Change Your Food Story, Revamp Your Holidays and Refresh Your Lifestyle

We’re loving REI’s campaign this year to #optoutside partly because that is what we decided to do 4 years ago.

My last traditional Thanksgiving at home I spent with a nursing newborn, mastitis and a not so subtle family suggestion that I had purchased the wrong brand of turkey for the big day.

It seemed to me that no one was really happy with how that day went and so I found myself at sort of a crossroads.

 No more of this domestication stuff which always seems to include a minimum of ten hours work for a meal that leaves everyone bloated, not to mention the time it takes to clean the house for company- and then there’s the fact that my kids don’t even like turkey, stuffing or mashed potatoes….

I decided I’m done with the stupid turkey.

I myself am fleeing the coop, flying on imaginary wings away from the tedium and tension of the traditional Thanksgiving Dinner.

Together my family and I decided to swap holiday customs for new memories that would make us healthier and happier. I wanted to teach my children to hold onto other values, like enjoying exercise, the outdoors and wholesome foods.

At that point in my life I realized that some closely held holiday habits were holding my family back with regard to food and celebration, particularly what my friend and mentor, Dr. Cono Badalamenti calls our “food story.”

As Midwest transplants to the California mountains, we have worked hard to maintain both our families’ holiday experiences while at the same time creating new patterns of behavior that would be distinctly our own. It was time for a change.

You’re Not the Only One

Pressure to maintain a certain lifestyle isn’t limited to the family unit: in this most modern century, we are inundated with moving images and Photoshopped pictures of what we should eat and should look like if we want to be socially acceptable and happy.

Gleeful advertisements of skinny people frolicking in the swimming pool: “if you only use this product, you’ll look like Bikini Girl”!

But the next advertisement is a juicy, warm, fragrant and luscious pizza? To which advertisement did you succumb? Just asking.

The good news is that you’re not the only one who struggles with the ever-shifting suggestions.

Here’s the bad news: the CDC says that in the United States 1 in 2 adults struggles with chronic disease, eighty percent of which is preventable and/or treatable with lifestyle changes.

How we live, how we celebrate, what we do when we gather all affect our health and wellbeing. Each holiday brings apple pie and stuffing, each birthday brings cupcakes and don’t forget the snacks for soccer.

But How Do I change?

Dr. Badalamenti, a physician in lifestyle and preventive medicine, has dedicated his life to encouraging, preventing and restoring community health. He describes our consumption habits as our food story. Much of what we do and why we do it is a result of advertising, culture, convenience and tradition. The mad men of advertising know what they’re doing, plying us with repeated gorgeous images of food that is often packaged, engorged with sugar and thus addictive.

Of course, not all tradition is bad, but Americans are now at the point where our traditions are killing us.

The most important aspect to changing a lifestyle is to start with small objectives that are easily attainable; follow those objectives with challenges to go farther each time, even if it’s parking the car farther out in the parking lot and walking vigorously to a destination. Achieving those goals can become sustainable encouragement expanded to larger goals each day.

Revamping Holidays

Admittedly the big ole turkey and stuffing are fun and traditional but what if we decided eat something that doesn’t make us fall asleep afterwards? Salmon? How about portobello mushroom burgers on the grill?

Ever tried grilled asparagus or romaine? Yum.

How about a healthy revamp of the traditional pumpkin pie to include less sugar and dairy?

For my own family, we decided to pack up all our friends and head to Joshua Tree National Park for Thanksgiving. We are a group of climbers and outdoor folks who now spend 4 days camping in the desert and haven’t looked back since.

We still have a potluck with some of the traditional fares, but we all share the burden rather than placing it on a single individual. Our emphasis isn’t so much the meal, but what we get to do while we’re there. Rock hopping and climbing, hiking, exploration, investigation and plant identification have all become part of our new holiday tradition, a tradition I hope my children will pass to theirs. The benefit to being active is that you are more motivated to eat well when you know the next day holds a run, hike or climb. Basic physics says an object that is at rest will stay at rest and an object that is in motion will stay in motion.

Refreshing Your Lifestyle

But, you protest, I don’t live in the mountains or near a desert. Your ideas won’t work for me!

Ask this: What can I do to make my life richer, more vigorous and interesting?

Then, like a Mama Bear searching for food for her cubs, go on a hunt to enhance your (and their) lifestyle and food story.


  • Don’t be discouraged or judgmental if your friends or family don’t embrace your ideas. Remember this is your health and your lifestyle.
  • Plan your behavior. Determine that you will make changes and then don’t look back. Nothing has to change dramatically to actually make a difference.
  • Find your tribe. Maybe your relatives are into the 24 hour TV marathon and eating buckeyes (I’m from Ohio, can you tell?) I get it- we’ve all been there. But find someone or another family that wants to break free from sitting and watching. Find a crew of people to explore with. They are out there!

Plan activity:

  • Add a tradition of movement to your holiday. Is there a Turkey Trot Thanksgiving morning in your town? Remember you don’t have to run. You can walk. In every race, you’ll find walkers pulling up the rear, engaged in the same effort as runners.
  • Plan a walk around the block or a fun exercise routine the morning of the big meal. If possible, take a walk after too, chatting with family members as you go. This can be an enjoyable time to either relax and leisurely enjoy the company or trot energetically to burn off calories.
  • Play corn hole, even if it’s chilly. Keep score and laugh heartily when you don’t score.
  • How about inspiring a dueling family turkey bowl (football game) or cross country skiing or a hike at the local park? Parks are a wonderful resource for the aspiring exerciser.

The actual feast:

  • Spread out the work so no one gets stuck doing everything. If Grandma cooked the meal, give Grandma a break, help her out the door to relax on the porch while the family takes over to clean and do dishes.
  • Be conscious of the dishes you plan for the big day. Not everything has to have sugar and fat in it. If you’re going to cook from scratch- what if you spend a few extra minutes finding a healthier version to make?
  • Put a plate of veggies on the table before the meal. Unadorned veggies are filling, nutritious and have a way of tamping down the enormity of an appetite.
  • If you’re at someone else’s home for dinner, bring your own dish to the table. If you know your weakness is desserts, find a recipe for a healthier one. Make your own healthier side dishes to contribute. Boost your meal with a salad so that you can still eat some of the things you love, but you eat the stuff that’s good for you first.
  • Most of all… Eat slowly, enjoy your food and STOP EATING WHEN YOU ARE FULL.

Be grateful

Sometimes we feel as if the culture, both generally and familially, is a tidal wave in which we can only be swept away, with little control or direction.

Being both grateful and happy are choices we can control that can only make us healthier by committing wishes to actions.

I did Black Friday once and figured out that it was a side of humanity that I just didn’t want to see. Maybe shopping with your pals makes you thankful; if so, have fun and be grateful that we live in a country with lots of cool options for shoes and the greatest ponchos ever made.

Five years later, the tradition of making Thanksgiving an adventure weekend in Joshua Tree National Park has actually rubbed off on our extended families. This year we’ll have 3 generations camping for the first time out there. For me, it began with the question:  What actually makes me grateful? It isn’t the food. And it’s really not even the place. It’s movement and activity and being in the moment and engaged. Time In with my family but outside. Time filled with plant identification, climbing, lots of laughs around the campfire and the brilliance of the Milky Way in the evening far removed from civilization. Regardless of your locale, you’ve got options and adventures to find.

Now go do it. Make it happen.