How to navigate special occasions

Special occasions. One of the first big obstacles everyone faces when trying to change their diet.

In fact, I’ve come across many potential clients who postpone working with me because of a special event coming up.

“I want to start the program, but my best friend’s wedding is next week”. Or a big work celebration, or a long-awaited vacation.

And I totally get it! Food should be PART of your celebration, not something that keeps you away from the party. But because you are celebrating, you also don’t want your food to make you feel terrible, right?

So how do you walk the fine line? How do you indulge, celebrate and enjoy your food without suffering physical consequences? And on the flip side, how do you enjoy a fun special occasion without stressing about missing out on the cake (or whatever else you don’t wanna miss out on)?

A couple weeks ago my husband and I celebrated our 5-year wedding anniversary with a night away. So instead of telling you how to navigate these types of special occasions, I thought I would just show you how I did it.

On Saturday our plan was to check in to the hotel at 3pm, hang out by the pool until it’s time to get ready for dinner, and then dinner reservations at 8:30pm. One thing I do absolutely recommend is to have a loose game plan for food. One of my favorite quotes is “Be stubborn about your goals, but flexible about your methods”. So I emphasize the word “loose” when it comes to the game plan. You need to be prepared, but not so stuck to a plan that you don’t know how to adapt if it changes.

Which is exactly what happened to us on Saturday afternoon. I had planned on having a couple of drinks by the pool (my go-to cocktail is vodka and club soda with a lime), and even though they didn’t have the food menu online, I knew I could probably at least order guacamole (always a safe bet!).

Welp…. we check in, change into our swimsuits, go to the infinity pool, and……it’s PACKED. Like Jersey Shore packed. Beautiful people everywhere (oh, and lots and lots of children). The pool looks like human soup, and we can forget about getting a lounge chair.

OK then. Plan B. Luckily, the hotel has a sports bar downstairs, so we head down there for our afternoon of hanging out (really my number one priority was simply sitting around and doing nothing, so who cares if it’s by a pool or in a restaurant, right?). A sports bar is definitely not the place I can usually find anything decent to eat, so I didn’t have high hopes.

Here’s the thing. I knew I was going to splurge this weekend. I made a plan to. But at the same time, I also certainly did NOT want to feel gross and bloated. So how do you walk that fine line?

In the past I would have gone all out. I would have said, Jennifer you eat REALLY well 90% of the time, so just go crazy! And I would have enjoyed every bite of food, and then felt really awful afterwards.

I didn’t want to do that this time. (Confession: when looking at the menu in the sports bar, my eye definitely stopped for a few seconds on the cheese fries).

Instead my mindset shifts to “what food am I going to enjoy that ALSO makes me feel at least halfway decent?” Lucky for me, this is a trendy sports bar and they had these amazing Avocado Wedges on the menu! Avocados topped with BBQ brisket, chives and tomatoes, cheese and ranch dressing. Is it perfect? Of course not, but that’s not what we are going for this weekend!

This weekend is about mindfully indulging. The BBQ sauce has sugar, the meat and cheese are probably pretty low quality, and nothing is organic, that’s for sure. Did I stress? Nope. Did I feel good about my choice? YEP.

I ate slowly and mindfully, and stopped when I was satisfied. I’m happy I didn’t order french fries fried in canola oil, I’m glad I didn’t have gluten. Totally not worth it at this moment. This was the perfect appetizer.

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Ok, on to dinner.

PRO TIP- before going out to eat, look at the menu online! You can then decide what you want to eat ahead of time, without the pressure of the moment. Find what fits your dietary protocol and what sounds delicious, and then when you get to the restaurant, you don’t even have to worry about looking at the menu.

We made reservations at our favorite restaurant in Dallas, Boulevardier. We only go there once a year maybe, so I already knew that I wanted a bowl of their French onion soup as an appetizer. This was my big indulgence. It’s traditional French onion soup with the big slice of baguette under a mountain of melted cheese.

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If I didn’t LOVE this soup, this indulgence would not have been worth it for me. But this is one of those things that I had been thinking about for days, and so for me it was totally worth the physical consequences of gluten. Matt and I shared the soup, so I got a few bites to satiate my craving for it. Then I ordered the scallops- grilled scallops on a bed of cauliflower puree with fresh vegetables.

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Again, a few years ago, I would have used this weekend as an excuse to go ALL OUT. French onion soup, a heavy pasta dish, and the biggest dessert they had.

But when I slowed down, and made mindful choices, I realized I don’t have to sacrifice nourishment for enjoyment. Those were the best scallops I ever had, and it was a dish that made me FEEL good too!

And then after dinner, I normally would have insisted on dessert, whether I really wanted it or not, because it’s a special occasion and you HAVE TO HAVE IT, right?

There’s a famous pie place across the street, so we wandered over there, got to the front door, and then stopped. And we looked at each other, and said…”I don’t really need pie, do you?” So we skipped it and moved on. No big deal.

Yes, the food can be a integral part of the celebration, but it doesn’t have to be the ONLY part. More important than the pie was the company, and THAT is the reason to celebrate.

The next morning, we wanted to go to brunch, and spent some time deciding on a good place to go- Dallas is famous for brunch, so it’s a big and really important decision.

We settled on Mudhen Meat and Greens, a farm to market restaurant that is literally AT the Dallas Farmer’s Market. I had the most amazing brunch- 2 eggs over easy, a massive slice of heirloom tomato, bacon, chicken sausage and sweet potato puree. It came with 2 pieces of toast that I decided to skip. I could have eaten the toast and not felt bad about it, but I decided in the moment that I didn’t really want the gluten. Not worth it this time.

Here’s the tricky part: I am all for planning out your indulgences. I gave myself the freedom to do that this weekend. I didn’t want to feel restricted, and I wanted to celebrate.

But the tricky part is that planning out your indulgences can take you out of the moment, which is so important when you are learning how to eat mindfully.

I could have very easily given myself permission to go crazy this weekend, and ordered all the gluten, sugar, and heavy foods that I wanted. In the past, I absolutely would have done that. And it’s GREAT to be able to give yourself permission to do that without any guilt.

But at the same time, if I had done that, I wouldn’t have been paying attention to my body. I would have gorged just because I CAN.

Instead, I planned ahead a little- knowing that I wanted the french onion soup, but also giving myself wiggle room in case I found something ELSE I wanted to indulge in. But then I stuck to food that I knew would make me feel my best.

So I got the best of both worlds- I got to indulge and I got to feel good. I ate freely, and didn’t feel restricted. But also, I ate freely, and didn’t feel gross, bloated and nauseous.

I hope this helps open your eyes about how you can learn to eat at special occasions. I don’t want you to feel like you cannot start your health journey if you have a special occasion coming up.

You shouldn’t have to postpone your goals, just for celebrations- first, because hopefully you will have lots and lots of reasons to celebrate in your lifetime.

And secondly, a celebration shouldn’t make you feel deprived.

And being deprived shouldn’t be the only way to hit your goals. If the only way to be healthy was to constantly feel deprived, I can’t believe that very many humans would ever be healthy. 

So tell me in the comments- how do you handle special occasions? Do you go all out? Do you stick to a strict plan? Or do you give yourself some freedom to decide in the moment?

PS- Oh and this takes practice! Getting good at giving yourself the freedom to make decisions in the moment is something I will continue to practice for the rest of my life.  I’m not always perfect at it, and that’s ok too.

If you are considering The 30 Day Real Food Challenge, we’ve got a great Facebook Group that will cheer you on and support you if you have a special occasion scheduled during the program! Find out more here!