Every family has their own set of holiday traditions that revolve around food. In my family they include Brown Sugar Shortbread, mince tarts, lemon curd tarts, my grandfather’s gingersnap cookie recipe, and “Nicky Balls” which are a sort of chocolate rum ball. Legend has it that as a tiny tot my attempts to say “Christmas Balls” came out sounding like Nicky Balls, and the name stuck.
One year, in an attempt to minimize, my mother asked everyone what their must-have Christmas baking items were so she could make only those things. Problem was, everyone had a different answer. Mine: Nicky Balls. To me they just taste like Christmas.
My family always had a Nicky Ball rolling day where we’d all get busy scooping spoonfuls of the dough into our hands, rolling it into balls, and tossing in a bag of sugar. It’s sticky work, hands needing to be rinsed every dozen balls or so, but to me it always symbolized the gates into the holidays had been officially opened.
Here in Stockholm I’ve made a tradition of rolling a half-batch of Nicky Balls with my dear friend Alison, who loves them as much as I do and takes the job seriously. Each year I send her home with a small box of Nicky Balls as a reward for her hard work, and reserve the rest to be put out at our annual Christmas party, where inevitably she and I are the only two hovering over the Nicky Ball plate at the dessert table. And each year, I get a text that reads something along these lines:
“Ughhhhhhh, I ate the entire box! I have no control around these things! Don’t give me any more ever again.”
To which I say, listen: we make exactly one batch of Nicky Balls each year. One. And they were put on this good green earth to be enjoyed guilt free.
This is, in general, my mantra around holiday eating.
I make one batch of Nicky Balls each year. I make one batch of Brown Sugar Shortbread each year. I get to eat my friend Emily’s incredible cornbread stuffing once a year.
The holidays are for a finite period each year. If, for you, they kick off with Thanksgiving in November and run through the end of December, we’re talking about a month. That’s 1/12th of the year, or just over 8% of your year if you want to look at it like that.
In general, I encourage people to be their most healthy selves roughly 80% of the time, which means eating lots of vegetables, moving your body, drinking water, and all those good things you already know.
When the holiday season rolls around and brings with it parties and cookies and cocktails and sparkling glittering fun, it can seem like things get way out of balance. And indeed, for a couple of weeks they probably do. But how about instead of beating yourself up for that, you step back and take a look at the big picture?
A shift in mindset
Would a shift in mindset be helpful in making peace with your holiday eating? Can you regard that rum ball not as naughty, but as a lovingly hand made holiday treat you’ll get to enjoy but once a year? How does that change things?
I think that, for many folks, the trouble with the holiday season is that the prevalence of treats or “naughty” foods that you’ve told yourself (or society has told you) you need to restrict. But seriously, what did a chocolate rum ball ever do to be naughty? Did it steal candy from a kid? Prank call the neighbours? I think not.
Some people who are working towards a health goal or trying to make lifestyle changes regard the holiday season fearfully, as a time of year when their progress is under threat and can easily be derailed. And then what? All will be lost?
Listen, I assure you you’re not going to find yourself buried under a pile of rum balls in March.
Remember also that occasional overindulgence is part of the human experience. When you do overindulge, there is an opportunity to learn from it.
If you are able to approach the experience with a curiosity about it, you’ll more likely be able to tap into intuitive and mindful eating. Related: A Mindful Eating Exercise.
A couple of year ago I was in London visiting my sister, and together we made a batch of Nicky Balls. In the evening we watched Love Actually and several boxes of chocolates were opened. I ate too many and felt unwell.
When I checked in with myself I realized I was annoyed not that I overindulged, but that I had overindulged on the wrong thing. Instead of getting to enjoy my beloved Nicky Balls I’d gorged on low-quality chocolate. Boo!
That’s a learning I have taken forward, and I now make sure to check in with myself about what I really want to enjoy. If I am going to eat past the point of satisfaction I ask myself why, and if the answer seems reasonable (FYI, cornbread stuffing is a totally reasonable answer) then I move on.
If you do overindulge and feel physically unwell, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Was it worth it? Was it a once a year indulgence of a much-loved food?
- How far past my satisfaction point did I go? What would be a better place to stop next time?
- If it wasn’t worth it, what are the things that would have felt worth it? What should I have been prioritizing instead?
- What are some self-care things I can do for myself to feel physically better now? Go for a walk? Take a bath? Drink a glass of water?
If you overindulge and you feel emotionally unwell as a result, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- What are the emotions this sensation is bringing up? Shame? Guilt? Self-judgement? Anger? Disappointment?
