Holiday Food: Fun Traditions & Good Fuel

This is a post about Holiday food: traditional food and – we can’t forget – food that keeps you well and strong!

Food is a funny thing – its experiences are relative, kind of like the weather. A long time ago, I lived in Australia. We arrived in November and as December arrived and each day passed, seeming to get a bit hotter than the last, I asked someone, “just exactly how hot does it get??” Their answer?

“It wouldn’t feel like Christmas if it didn’t get hotter and hotter!”  

A few days ago, one of my granddaughters (six years old) said that “the pretty snowfall makes it feel just like Christmas!”

Polar opposites!

Moving from weather to food, today, I want to talk about finding the food that you want to share with your children over the years – in other words, the food that you’d like to become traditional for your family.

Think back for a moment – what are your memories about holiday food?

One of my favourite memories was of my Grandma making Christmas cake – we immigrated from England and this, along with mince pies and Christmas pudding were my favourites. They still are!

Grandma would make the cake in October and then put it on a high shelf to “age.”  I loved it! But for my early years as a parent, living in Australia meant that it was too hot to manage the Christmas baking of my past. Plus, I was trying to understand and fit in with the culture around us. All that lead to me being pretty late in making Christmas food traditions for my kids.

By definition, a tradition is a “transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.” Put even more simply, traditions represent the stuff that we do on a repeated or predictable basis as they relate to an event. Traditions tend to come about as a result of a special occasion, but with repetition, they start to represent that occasion to our emotions and senses.

But here is a key point: all traditions have their beginnings and there is a time when they are not yet a tradition but a first-time event or item.  Sometimes, good traditions or seasonal practices can emerge out of what feels like a vacuum or a need. Christmas baking came out of a not so happy time for me. Not once, but twice. And I don’t even love baking!

It was a Christmas Eve, when my four little kids, 2, 3, 5, & 7 years old, and I were stuck at home on our own (their dad was gone for the day and I was feeling irritable). I called someone that I knew had a recipe for gingerbread cookies. As she dictated over the phone, I scrawled it on a scrap of paper and that scrap is what I have used for 28 years – until today when I typed it out for you!

We made the cookies, my kids and I, and things went reasonably well. But my patience started to wear thin when the stupid gingerbread shapes wouldn’t lift off the table without breaking!  Freshly-baked gingerbread people lose their charm when they are limbless and headless! I was ready to give up.

But my 7-year-old was watching closely and asked if he could try. I wasn’t in a good mood and didn’t see the point, but the look in his eyes told me to let him have a go. I guess he had what it took! He successfully lifted every cookie onto the cookie-tray. How humbling for me! Such is the life of a parent!

After they had baked and while they were still soft, we used a straw to pierce a hole in each head (gingerbread people have a rough life!) and we found 4 colours of yarn  – one for each child – to claim their own and tie them to the tree. Funds were pretty tight that year and together with a long string of popcorn and cranberries, these gingerbread figures made up most of our tree decorations.

The best part was when a visitor came. All four little ones were so excited to show their cookies and each one wanted the guest to have one with their colour yarn.

Next Christmas came with an expectation of gingerbread cookies and then the next. But this year was different; I was newly single, and with four children. We were only two months into the separation/divorce process and all feeling quite raw. For some crazy reason, I jumped into baking to ease the pain. I’m not sure what I was thinking! Or maybe I do know: I’m pretty sure that I associated baking with a child’s happiness, and this was a place to start.

I found a book at our local library by Susan Purdy (no longer in print or I would leave a link) and copied two recipes: Peppernut Spice Cookies and Italian Panettone. The kids loved them and together with making and decorating gingerbread and butter cookies, we suddenly had traditions that they enjoyed and recognized as familiar.

The fragrance and taste of these four recipes began to carry the season on their own.

The chocolate chip panettone, as we came to call it (we replaced the dried fruit with choc chips to suit the kid’s tastes), was our Christmas morning breakfast and the other cookies, we made and decorated to give away.

But it was the peppernut spice that had the strongest fragrance! One of my girls always said that it “smells like Christmas” when I heated the molasses, honey, brown sugar and butter. When she was older, and spent a school year in Japan, I made a batch to go in with her Christmas package, knowing that it would smell like Christmas as soon as the box was opened.

It’s just baking, but these things bring warmth, fragrance and the good feelings that evolve around good memories and emotions.

  • What were your childhood memories of food?
  • What smells like Christmas or the Holidays to you?
  • What would you like for your kids to remember when they are grown up?

Are you starting from scratch?

