Holiday Survival: Running the Junk Gauntlet

It’s over.

I’m sad, I’m relieved, I’m thrilled that Christmas went as well as it did and that we had such a wonderful family holiday.  And it’s over.  Phew.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — I’m no Grinch.  I LOVE Christmas and the whole holiday season; I even get a strange and perverse sort of pleasure out of all the preparations that most people loathe.  But like any other holiday, Christmas can be daunting, challenging, and exhausting, especially when you have small children.  Let’s face it: major holidays are all about dragging kids off the schedules we carefully adhere to the rest of the time, feeding them stuff they don’t usually eat, forcing them to cuddle and make conversation with people they see approximately once a year, and praying fervently to whatever deities we may or may not believe in to keep the children happy so we can have a decent time and everyone can get out the door unscathed.

Of course, one of my many (unsubstantiated) theories about the holiday season is that when anyone — especially someone who weighs less than, say, 70 pounds — eats a whole bunch of sugary, fatty, processed, or in any way artificially enhanced “foods” in one grand binge, their mood and behavior will likely suffer.  The more “normal” you can make the holiday celebration appear to your kids, my theory continues, the more successful you will probably be in ensuring that they (and you, and all other present adults) have a good time.  Obviously I don’t espouse this highly experimental and unresearched claim at the expense of making things special for them; as with all else on this blog, what I’m really trying to drive at is the theory of balance.

So how did we, the Red, Round, or Green family, do with balance and moderation as we ran the holiday junk gauntlet this year?  Clearly I baked quite a bit for the occasion, and if you’ve looked at the recipes at all, you’ll understand immediately that I did not bake “healthy” treats.  I believe firmly in Christmas cookies.  There were many varieties available to my kids, J., myself, and the family and friends with which we shared the holiday.  There are still many varieties left.  No one, to my knowledge, has binged on them — though the one or two cookies a day I’ve had have certainly been above my usual quota for sweets the rest of the year.

Other than the cookies, it may seem strange, but Christmas has never been a holiday strongly associated with sweets in our family.  Food, yes.  Sweets, no.  We don’t even have dessert with Christmas dinner — we have always sort of figured, I guess, that if there are cookies around, people can nibble at those later in the evening if they’re looking for a sugar rush.  My mother does set out a small dish of ribbon candy during the season, but that’s not the kind of thing anyone I know can partake of in more than miniscule amounts.  We focus more on the savory things, from the Christmas Eve smorgasbord to the array of hors d’oeuvres and small bites that pass as lunch on Christmas Day, and all the way through the obligatory rib roast dinner with Yorkshire pudding.  All of which means that it’s possibly easier, once we’re at my parents’ house with the kids, to control the onslaught of junk than it is in the weeks leading up to the festivities, when school and work parties and even everyday trips to the store seem to involve candy or treats.

There are some sweets that make their way into the repertoire, though — my kids may have sophisticated palates, relative to their peers, but roasted beet salad with goat cheese is nowhere near as exciting to them as a mug of hot cocoa with marshmallows.  So we handled the “special without going overboard” philosophy in a few small, but relatively successful, ways.

First came the all-important preparations, in which I tried to set us all up for success.  I knew we’d be heading to my folks’ for Christmas, I knew the kids would be in the car for a while, and I knew that there would inevitably be treats forthcoming once the holiday hit.  So even before we put the boys in the car to drive to Gramma and Grampa’s house, we filled them up with a healthy lunch and packed a bag of easy, inoffensive car provisions that we knew they’d enjoy.  L. in particular is quite smitten with freeze-dried mango, but we don’t often buy it because of the price; this fact worked in our favor, because the three bags we stocked up on for the trip seemed like a fun treat for him and provided us with a guilt-free, nutritionally valuable alternative to crackers or other easy to carry car snacks. Whole grain crackers and thermoses of milk and water rounded out the survival kit.  When we arrived at my folks’, those were still the options offered first to our hungry children (who had slept most of the way), and all leftovers were saved to be given to them throughout the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, we continued a family holiday tradition that’s been running for about four years now: lunch at the local Japanese restaurant.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone, because it breaks up the long anticipation of the day and gets us all out of the house before the big celebration begins, but since it’s a Japanese restaurant, we can eat relatively well.  Between grilled salmon, rice, edamame, miso soup, and tempura sweet potatoes, L. filled up on a variety of foods I couldn’t much quibble with, making it much easier to relax at the smorgasbord that evening and just say “yes” to him — yes, you may have more meat than vegetables; yes, you may eat two large fried potato pancakes; yes, you may have cookies with your meal.  For P., who wasn’t much for eating, we simply continued to offer healthy staples like applesauce, natural peanut butter, bananas, and whole grains — bringing the consistency of his everyday life into what must have felt like a chaotic event for such a small person.

Christmas morning started off less auspiciously.  On purpose.  Our boys were up at 6 a.m., as we’d somewhat anticipated; J. and I got up with them as the rest of the house slept and started the serious celebration of Christmas.  Santa had left hot cocoa and marshmallows for them, which was sipped as we opened stockings.  Each child was allowed one Christmas cookie while we waited for the rest of the family to rise and start the day in earnest.  It might seem crazy, but once they’d had their early morning sugar fix — without having to beg or whine or even ask for it — they readily realized (without our intervention) that they’d prefer to finish breakfasting on plain Cheerios, applesauce, bananas, and milk.  Not one of them so much as asked for another treat until well into the afternoon, and their behavior was just lovely.  No crazy sugar crashes, no peaks and valleys.  I firmly believe that offering the treats right up front curbed their natural instinct to forage for junk and got the whole notion out of their heads so they could focus on everything else.

The rest of the day went smoothly, food-wise.  We made sure to include some vegetable-based offerings on the buffet of finger foods at lunch time, and L. happily munched on wild mushroom tarts while his brother ate crackers dipped in cranberries and brie cheese.  By the time they went to bed, I think each child had consumed a total of no more than 2 or 3 cookies all day, and they’d more than countered those indulgences with the actual food they ate.  More importantly, they enjoyed themselves, and so did we.  By keeping an eye — and not a zealous one — on their plates, we made sure that their food intake was roughly similar to the way it would be on a normal day (with a little panache thrown in for good measure).  The result?  No worries for us, no unaccustomed blood sugar crazies and corresponding bad behavior for them.

I’d give us probably a B+ in the realm of running the junk gauntlet this year, and it’s a grade I’ll happily take.  Moderation in a season of indulgence is never easy and it’s never perfect, but we’ve come through it all right.  I don’t feel like I’m going to be detoxing my kids, or myself, for weeks to come, which is a minor holiday miracle in and of itself.  But of course there’s still time to be overtaken by holiday madness; by January 2, for all I know, I’ll be writing this blog as I lick confectioners’ sugar from my fingertips and drink the last of the eggnog from one of those tailgater’s beer helmets.  We’ll see.

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