From the ubiquitous lo-hei sessions during Chinese New Year to the traditional buka puasa (breaking fast) feasts during the Muslim month of Ramadan (and every potluck party in between), communal eating during any holiday season is very much part of Asian culture. To celebrate when it is the festive time of year, family and friends often gather around food and eat together, whether it is at home, a restaurant or a barbecue pit.

And these days, with Shabu-Shabu, steamboat, seafood and all sorts of buffets offered all-year-round, we eat with our colleagues, family and friends like it is the festive season even when it is not.

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Benefits of Eating Together

Eating together has plenty of benefits compared to eating alone. The chief benefit is the social interaction, which psychologists say is important for mental health. It isn’t just good for your mental health, it is good for bonding as well.

When you eat in a group, you also get to order multiple dishes and can then have a varied diet.

A group of friends eating healthy food during the holidays

However, while eating communally has benefits, this is only if it is done mindfully. The one communal holiday meal you should approach cautiously is the big feasts during occasions such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Deepavali. In multi-racial Singapore, you are bound to be a guest at one of these, whether you celebrate the festival or not. At such times, hosts tend to put on a big spread of holiday food.

How to Stay Healthy During the Festive Season

Plenty of people experience weight gain at these holiday parties during festive seasons because (generous hosts aside), they get carried away by the good cheer and are not aware of what and how much holiday food they are eating. When we consume a big amount of food but don’t use the excess calories up through physical activities, we inevitably end up with unnecessary weight gain over a period of time.

#1 Avoid going for visits on an empty stomach

Ms Lynette Goh, Senior Dietitian, Clinical Services at NHG Polyclinics suggests that you start the day with a healthy and balanced breakfast that includes wholegrain foods, low-fat protein and fruit. “Avoid going for visits on an empty stomach to prevent overeating or over-indulging on festive treats,” she says.

#2 Eat until you are no longer hungry, not until you feel full

According to Ms Goh, it takes a while for your body to register that your stomach is filled to capacity so if you eat until you feel really full, you would have over-eaten.

#3 Be canny about what you eat

Another secret is to be canny about what you eat. Choose foods that are high in fibre because these will keep you fuller for longer.

Also, before you start on the main course, ‘cheat’ by eating a healthy dish that has lots of low-energy dense-foods such as salads or vegetable soups. These will fill you up before you hit the mince pie, roast turkey or the beef rendang.

#4 Drink water instead of drinking calories

One easy trick to limit your calorie intake is to follow a simple rule: Don’t drink your calories. Drinking 330 ml of water fills you up as much as a 330 ml can of a soft drink — minus the calories. So instead a bottle of juice, a soda or an alcoholic drink, opt for a few glasses of water instead.

Maybe for an informal gathering such as a barbeque, you could do as Ms Goh suggests: “Consider bringing your own water bottle filled with water and slices of lemon and cucumber,” she says. “It is a refreshing alternative to plain water and can quench your thirst.”

#5 Say ‘later’ when you have trouble saying ‘no’

Often, when you are visiting, the host constantly ladles food onto your plate, insisting that you eat more. If you feel you can’t say ‘no’, try saying ‘later’ instead. This way, you don’t seem impolite and hopefully, your host won’t remember to press you to eat more.

#6 Eat slowly

Finally, eat slowly and focus on the socialising rather than eating. Eating slowly allows your body time to register that you have had enough so you don’t overeat.

Related: Choosing Healthier Chinese New Year Foods

#7 Offer healthy dishes for healthy eating

If you are the host, make things easier on your guests by offering healthier dishes. Start by serving plenty of vegetables so that people fill up on these, says Ms Goh. Offer high-fibre carbohydrates like brown rice, brown rice bee hoon and wholegrain bread. White rice is a hard habit to break but you can make the transition easier by mixing brown and white rice together, she further suggests.

Typically, seafood and meat make up the main course at dinner parties. Where possible, serve more fish, especially oily fish such as salmon and mackerel that are high in omega 3-fatty acids and are good for the heart.

When you serve meat, offer lean meats rather than fatty cuts. Remove the skin from poultry before cooking, for example. Avoid deep-frying and instead stir-fry, steam, grill, and boil your food.

Communal eating is about celebrating life, and nothing celebrates life more than delicious food that promotes health. So stay healthy and stay fit by eating wisely and finding the time to stay physically active during the holidays, and make it a healthy holiday instead of one that causes too much damage to your health and waistline.

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