Sam Talbot is in a holiday frame of mind. The 33-year-old chef and restaurateur, who burst onto the public scene as a contender, finalist, and “fan favorite” in season two of the hit reality show Top Chef, is always a kid again when it comes to Christmas. “I kind of have that Peter Pan syndrome when it comes to Christmas—I love everything about it,” he admits.
This year, on top of running his highly acclaimed restaurant, the three-year-old Surf Lodge, in Montauk, NY, he’s got a few other things cooking before getting down to holiday business. While starting a new (and ostensibly top-secret) TV show, he is also promoting the release of his first cookbook—The Sweet Life: Diabetes without Boundaries, published by Rodale Press in October—and launching The Sweet Life Kitchen, a foundation in partnership with JDRF that is dedicated to raising awareness about type 1 diabetes (T1D) and what we can all do to work toward a cure.
For Sam, who’s had T1D for more than 20 years and has been cooking for almost as long, “busy” comes with the territory, and the holidays just put him into hyperdrive. But he manages it all with ease, and he kindly provided us with some of his most trusted tips to make the holidays as cheerful and healthy as possible. “We’re hard workers, us people with diabetes,” he says. “And like everyone else, we deserve to play hard.”
Read on to see how Sam celebrates the 12 days—and then some—of Christmas.
1. Get ahead of the game
“During the holiday season, I plan pretty methodically,” says Sam. “For at least a few days before any festivities begin, I make sure to eat healthy and hit the gym, so that I’m ready for the onslaught of food and activities.” Sensible advice for anyone before the holidays, T1D or not. “The same philosophy applies for me during the holidays as when I’m traveling, which I do a lot,” explains Sam. “I’m a chef, so if I’m presented with some weird, deep-fried octopus dish, I’m definitely going to try it, no question. But I plan ahead specifically for those kinds of situations, by being extra vigilant about my blood sugar levels for days beforehand. I also wear a pump now, so I pay very close attention to when it has to be adjusted.
2. Make a list, and check it twice
“There are so many great and interesting alternatives to common carbohydrates and sweeteners out there, and for the holidays, I make sure my pantry is stocked and ready to go.” Sam foregoes refined white flours in favor of rice flour and loads up on sugar alternatives such as agave syrup, maple syrup, Truvia, and even fresh stevia leaves—the highly potent natural sweetener that is available online and also at produce markets that specialize in fresh herbs. Those with a green thumb can even grow their own stevia plants, right alongside the sage and rosemary in an everyday herb garden.
3. Spice it up
“Every year around this time, I also stock up on fresh spices,” says Sam. “Cinnamon bark, whole nutmeg, cloves, turmeric—all those things that make the holidays the holidays.” Sam puts cinnamon in just about everything this time of year, and he recommends adding freshly grated nutmeg to spinach or sweet potatoes; cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in a mulled apple cider; and turmeric—a seasoning underused outside Asia—for turkey, chicken, and duck.
4. Reinvent the classics
Holiday menus center around food that warms the soul, but many times, those dishes aren’t necessarily the healthiest—especially if you have T1D. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are so many ways to mix it up, from the turkey to the veg, even sweets,” Sam explains. “For example, I’m a big fan of mashed potatoes, but lately I’ve become hooked on Korean yams,” which pack a huge dose of nutrients into a low-glycemic package. “They’re nothing short of addictive.” Korean yams look similar to their Western cousins and are often available in Asian markets, but in a pinch, the yams and sweet potatoes in a typical supermarket generally have a lower glycemic index than potatoes. Other options with a low-glycemic load—referring to foods that contain carbohydrates that break down more slowly and release glucose more gradually into the blood—include non-starchy vegetables like beets, carrots, and winter squashes; nuts like almonds, peanuts, and cashews; and most varieties of beans and legumes.
