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?
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.