family eating together at Thanksgiving

When families gather to celebrate holidays or special occasions, food is often a central part of these family get-togethers. No matter your religion, culture or upbringing, you probably have special traditions involving certain foods—and it’s hard to imagine a celebration without those foods. What do you do if you can no longer eat those foods because you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes? How do you survive the holidays and family get-togethers?

There is no easy answer to that question because every diabetic faces different challenges. If you are a diabetic, you will have to decide how best to tackle the food at your family celebrations, but here are a few tips to help you make it through the holidays:

Prepare for Travel

If your holiday plans require you to travel, be sure to pack your travel bag with diabetic-friendly snacks, so you don’t get overly hungry and purchase a snack that is less healthy.

If you are staying at a family member’s home, you may not be in control of the food that is available. Consider stopping at the grocery store as soon as you get there and stocking up on foods that you can eat, or pack a bag of your own food from home: low-fat or sugar-free condiments and baking ingredients, sugar-free treats, multi-grain bread, etc. That way, if something is served that you can’t eat, you have your own food options available.

I do this when I travel. I have to follow a very strict diet, and when I visit my family, I always bring a bag full of foods I can eat. I even bring a few complete, quick meals I can make. That way, if the family is eating something I can’t eat, I always have an option. It actually makes it easier on the relatives I am staying with. They don’t have to be as concerned about whether or not I can eat what they are serving. (Though most of the time, they try to fix meals they know I can eat.)

Stick to Your Diet

Tell yourself ahead of time that you are going to stick to your diet. Be mentally prepared for the food situations you will face. In most holiday meals, there are foods that you can still eat—good foods to choose from include lean turkey, green beans, a small helping of mashed potatoes, etc.  Focus on the foods you can eat, rather than the foods you can’t.

Often, in social situations, if someone is just sitting at the table and not eating, it can make others feel awkward or feel bad for you. Don’t resort to eating dessert, just because everyone else is. Plan ahead how to respond when someone says, “Oh, you don’t have a piece of pie. Let me get you one.” If it helps, have a sugar-free dessert on hand, so that you feel like you are eating dessert with the rest of the family.

Focus on Portion Control

At many family get-togethers or meals like Thanksgiving dinner, we tend to eat and eat, until we are painfully full. It is almost a tradition to be overfull! This isn’t a healthy way of eating for anyone, let alone a diabetic. A healthy way of approaching a large family meal is to enjoy the foods provided, but eat smaller portions and avoid dessert.

Brian, who has lived with diabetes for 15 years, is very diligent about sticking to a strict diabetic diet. He eats small portions at each meal, especially when it comes to carbohydrates, and never eats foods containing sugar. But when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, he gives himself a little leeway. He eats what everyone else eats, just in smaller portions, and he even eats a tiny piece of pumpkin pie. He says, “I allow myself that one splurge.” The main point Brian makes, though, is that he only has a sliver of pie, not a gigantic slice, and he only has it with that one meal.

Always eat what is best for your health and what your doctor recommends for controlling your diabetes. Whether or not you are able to have a slice of pumpkin pie at your family get-together, you may be able to enjoy many foods on your family’s table as long as you keep the portions small and avoid the urge to overeat.

Re-think your Traditions

Melody, a recently-diagnosed type 2 diabetic, went through her first Christmas last year as a diabetic. She says it was difficult. Her family has a tradition of doing a lot of baking during the holidays. She had spent years perfecting the art of making her grandmother’s fudge—and it just didn’t seem like Christmas without it. Her children and grandchildren expected it when they came to her house, but she says, “I had to make a conscious effort not to make anything and to tell myself that I would be OK without it.” Though her grandchildren may have noticed it was a little different at grandma’s house without all of the traditional sweets around, they understood. And Melody likes the fact that she is setting an example for them of how to be healthy despite having diabetes.

It may be hard to give up some traditions, but try to replace unhealthy traditions with new, healthy ones. Create new traditions that don’t involve food! Watch movies together. Have a craft-making day. Deliver baskets of food and gifts to needy families in your area. There is no reason why the best, most memorable family traditions must revolve around food!


Diabetes doesn’t have to dampen your holiday spirit or ruin your family get-togethers. With preparation and determination, you can enjoy time spent with family, no matter what you can or can’t eat. As Melody points out, she has had to learn that she eats to live, instead of living to eat. We look forward to our family food traditions, but food shouldn’t be our focus. Turn your focus to what matters most: celebrating with family and friends!


Other posts in this series:

Living with Diabetes: Brian and Melody’s Story

How to Manage and Maybe Even Enjoy a Diabetes-Friendly Diet