The holidays are always filled with fun, family, and food. However, just because every event comes paired with a decadent seasonal treat, you don’t need to fill your plate with pie, cake, and cookies.
It also doesn’t mean you need to teetotal sweets entirely. Believe it or not, there is a happy medium, and if you show up with some healthy and delicious treats in-hand, you won’t be labeled the “weird holiday dieter.”
Check out a few easy ways to enjoy the holiday season and still avoid holiday weight gain.
Easy Sweet Treat Alternatives That Are Healthy
I’m not the type of person who wants to slave over an oven for hours baking up fabulous desserts, so I’ve selected healthier treats that are simple and straightforward.
1. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is a mood-boosting food that’s packed with antioxidants. Since its calorie and fat contents are high, it should still be consumed in moderation, but you definitely don’t need to feel guilty about enjoying a few squares of your favorite dark chocolate brand. Besides, there’s not a host in the world who would scoff at receiving a few bags of dark chocolates to add to the dessert table.
2. Holiday-Inspired Fruit Skewers
Health-wise, you can’t go wrong with simple fruit skewers at a holiday party. The nice thing is that you can give them a festive feel based on the holiday you’re celebrating. For example, if you’re celebrating Christmas, put together red and white, or red, white, and green skewers:
- Red and White Skewers: Alternate slices of strawberry and banana on a skewer, then drizzle them with melted dark chocolate.
- Red, White, and Green Santa Hat Skewers: On short skewers, slide on a green grape, a slice of banana, a triangle-shaped strawberry slice (the strawberry with the cap cut off), and top it with a small marshmallow. The grape ends up looking like a head, and the banana, strawberry, and marshmallow form a Santa hat.
If you’re feeling artsy, you can put together mini-fruit skewer turkeys for Thanksgiving:
- Use a pear for the body of the turkey, sitting it upright.
- Assemble five to seven short fruit skewers, each with about three or four pieces of fruit – grapes, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, or melon balls are all great.
- Spear the fruit skewers into the back of the pear so they’re pointing up and fanning out, like a turkey’s tail feathers.
- Use mini-dark chocolate chips or blueberries for the eyes, spearing them into the pear with a piece of a skewer, and create the beak with a small triangle of cheese, also skewering it in.
3. Apple Crumble
Instead of eating apple pie, where much of the focus is on the butter-laden crust and the syrupy pie filling, consider whipping up an apple crumble, which instead emphasizes the soft, baked apples.
Apple crumble is simple to make:
- Slice four to six large apples of your choice into a baking dish.
- Toss them with two tablespoons of sugar, one teaspoon of cinnamon, a half-teaspoon of nutmeg, and two tablespoons of orange juice.
- Add dried fruits and nuts, as desired, such as chopped walnuts or dried cherries.
- In a separate bowl, mix two tablespoons of whole wheat flour, two tablespoons of old-fashioned oats, two tablespoons of butter, a tablespoon of sugar, and a tablespoon of brown sugar. Cut them together until the mixture is crumbly.
- Pour the crumble over the top of the apple mixture.
- Bake it at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until the apples are soft and the crumble is golden brown.
4. Dark Chocolate-Dipped Sweet Potato Sticks
It sounds bizarre, but you’d be surprised how good dark chocolate-dipped sweet potato sticks really are. I came up with this recipe one day when I was bored and wanted to create something new.
- Slice up a sweet potato or two into fry-sized pieces. Toss them with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.
- Bake them at 450 degrees until they’re crispy on all sides, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Flip them once or twice for even baking.
- Remove the tray from the oven and let them cool.
- Melt chocolate chips in the microwave in 15-second increments, stirring well to prevent the chocolate from burning. You might want to add a bit of oil to the mix to help the chocolate stay melted and smooth.
- Dip the sweet potato sticks into the chocolate.
- Sprinkle with chopped nuts, sprinkles, or seeds, if desired.
5. Cranberry Chocolate Trail Mix
Every party needs a snack mix, so whip up a homemade version with dried cranberries, dark chocolate chips, salted almonds, and baked pumpkin seeds. Go light on the chocolate pieces, keeping the focus on the healthier nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
6. Frozen Yogurt Topped With Chocolate and Peppermint
Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you need to skip the cold desserts. Serve up a delicious dose of calcium and protein with store-bought vanilla frozen yogurt, then make the toppings festive by offering bowls of dark chocolate chips and shards of peppermint candies. All you have to do is buy peppermint sticks from the store, unwrap them, place them in a plastic bag, and crush them with a hammer or against the counter to break them into pieces.
Understanding Moderation With Other Sweets
I’m a big advocate for moderation when it comes to holiday treats. There’s not a food out there on my “never eat” list, except for the ones I just don’t like.