- When I sit with those emotions, where do I think they come from? Is it internal pressure from myself? External expectations?
- What can I learn from this experience?
- What are some self-care things I can do for myself to feel emotionally better now? Writing in a journal? Talking to a friend? Reading about intuitive eating?
Using the tools if intuitive eating, mindfulness, and curiosity has allowed me to make peace with holiday eating and to frame it in a positive, celebratory, and finite way.
I hope you can do the same: Relax. Enjoy.
If you’ve acknowledged that your mental and social well-being benefit from these things, how do you navigate the rest of it - specifically your physical well-being?
Activity does the body good. Get outside, breathe in some fresh air, and get moving; you’ll feel better. And while it’s pretty unlikely you’ll burn off your entire dinner with a walk around the block, that walk will get your blood pumping and support your digestive tract in doing the work it’s gotta do.
Exercise is also beneficial for your mental health, so if you need a break from talking politics with your Aunt Bertha, or you just don’t have it in you to make small talk at another party, pound the pavement. Take the dog for a walk, walk to the store to pick up another carton of eggnog, walk around to look at the sparkly lights, whatever. Just move your body.
The holiday season typically involves a lot of well-seasoned delicious food that might be richer / saltier / fattier than you’re normally accustomed to eating. It also brings a lot of alcohol to the table, and a slew of sweets that make a special appearance at this time of year.
Chances are pretty good you could benefit from an extra glass of water now and then.
Eat green things
Deck the halls with ka-le salads, fa la la la la, la la la la.
But seriously, take a break from rum balls and eggnog now and then, ask your body what it really wants, and eat something green. You’ll feel better.
This recipe was originally published December 8, 2017. It was edited and most recently updated on November 22, 2019.
I love this post. It’s a common conversation in my office so I’m going to share it around tomorrow :). I appreciate your wholistic and realistic approach to food and the world. Thank you.
Ps. I would like that Nicky balls recipe...
I have made your brown sugar shortbread twice now to include in my Christmas baking gifts. Lovely flavour and easy to work with. Thank you for sharing. In this season of excess, I enjoy your moderate approach to holiday eating.
Happy New Year.
I love those brown sugar shortbread! Such a simple but wonderful recipe. I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I do, Colleen!
It's been a very long time since I read any food blogs but bloody hell, I needed to read this post tonight. I've been having a really shitty time with food recently and have been panicking a lot about the upcoming Christmas break but this has given me so much to think about (and is much more useful than any of the advice I got from my therapist, ha!). I'm going to go back and catch up on the last two years of posts now because I have always loved your sensible approach to healthy eating and I need more of that in my life.
Kathryn! What a lovely surprise to find you in my inbox! I've missed you, and think of you often. I'm glad you found this post useful, and if you're looking for more along the same lines I'd hit up the Live Well category in the archives. If you want to talk or are looking for more specific advice, shoot me an email any time!
Great post. I can't wait to get my hands on those Nicky Balls!!!!!!!!!!!
I've rolled only a few, but so far they're tasting mighty fine.
Am I the only one brave enough to ask for the recipe for Nicky balls?
Haha, if you want it, I'll send it to you! It's not a Muffin Myth kind of recipe, really, so not going to post on the blog, but happy to email out.
I would love it if you don't mind sharing. I'm always looking for something special for the holidays.
This post was a lovely read ,with much food for thought. I learned a few nights ago that a WhiteSpot fudge brownie dessert, even just half of the massive serving, eaten at 9 at night gives me indigestion. On the other hand most of a Purdy's chocolate chewie bar at 8 pm does not..
Enjoy those Nicky balls made possible by the transport of boxes of Nilla wafers across the ocean.
I've only rolled a few balls to nibble on at this point, but so far they taste just right. Thanks for carrying the key ingredient across international borders.
Love this post and the great advice. I'm kind of weird and stubborn in that I do the opposite of what is the norm. I guess I'm that old that I know my body can't do all the candy and treats, so I "treat" myself to pretty veg dishes and the like (special ones, not midweek kind of stuff). Yes, weird. I have no problem or hang up with treats, but tend to spread them out a bit. Although I do wish I could gorge on these Nicky balls. I may pester you for the recipe! I so wish my digestion could cope with more festive food, but I know what my body likes and it tells me in no uncertain terms!
Nicky balls definitely aren't your kind of recipe, Kellie! I'm sure you might nibble one, but I don't think they're up your alley. Still, a childhood classic for me, and I just can't fathom a Christmas without them.