Holiday Stress and Holiday Eating

Rolled Sugar Cookies 

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto.

I read a statistic recently that only 40% of people enjoy eating, down from 50%. (Reference 1) It’s probably lower during the holidays because it’s such a stressful time.  Everywhere you turn is a plate of cookies, an eggnog, or a party. Every time you open the front door there’s another tower of temptations to seduce you.  In a recent Newsweek article (Reference 2) former FDA head Dr. David Kessler was quoted  using the term “cue-induced wanting,” and at this time of year, cues to overindulge are everywhere and can cause tension, grief and guilt. 

Other contributors to holiday stress: 

Performance anxiety around cooking, entertaining and maintaining holiday traditions

  •  A massive to-do list including cards, photos, shopping, post-office lines, decorating


  •  Entertaining or socializing with people we don’t like or don’t know


  • Pressure from friends or relatives who push us to feed their egos by eating the holiday food they made and we don’t like.  Or pressure to keep up with friends or colleagues who drink cocktail after cocktail at holiday gatherings

 How do you enjoy holiday traditions, foods and events without sacrificing your sanity and good nutrition?  Plan.

  •  Plan what, where and when you’re going to eat so you don’t find yourself famished in front of the cookie shop at the mall or at a buffet table groaning with desserts.  People get hungry about every 4 hours.  Plan a healthful snack with a little protein for staying power (satiety) and whole carbs for energy.  Stash a few non-perishable snacks in your purse or Put a small ice chest in your car to carry perishable food.  Have a mini-snack pre-party so you don’t arrive starving and defenseless.


  •  Practice a few gracious ways to say “no thanks” to food and drink you don’t want.


  • Schedule “me time” to de-stress with exercise or another non-eating activity you enjoy.  Exercise is a known mood elevator and stress-buster.  (References 3,4).  If “me-time” seems impossible, pare down your to-do list.  Delegate or drop non-essentials.  Do you need to get out all 70 boxes of decorations this year? 


  •  Sleep helps us to recharge, fostering better health and stamina.  Indulge in a power nap or allow yourself a sleep-in morning.   Research supports a connection between obesity and sleep deprivation.   Almost 28% of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep and this lack of adequate sleep seems to disrupt the balance of hormones such as ghrelin and leptin associated with appetite regulation.  (Reference 5)


  • Hydrate.  Dehydration can cause fatigue so keep handy a selection of non-caloric beverages like flavored sparkling water or a favorite tea.  Go with small, nonfat, light and “no whip” if you must have a pumpkin spice or eggnog latte or other holiday beverage. 


  • If you drink alcohol, plan how much you will have on a given occasion.  Share your plan with a friend who can help you keep track. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can contribute to over-eating and over–drinking. A glass of wine, champagne, beer or a single shot of hard liquor, served neat, on ice or with a calorie-free mixer are lower in calories than drinks with syrupy mixers or creamy dessert-like cocktails.  Not drinking?  Ask for your favorite cocktail or non-alcoholic drink in a wine or cocktail glass and no one will notice.   


  •   Instead of depriving yourself, establish which special treats or temptation foods you must have and keep portions reasonable.  Eat your treats mindfully, without other distractions, so you thoroughly enjoy every bite. Remember that the second piece of pie is never as good as the first.


  •  At a party, survey the food table(s) and choose what you will enjoy most.  Balance light and heavy items by filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables.  Leave the “clean plate mentality” at home; if you try something and don’t like it, leave it. If it’s your party, make sure to include lighter items such as a festive salad, fruit and crudité platters to balance heavier dishes. 

My favorite way to cope with stress is cooking.  I anticipate the hectic days ahead and stir-up a few hearty, healthful comfort food meals that freeze well like soups and casseroles.  My Chili and tomato-based Pasta Sauce    are two go-to recipes.


