My grandma is a very good cook. She also happens to serve food, especially around the holidays, that isn’t exactly kind toward my particular body type. I’m talking ice-cream buckets full of Chex Mix, mashed potatoes dripping in butter, and bottles of Pinot Grigio that somehow magically reappear after they empty. Christmas at my grandma’s house is delicious and exhausting and, if I don’t keep close mental tabs on myself, can throw me into an existential crisis.

For most of my life, I didn’t worry about food. I just ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. A few months into my marriage, though, blessed by birth control’s signature bloat, I noticed my pants fit differently. I tipped over the edge when a well-meaning friend said, “You look a lot healthier when your face is filled out.” Nope, I thought. I’m not going to buy new, comfortably-fitting pants. I’m going to lose these 10 pounds. So I did — and (regrettably) more.

But in the process, I became obsessed with the newfound control I had over my body, and my days became about slashing calories, counting carbs, and exhausting myself with early-evening runs around my neighborhood. All I talked about (and all I cared about, really) was food and exercise. My friends hated being around me, and to be honest, I don’t blame them. I hated being around me too.

Yes, dieting obsessively made me small, but it made my life small too. When you’re obsessed with how you look, nothing is fun. For example, my husband planned a glorious date for our first anniversary, which included picking out *any dress I wanted* at Anthropologie. Instead of enjoying the dress, I obsessed over whether it accentuated my (non-existent) belly fat. At dinner, I ate a side salad and refused to drink a glass of wine to celebrate, lest I ruin all my “progress” (hint: It’s not progress if you’re miserable). Holidays also sucked, as it turns out that the generous grandma serving me food was generally not thrilled by my opting out of every item on my dish except steamed vegetables. My “health regimen” had become less about health and more about fear.

I have to laugh now, because in those days, with youth on my side, I really had nothing to fear at all (and also, hello, beauty and worth are not tied up in pants size). Nearly seven years later, the 10 pounds I obsessed over then have returned, and they are in good company. I’m two kids (and a few dozen pounds) into building a family, and I hardly recognize my tired, soft self in the mirror some days. My pants size has ascended to a number I would have dreaded as a newlywed, and my face is — well, it’s more than “filled out.” To make matters a little more complicated, I’m on an antidepressant that increases weight gain all the more, and with little time to be strategic about meal planning, I tend to eat whatever’s around (three-year-olds really like mac and cheese, it turns out).

I’m pretty surprised: I’m not exactly happy or comfortable in my body, but I don’t feel like my happiness is contingent on my body getting smaller. Maybe it’s because I have a healthier perspective on what real health is. Maybe I’m distracted by my kids. Or maybe I’m just too tired to care. Still, the nagging thoughts are always there, threatening me from the back of my mind. Other moms think you’ve let yourself go, they tell me. Your kids don’t think you’re pretty. You look like a slob in your leggings and oversized hoodie. Get yourself together.

Most of the time, these accusations are easy to ignore. It helps that I try not to weigh myself because, for me, weight hasn’t been the best indicator of health in the past. But when I accidentally peeked at the scale a few weeks ago at a doctor’s appointment, I reached a breaking point. It was different this time, though: I didn’t hate myself. I knew, however, that it was time to start investing some time and intention in my body.

But having been on the wrong side of disordered eating in the past, I have no idea what healthy intention looks like— around the holidays.

A mother helps her toddler drink

Some women’s magazines and clickbait articles about “healthy holiday cooking” have their idea of what it means: Avoid all sugar, cut calories drastically, don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat anything processed (read: Just don’t have fun). And if you do happen to indulge a little too much over the holidays, try a juice cleanse. And if THAT doesn’t work and you’re still not at your peak weight after the New Year, start the Whole30 diet on January 1 and definitely join a gym. In other words, be skinny, whatever the cost. You’ll feel better.

The thing is, though, you probably won’t. In my experience, though pieces of those approaches work — exercise is healthy and being attentive to food is smart — those types of all-or-nothing “get thin quick” schemes are just that. Schemes. Maybe I just have a really good therapist, or perhaps I’ve grown up and just learned to accept my body, however it looks. But I’ve learned that real health — that peaceful, glowing kind of health — starts with loving yourself. With looking at the scale and knowing there’s a deeper story behind every pound. And with feeding your body food that nourishes it, whether that’s buttery mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving or steamed vegetables.

For me, the healthiest approach to eating around the holidays (and always) is a mindful one. It’s the same approach I had before I even cared about weight: Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re not. And never, ever postpone joy because you’re concerned about how your body looks. The best kind of beauty starts from the inside and works its way out, anyway.

How do you practice mindful eating around the holidays? Tell us @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)