The nice thing about starting out is that you can define the beginnings in the way that you want, and life doesn’t have to be perfect to do that. I didn’t start Christmas baking “traditions” until my youngest of four was 2 years old, and our lives weren’t going very well.  When “not going well” turned into “shipwrecked”, we added to our baking list – and these things became ours.

The baking that we did became part of our holiday experience that reflected our family unit for the time that we were together.

You can start now – this year and, if you don’t like what you have, you can start over!

The main deal is that it represents you and your family – that you all like it. I don’t like butter cookies and wouldn’t have included them but one of my kids didn’t like the cookies that had molasses in them – peppernut spice and gingerbread. What matters is that everyone feels represented in some way.

OK – we can’t forget the food that keeps you well and strong!

This is the flipside of all that warm, fuzzy, tradition-making baking!

Let’s talk about taking care of yourself!

A big part of supporting good parenting is supporting the parents – and in December, supporting parents includes talking about food! There seems to be tons of food at this time of year, food that stick to us grown-ups for weeks or months after the fact!

Here’s the problem, when you are not at your best, it is easier to over-react and be more irritable than usual.

That affects your kiddos. You want to keep your fuel supply up – think of your car! Nothing other than the right kind of fuel will make it work well. Since food is our fuel – we need to be mindful of what we eat so that we can be our best for our kids!

Here’s are some thoughts on how to look after yourself when there is an abundance of treats on hand.

1. Plan what to eat before your next hunger pang.

At this time of year when hunger arrives and those delicious, satisfying Christmas treats are just hanging around waiting to be eaten, they get eaten. The end. Been there, done that, got the pounds!

Try having the day’s food either thought through or even better, ready and you will be ahead of the game.

2. Look for ready-made healthy options.

Make things easier for yourself. I usually don’t buy ready made stuff, but when I’m busy, I do.  It’s just better for me. I buy things like pre-sliced deli-cheese or meat, quick to grab healthy snacks, ready made salads,

…anything to make good-for-you food more appealing and as fast as cookies.

On that note:

3. Have good food in the fridge, ready to eat! (see # 1 – it all starts at the grocery store!)

Its so tempting to make an “exception” for “special treats” because “It’s Christmas!” But there are so many special treats that they are not an exception! They are a December norm! An apple or a veggie feels like an exception!

When you bring your groceries in, take 15-20 minutes to get things ready to eat:

  • wash and cut veggies
  • I even pre-cut lettuce if I want to eat salads
  • wash the fruit
  • boil some eggs
  • take stuff out of its package and put it in storage containers, ready to eat.  

If you do this, you are more likely to grab good stuff when you’re hungry. Last night, I pre-grated beets (one of my faves, especially with lime juice) and carrots. Today, I’m looking forward to a quick salad assembly for lunch.

4. Drink a small cup of water for every cup of coffee, even decaf.

It’s easy to drink only energy or comfort drinks when we’re pressed for time. Decaf coffee is my go-to and I’m sure my body appreciates water! (I’m on my 3rd cup of decaf as I write this – more water coming soon!)

Here is a big deterrent:

5. Only eat the special treats when your kiddo can see you and will want one too.

Yup, what’s good for them is good for you! If you have 2, give them 2. That will help to keep your eating in line!

6. Sometimes, just sometimes, the only way for me to not crave something is to just eat LOTS until I’m sick of it.

Not recommended.  Sorry I mentioned it. Don’t tell your kids.

Here’s a word that many of us don’t like:

7. Exercise.

I know, you don’t have time. But if every little calorie adds up, every little squat, push-up against the counter-top while you wait for the kettle to boil for your umpteenth cup of coffee can add up too!

  • Go on YouTube. Find something that you like. Even 5 minutes here and there is better than nothing
  • Maybe just turn up the music and have a dance party. Hard core dancing takes a lot of energy! Your kids will love you. Unless they’re teens – then you’ll just embarrass them! Or, maybe they will join you! Just maybe
  • Go for a walk around the block. It’s amazing how much a little physical exertion can improve our outlook, and consequently, how we interact with our kids.
  • If nothing else, from Charles Nelson, PhD Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School Council Member, National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Harvard University, Excerpt from “Embryonic & Neural Development: Setting the Stage for the Lifespan” said: “The only known, effective intervention of aging is exercise!”

You definitely want to be around, and in your best available health, to enjoy all that traditional food with your family!

Here’s to great Christmas food, to traditions that embody a beautiful sense of belonging, of joy and being loved, and to dancing all those extra calories away, with an apple for a chaser! Cheers!

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What are your favourite food traditions? Will you share with us? I’d love to hear your stories!

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