Holiday cookies are essential and I make time to experiment with healthier versions.  Following is a rolled sugar cookie recipe with a mixture of oil and butter and less total fat than conventional recipes.  Generally I use half whole wheat pastry flour to pack in a little whole grain.  Rolling, cutting and decorating cookies are a memory-making project to do with children or friends anytime.  


Photo by Lorelle Del Matto


Rolled Sugar Cookies

If you’re working with little ones with short attention spans, freeze half the dough for another time or a rainy day.  Or bake one day and decorate the next.  Royal Icing, made with pasteurized or dried egg white, hardens after it dries so add sprinkles promptly.  I use this recipe year-round and bag my cookie cutters according to the season so I can grab them as needed. 


3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature*

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour*

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

Royal Icing, recipe follows

Colored sprinkles (optional)


In large mixing bowl, combine butter, oil and sugar. Beat with electric mixer on medium to medium-high speed until light and fluffy.  On low speed, beat in egg and vanilla. In small bowl stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat or stir flour mixture into egg mixture.  Divide dough into 2 pieces.  Form each into a ball and flatten to a disk shape. Wrap each in a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap. Place in a sealable plastic bag. Chill 2 to 3 hours or until firm.  To bake, preheat oven to 350˚. Roll one piece of dough at a time on lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut with 2 to 2 1/2-inch cutters and place 1-inch apart on baking sheet coated with cooking spray or lined with parchment paper.  Reroll and cut scraps. (Chill if dough becomes sticky.) Bake one sheet at a time in center of oven for 5 to 9 minutes or until edges just begin to turn golden. Remove from sheet to wire rack to cool.   Decorate cookies with Royal Icing and top immediately with sprinkles, if using, before icing dries.  Makes 1 1/2 to 2 dozen cookies. (Yield will vary depending on the size of your cookie cutters.)

 *Use 1/2 whole wheat pastry flour if desired.

Royal Icing: In large clean mixing bowl combine 3 tablespoons pasteurized egg white (or 2 teaspoons dried egg white and 3 tablespoons water), 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. Beat at medium speed until soft peaks form.  Slowly beat in 2 cups confectioners’ (powdered) sugar. Beat on high speed to make a stiff, glossy icing. Adjust consistency as needed with a little water or sugar as needed.  If desired, divide icing into batches and add food color. Use immediately or cover and chill for up to 3 days. (Keep icing covered with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap to keep from drying out during use.) Spoon Icing into a decorating bag fit with decorating tip or spoon into a small plastic bag with a zipper lock; with scissors, snip a tiny hole in one corner of bag and squeeze out frosting to decorate cookies. Makes 1 cup icing.


•Recipe can be doubled.


•To prevent sticking, roll dough between two pieces of parchment paper lightly dusted with flour.  Avoid using too much flour or cookies will be dry.


•For sturdier cookies when working with children, roll dough to ¼- inch thickness.


•Dip cookie cutters in a little flour to prevent sticking when cutting dough.


•Coat a metal spatula with cooking spray and use to transfer cut cookies to baking sheet.


1. The Joy of Eating by Ellyn Satter, MD, RD, SCSW, BCD, Weight Management Matters, Fall 2011.  Citation: Taylor P, Funk C Craighill P. Pew Research Center, 2006.


2. The Snack Food Trap by Laura Beil. Newsweek. Nov. 5,  2012


3. Exercise.  More Proof Staying Physically Active Keeps Your Aging Brain Sharp.  Tufts Health &Nutrition Letter.  November 2011 Vol 29 # 9. 


4. Stress: Exercise and Give Your Mind a Rest. by Pam Leblanc/Austin American-Statesman. Seattle Times Nov. 4, 2012


5. Partial Sleep Deprivation and Energy Balance in Adults: An Emerging Issue for Consideration by Dietetic Practitioners. JD Shlisky, TJ Hartman, PM Kris-Etherton, CJ Rogers, NA Sharkey. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. November 2012 pp. 1785-1795.



Copyright © Lorelle S Del Matto 2012





lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.

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