dinner with masks

The 2020 holiday season is upon us, but this year there could be an unwelcome guest: COVID-19. It is very likely that you, your families and loved ones are adjusting to this circumstance, while hoping that it will not come again. In the meantime, let’s plan carefully for the safest possible holidays and holiday meals.

The unfortunate fact is that seniors are at a much higher-than-average risk if they should become infected with COVID-19. This year, “Healthy Holiday Eating” means paying special attention to the conditions in which meals are served and to the types of gatherings we have. For once, this is more important than calorie counts, nutrition, exercise or rest schedules. This situation poses a real problem for seniors.

The thought of missing a holiday meal and the chance to be with family and friends is particularly painful. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and New Year’s often provide seniors an opportunity to be with the people who mean the most to them. Missing this opportunity is not an easy choice. Yet, public health authorities are urging caution for all people, especially seniors. Let’s think ahead!

Large gatherings where people are crowded together are considered high-risk environments, even if all the attendees seem healthy at the time. This is especially true if some of the crowd has traveled, coming into contact with numerous strangers. Seniors should think carefully about attending any gathering where returning relatives, college students or even children attending public school are present. A safer alternative is a medium-sized, in-person gathering that can be arranged to allow individuals at least six feet of social distancing.

Safer still is a small, outdoor gathering where people from different households can keep socially distant (6 feet apart), wear masks and do not share utensils. If this sounds strange, maybe we should think again. We are lucky in Florida—if the weather is good, an outdoor picnic in the back yard, or an informal meal on the patio may be a pleasant and safer occasion. Using disposable napkins, drink containers, utensils and plates as well as having hand sanitizer available can add to the safety margin. It’s a good thought and it could even become a family tradition.

The safest possible alternative is the virtual-only event, where contact is exclusively through telephone or computer. To many, this seems to be an excessive precaution, but we are addressing this advice to the senior population. Our Seniors are the people most at risk from this infection and it has already killed over 240,000 Americans. Keep in mind that this figure is for preholiday, early November and infection rates are rising, especially in the Midwest and South. As painful as it seems, the healthiest holiday meals for 2020 may be small gatherings served to members of your own household.

All seniors, their own families and friends must weigh the risks involved in their unique situation. The prudent thing to do will often be to put off any large gatherings in favor of simple celebrations with few attendees. If you do attend or hold any celebration, try to follow CDC Guidelines as closely as possible. Remember, it appears likely that a vaccine is on the way, and hopefully, 2020 will be the only time we give this advice.

All of that said, let’s remember the common-sense rules about holiday eating and drinking that should apply every year. Many people worry over holiday weight gain, perhaps without good cause. Years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study indicating that the average weight gain over the holiday season was just over one pound. This was far less than most people had guessed (five pounds). The bad news was that this extra weight was still around months later. Over time this creeping weight pushes many seniors into the “medically obese” range (according to the CDC, this is 42.8% of adults aged 60 and older).

Here are some common-sense things to remember for this and all holiday seasons. There is almost bound to be a lot of food temptation you cannot avoid, so think ahead to develop a plan for dealing with the circumstances.

  • Remember that a lot of holiday calories come not from food, but from beverages. Keep this in mind during events in which you are likely to be offered drinks you would not normally consume.
  • Do not starve yourself the day before, or even a few hours before, a holiday meal; this will probably result in overeating when you do eat. Your blood sugar will fall, making you feel an exaggerated hunger just when there is an abundance of easily available food.
  • Start holiday mornings with some form of exercise. A brisk walk is a good way to start the celebration.
  • If you are in charge of preparing the holiday meal, do not feel obligated to prepare a multi-course feast. Concentrate on dishes that are not unusually high in calories and provide two or three low-calorie choices along with traditions like mashed potatoes.
  • Choose appetizers like celery, carrot sticks or some other alternative. A lot of mindless overeating occurs before the actual meal.
  • Weigh yourself on the Monday before Thanksgiving and again a week after New Year’s Day. If you have gained a noticeable amount of weight, resolve to lose it before Valentine’s Day,
  • Especially this year, remember that eating is not the reason for Thanksgiving, Chanukah or Christmas. Treasure the moments you can spend with family, friends and loved ones. Look forward to the safer, happier days that are surely coming.

If you are a senior who is self-isolated, or if you know of such a person, think about ways to reach out to others. This is a time to use both our imaginations and our self-control to bring happiness, love and comfort to others.

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