the extra family time… even if you’re a full-on December holiday lover, the seasonal stress can be intense.

There’s a lot about the holidays that can seem out of our control. But one thing that we’re completely in control of is what we put in our bodies.

And although squirreling away a few mini candy bars in the freezer for emergency moments can be an instant stress reliever, there are actually things we can eat that promote calm and a good gut.

Think of calming meals as a three-part eating plan for surviving the holiday season and beyond. Call on it anytime you feel your stress level rising.

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Part 1: Eat for a happy gut

Did you know that your gut has somewhere around 1,000 species of bacteria living in your digestive tract? And keeping all that bacteria healthy and happy can have a huge impact on everything from your skin to your mood.  

There are a few ways to build a healthy gut microbiome base. First, limit your artificial sweetener intake and sugar in general because if there’s one thing anxiety loves, it’s sugar.

This doesn’t mean totally giving up on those cookies — just be mindful about when you say yes. Instead, look to foods that are naturally sweet, like fruit. Or consider swapping your caramel frappuccino for a spicy-sweet chai.

Next, up your intake of fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. These foods are rich in a bacterium called lactobacilli, one that your gut loves.

Delicious fermented recipe ideas Start your day with a smoothie fortified with yogurt like this one from Nutrition by Natalie or add in some kimchi with a spicy kimchi fried cauliflower rice dish for dinner from Nom Nom Paleo.

Finally, fill your plate with different kinds of foods — and make sure much of that is fruit, vegetables, and legumes. Eating those foods will up your fiber intake, and fiber is what makes all those little gut bacteria grow big and strong.

Boost your gut microbiome in three steps

  1. Limit sugar and artificial sweetener. Fruit is a great replacement for sweets.
  2. Eat more fermented foods.
  3. Increase fiber by adding foods like broccoli, whole grains, lentils, and apples to your diet.
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Part 2: Feed your body with vitamin-rich foods

One way to keep anxious thoughts at bay is to bump up your vitamin intake. In addition to taking a supplement, the easiest way to get your daily vitamins is by looking at how nutrient-rich your diet is.

Again, eat lots of different foods and make sure those foods are all good sources of vitamins and minerals.

This means skipping the aisles filled with processed chips, candy, and crackers when you’re at the grocery store and instead sticking to the outside edges where all the fresh food is.

Specific vitamins and minerals that can help you keep your cool are:

Grab dark, leafy greens like spinach or chard to boost magnesium, slurp a dozen oysters to up that zinc, and add an orange a day or fresh berries to work on your vitamin C.

Check out this berry avocado kale salad from Lively Table for an incredible nutrient-packed lunch or bring these easy spinach balls from The Lean Green Bean to your next holiday party.

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Part 3: Tap into food memories with comfort foods

The type of comfort food that’s really soothing isn’t necessarily the typical dishes we’ve come to associate with the term, like fried chicken, mac and cheese, and such.

Instead, comfort food is tied to the concept of food memories. Think of the meals — the smell, the taste, the feel of them — that transport you to soothing memories of a specific time, place, or person. If you’re feeling stressed, eating these foods that are personally comforting to you can help.

For example, whenever I’m in a new place and feeling a little out of sorts, I make spaghetti with Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce. All I need is a can of tomatoes, butter, and half an onion, and in 45 minutes, I feel so much better. Spaghetti with red sauce is the food of my childhood, one that elicits powerful, positive food memories for me.

Think of what that might be for you. Maybe your parents made you yukgaejang, a Korean spicy beef and vegetable soup, or matzo ball soup. Or it could be as simple as sitting down with a glass of milk or a cup of tea right before bed.

So grab a pen and start making your perfect holiday season grocery list. Add in those good for your gut foods, up your vitamins and minerals, and make room for a little comfort. I bet you can even find a few dishes that hit all three marks for at least one meal per week.


Jackie Varriano loves digging into stories that discuss why we eat the things we do — and when — in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Her work can be found on her website.