“I also love turkey probably more than anyone should, holidays or not, but I always make it myself instead of going for the processed deli stuff,” he says. His secret to fool-proof roast turkey? Brining (a process similar to marination in which poultry or meat is soaked in salted water) for 24 hours—and, for the holidays, a stuffing of sausage and oysters.
Sam’s holiday pet peeve? “Fresh cranberries are everywhere, but what most people put on their tables is the store-bought sugary stuff. I recommend making a fresh batch with agave or stevia. It practically makes itself, and after you try it, you won’t go back to the canned stuff.”
5. Power up
Holidays are nothing if not excessive, especially the food. How to keep an even keel? “You’re packed into your brother’s house and there are 45 people and there’s stuffing and pie and cornbread for days, and what do you do?” Sam arms himself beforehand by whipping up some high-protein snacks in the comfort of his own home. A special favorite—and one that is incredibly easy to make—is marcona almonds roasted with whatever spice mix appeals to your holiday palate. “This way, when you inevitably end up in that environment later where the food just never ends, you’ll have your head about you,” says Sam. “And you can actually have some of that cornbread that’s calling your name, because you won’t be starving by the time you get to where you’re going.” Another perk of the party pre-fuel? Avoiding that awkward moment when your host offers you a second or third helping.
6. Raise your glass—of water
Getting in the holiday spirit usually involves spirits of the alcoholic variety, but Sam has a smart trick for that too. “It’s my old faithful. I literally have one glass of water for every drink, and I space out my drinks over 45-minute intervals. It’s as simple as checking my watch,” he promises. “And the funny thing is, when you do this, you’ll see other people around you—people who don’t have diabetes—catching on and following your lead.”
7. Carve out some “me” time
As if it weren’t painfully obvious, plenty of scientific evidence points straight to the fact that holidays equal stress. Gift shopping, travel plans, cooking—and that’s before explaining to your mother why you don’t call more often. Being a professional chef and a Top Chef alumnus, Sam knows a thing or two about staving off tension. “For me, stress is a constant, but I’ve discovered that if I take 20 minutes every single day to just become present—nothing as involved as meditating, but doing whatever comes to mind to focus entirely on myself—it works amazingly. I stay focused throughout the day, and that goes a long way in keeping me healthy,” he says. Moreover, “during stressful situations, it’s so easy to act on impulse, but I’ve learned to make myself wait and deal with anger or other emotions later on, when I have time to think. And as a result, I’m much more even-keeled in general.”
8. Rely on the numbers
“My life is usually very full, so I check my blood sugar pretty often,” Sam admits. “I have meters and strips everywhere, and knowing that number gives me a sense of control, and that’s how I can really put my life first.”
9. Just do it
Exercise is a proven antidote to stress, but time is a precious commodity this time of year. What is Sam’s suggestion for keeping fit? “Nike got it right 20 years ago—just do it. That’s the method to the madness.” Studies have shown that over time, exercise is its own motivation: the more you do it, the more you want to.
10. Spread the warmth
Dreaming of a white Christmas? You can ski and skate and snowball-fight to your heart’s content, just keep the blood circulating, especially in your hands and feet. “When the temperature drops, I wear loose-fitting socks and big boots, and I never have to worry about how cold it gets.”
11. Scrub that sweet tooth
“I also pay extra attention to my mouth before and after any holiday feasting,” Sam advises. “Daily brushing, flossing, fluoride rinse, all that jazz.” Because the gums provide direct access for sugar to enter the bloodstream, the onslaught of Christmas cookies, candies, and pies can bring on more than just potential cavities for a person with T1D.
12. Rejoice in food-free festivities
It’s hardly surprising that Sam’s favorite childhood memory of Christmas involves food. “After ripping open our gifts on Christmas Eve, our family ate midnight breakfast,” he says. But other, non-culinary holiday traditions are there for the making. Go caroling door-to-door, head to the nearest ice skating rink and lace up some skates, or enjoy a production of The Nutcracker. As for Sam’s family, “we watch A Christmas Story 67 times.”