Q: Help! I am going to a hotel for Pesach and I just started a diet . . . how will I stay on track?
A: Hotel getaways are not exactly known for their health fare, but generally the opposite—nonstop, over-the-top food. Just how important is the food to the Pesach hotel experience? “Very important,” says Rabbi Avraham Juravel, mora d’atra of Pesach Time Tours who is also rabbinic coordinator of technical services for OU Kosher. “People come to eat. They expect to eat.”
A Pesach program veteran and a kosher concierge, Noah Lang—who is directing Palm Tree Getaways this Pesach—agrees “a thousand percent” about the role of food. “The food is usually one of the first three questions we get,” he shares. And abundance is a top priority. “You can’t say, ‘Sorry, we ran out.’ You can never run out of something.”
The constant availability and quantity of delicious food means that many people end up gaining weight over a yom tov away. “I always say they should have a scale when people check in and a scale when people leave and charge accordingly,” jokes Rabbi Juravel.
So here’s your first prep step: change your focus to weight maintenance. It’s hard enough to lose weight over a holiday, let alone when you’re getting catered meals several times a day over Pesach. If you check in with the expectation that you will lose weight over the next eight or nine days, you are probably setting yourself up for failure. This can be very discouraging and might knock you completely off course. Instead, aim to maintain your current weight over the holiday. This alone is challenging enough; if you accomplish this, give yourself a pat on the back. If you end up losing weight anyway, well, then you’ll be even happier!
Still, even with a goal of weight maintenance, you’re going to require some fortification as you enter the arena of the pesachdik bagels and doughnuts. Before you leave for the hotel, come up with a written plan to make smart food choices. Keep it handy and review it before your stay and then every day for the duration of your stay. If you can, share it with a family member or friend who will be attending with you so he or she can serve as a friendly reminder too.
Now, what to put on that plan? You’ll want to individualize it to your own unique goals and tastes, but here are some ideas to think about both before you leave and while you are at the hotel.
Call Ahead: Well before your trip, contact the program organizer to find out as much as you can about the food and what will be available. If he’s willing to share the menus with you, great; you can go over these and decide what you will eat at each meal. Even if the menus are from the previous year, you can still get an idea of what to expect. At the very least, find out if you can make special requests, such as low-fat or low-sodium dishes. At some venues, these options are standard; at Pesach Time Tours for example, salt-free and sugar-free options are available to guests even without advance notice, says Rabbi Juravel—you just have to ask. Also find out what types of foods will be available between meal times or at buffets.
Pack Healthy: Bring along the healthy foods you like to eat so you know they’ll definitely be available. (If traveling by plane, it may be easier to pick up some wholesome fare at a local supermarket.) On Pesach your options will be more limited, but fruits and vegetables always work, as do nuts (opt for single-serving packs, if possible, to help with portion control), low-fat cottage cheese, yogurts or string cheese. Call ahead if you’d like a fridge in your room—many programs will provide a cleaned-for-Pesach refrigerator for an extra fee.
Dress the part: Leave the elastic waistbands at home and opt for clothing that won’t let you overdo it. You know which ones I mean . . . the waistbands that will start to tighten if you enjoy too much of the buffet. Also throw in some clothing that is exercise-friendly, including comfortable shoes to enjoy walks around the beautiful grounds.
Reward yourself: Before you leave, come up with a prize you can give yourself (not food-related, please!) when you return from your trip, rested and renewed—without having gained weight.
Lay down the rules: Go into every meal with a set menu in your head, regardless of the time of day or whether it is dairy, meat or pareve, gebrokts or not. Most generally health-minded people will want to aim for some type of protein—lean if possible—a reasonable portion of carbohydrate, and plenty of vegetables. As you scan the food available, pick foods that meet those criteria, enjoy them and skip the extras.
You may be surprised, however, at some of the healthful options that are available. With the growing interest in nutrition and health in our community, many Pesach tour operators are responding. “We have many more salads than we used to,” observes Rabbi Juravel. “We can’t get away with just a tossed salad anymore—there has to be a whole array of salads and a salad bar available because that’s what people want.” It is also fairly standard to offer multiple entrée options—at Pesach Time Tours, for example, there are four entrée choices at every dinner—of which some are smarter choices (e.g., fish).
Pace yourself: No matter what you’re eating, eat it slowly and savor it. To help with this, put down your fork or take a sip of water between bites. You will feel more satisfied and end up taking in fewer calories overall.
This is especially important at buffets. “I always tell people to do a walkthrough first,” advises Lang. “No one does that, of course. Most people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs.” Use the same rules at buffets as mealtimes (protein, controlled carbs and vegetables).
Eat what you love: Because there are so many delicious options to choose from, don’t waste calories on foods that are just so-so. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Especially dessert, which can be a major diet disaster; Pesach hotels often specialize in enticing, eye-popping delicacies that make it hard to say “no.”
Come up with an individualized game plan, based on your dessert profile:
People who live for dessert: Rather than telling yourself to avoid dessert altogether, it makes more sense for you to make concessions in other areas and try to limit the amount you eat for dessert. You can also set a goal like, ‘I will only eat one dessert each day,’ to avoid having dessert at both lunch and dinner.
People who like dessert but don’t feel they need it at every meal: Set a goal that helps you limit dessert to just once or twice over your stay, or just if they have that special double chocolate cherry cheesecake you love so much.
People who don’t care for dessert: Either enjoy fruit, if offered, or skip it.
Stay active: The hotel experience is not just about the food. Take advantage of the activities, especially if they’re the calorie-burning type. Make a point to do something active every day of your stay. You can go for a leisurely walk on yom tov in between the shiurim and meals and naps.
Make use of the tea room: It turns out some tea rooms today are not just nosh-fests. Yes, you’ll find plenty of candy and potato chips and cakes there, but often a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, different salads and other healthy foods to choose from. If, somehow, your stomach is rumbling between meals, head over and pick out a healthy snack to tide you over until the next meal is served. Otherwise though, steer clear.
Repeat after me: It’s only food. Make that your mantra. “Eating healthfully at a hotel over Pesach is possible,” says Rabbi Juravel. “You have to make a conscious effort, but it can be done.”
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer in Memphis, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.