So much of the holiday season is focused on food. While that can be a source of enormous pleasure and enjoyment, it also can cause terrible stress and tension. Between trying to please everyone, the sheer work involved in shopping and prepping food, and the issues that can crop up at the table, the holidays can seem like a minefield.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how your holiday prep—and the meal itself—can actually increase your well-being instead of stressing you out.
1. Celebrate with friends. For many of us, the majority of our family get-togethers take place within just a few weeks of the year, and that can be stressful. This year, try incorporating friends into the holiday experience, too—people you love to spend time with and who lift your mood. Don’t assume everyone you know has somewhere to go; instead, issue an open invitation to friends to join your family gathering, and include their family members as well. It shifts the dynamic and puts the whole group on their best behavior; the table becomes a place of engagement and fun as strangers or acquaintances get to know each other better.
2. Host on your own terms. Orchestrating an event that you truly enjoy, and is a reflection of you, is more empowering and easier than trying to satisfy others’ expectations. If you’re the host—which often means you’re the chef, as well—then you set the mood, decide who’s at the table, design the menu, and determine the flow of the gathering. Added bonus: You get a built-in excuse to retreat to the kitchen whenever you need a break. Don’t hesitate to ask for help; people love to pitch in. If who gets to make what dish causes tension, ask your guests to help by contributing to the aesthetic of the table. One person brings flowers, another brings candles, someone else makes the centerpiece, etc.
3. Take the pressure off. If you’re expecting yourself to create a holiday table that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, lower the bar a little. One way I do that is by imagining the worst-case scenario: Dinner’s a flop, so you order pizza. That won’t happen—but even if it did, everyone loves pizza, and now there’s a fun story in your family history. Reduce stress with mindful planning, too: Create a menu that you can make almost entirely ahead, so all your dishes need is a few minutes in the oven or a quick sauté before serving. If you’re hosting loved ones with a variety of eating styles and needs, focus on making lots of simple vegetable and grain dishes and dress them up with sauces and vinaigrettes—like salsa verde or lemon tahini (which benefit from being made ahead).
4. Pause to give thanks before the meal. We’re all familiar with the concept of saying grace, but what if you took it a little further and gave thanks to everyone who contributed to your meal? That could include the natural elements that nurtured the vegetables you’re eating, the farmers who grew and harvested them—even the animals you’re eating. Sharing gratitude is also a great way to set a positive tone for the meal; starting with gratitude subtly discourages people from bringing up negative topics, like divisive political issues or family conflicts.
5. Take the dinner conversation deeper. During the Thanksgiving meal last month, my friend Richard put this question out to the group: “When was the last time you cried tears of joy?” We went around the table and everyone shared their stories and responded to each other’s reflections. I love discussions like this, which reveal more of who we are and what’s most important to us, rather than focusing on what we “do.” The idea is to talk about things that speak directly to our emotions rather than our judging minds.
What’s most important to remind yourself is that, ultimately, a celebration is about the feeling, not the food. The context in which we dine together—the mood, the conversation, the lighting, the music—is so much more powerful than what was on the table. The most memorable meals aren’t the ones we post on Instagram, they’re the ones we remember in our hearts.