However, over the years, I have developed a few systems to help me moderate my own eating habits so I don’t go overboard during tempting situations. These systems come in handy around the holidays when parties and events feel like foodie Meccas.
1. Limit Choice
Limiting choice is actually an excellent mechanism for enjoying foods in moderation. In fact, multiple research studies – including one performed at Cornell University and published in the Journal of Consumer Research – confirm that an increased variety of food choice (such as jelly beans offered in 24 colors as opposed to only six colors) correlates to an increase in actual food consumption.
When walking into a holiday event, you know you’re likely to be faced with a buffet of options – your food choices are going to be broad and interesting. If you walk in without a game plan for limiting yourself, chances are you’re going to end up over-consuming and tasting every single decadent sweet and treat that’s laid before you.
The good news is that you can set up your own mechanisms for limiting choice. Of course, this doesn’t have to mean limiting specific foods. Rather, it’s a way of predetermining how you’re going to avoid overeating while still allowing yourself to enjoy the party.
For instance, you can limit choice by setting the following types of parameters:
- I can eat whatever I want, as long as it fits in a single layer on a single plate.
- Even if there are 30 dessert choices, I’m going to limit myself to trying just one of them – but I can have as much of that one item as I want.
- I can eat whatever I want, but only while sitting down at a table – I won’t wander around mindlessly while snacking from the buffet or a plate I’m carrying around.
- I’m going to cook my own healthy alternatives to share at the party, but I’m going to limit myself to only eating from the dishes I bring.
- I’m only going to try foods I’ve never tasted before – if I’ve tried something before, it’s off-limits tonight.
- Or conversely, I’m only going to eat foods tonight that I already know I love. If there’s something new, or if there’s an item I’m not a big fan of, I’m going to label it as “off-limits.”
The point is, you’re giving yourself the freedom to enjoy your time, but within specific parameters. It’s very much like the example my high school economics teacher gave to explain the law of diminishing returns.
He said, “I love Big Macs. If I go to McDonald’s and buy three of them because I know one never satisfies me, I’m going to experience the law of diminishing returns. The first Big Mac will be delicious, and I might be excited to dig into the second one. However, by the time I finish the second Big Mac, I’m probably going to feel a bit full and a little tired of hamburgers – and less excited about digging into the third. If I go ahead and eat it anyway, by the time I finish that third one, I may not want to eat Big Macs again for a while.”
The law of diminishing returns is a great way to think of limiting food choice. If you go to a party and say, “I love pecan pie, so I’m going to eat as much of it as I want – but that’s the only food I’m going to let myself eat,” chances are you won’t have more than one or two slices. The more you eat, the less satisfying each successive slice is going to taste.
2. Stick to What You Love
As an extension of choice limitation, I’m a big advocate for only eating what you truly love. There’s a deep satisfaction in sitting down and savoring a food that hits the spot. The key is identifying and separating the foods you love from the ones you just kind of like.
For instance, I love my mother-in-law’s homemade chocolate chip and walnut cookies – they are to die for – but I only sort of like all the other sweets she makes around the holidays, such as pumpkin pie, pecan pie, chocolate fudge, and sugar cookies. I would much rather allow myself to really, really enjoy the chocolate chip cookies she sends me than fill my stomach with a few other mildly satisfying foods. I always end up keeping and eating the chocolate chip cookies, but I give away the other items she sends because their nutritional cost isn’t worth it to me. By doing so, I am able to eat healthy during the holidays and still enjoy what I love the most.
3. Enjoy the Party Only During the Party
There’s a holiday trend in which many of us throw caution to the wind and make wild eating the norm throughout the season, even when a party isn’t taking place. In other words, holiday cookies show up in the break room at work, holiday party leftovers beckon from the fridge, and impromptu get-togethers with friends turn into an excuse to break out the treats. Allowing the entire holiday season to become an excuse for overindulgence is a recipe for disaster.
Sit down at the beginning of the season and decide which days you’re going to allow yourself to indulge. For instance, if a Thanksgiving meal is a huge family affair, you might want to give yourself a free pass that day, but don’t let Thanksgiving Day turn into “Thanksgiving Week.” Likewise, if you always host a big Christmas party at your house, allow yourself to enjoy the party – but don’t let the leftovers become an excuse to eat like that for the entire weekend.
The holiday season shouldn’t be a free-for-all when it comes to food. Enjoy yourself and indulge, but only occasionally.
If you’re new to the idea of moderating your holiday eating habits, don’t leave things to chance or inconsistent self-reporting. Go ahead and start a holiday food diary, writing down what you eat every day from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Mark the days you have parties or events to attend, and give yourself permission to enjoy those days – but then get back on track and maintain a healthy eating plan the remainder of the holiday season.
How do you prevent yourself from overindulging in holiday treats?