A sugar cookie here, a piece of fudge there, a glass of bubbly – or two – at your office holiday party. During the holiday season, you likely eat and drink things you would typically avoid during the rest of the year.
The holidays throw more sweets, lavish treats, and calorie-laden beverages at you than you can count. But you don’t have to throw caution – or your diet — to the wind during the five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Having a plan for healthy eating will help you resist temptation and still enjoy yourself.
How to Eat Healthy During the Holiday Season
1. Make Simple Swaps
If you’ve ever cracked open a women’s lifestyle magazine, you’ve probably seen columns telling you to “eat this, not that” to stay healthy or avoid holiday weight gain. Let’s face it: Some holiday foods are better for you than others. They have fewer calories, less fat, or less sugar than similar options.
During the holidays, it’s easy to swap some traditionally decadent dishes for less decadent but still delicious choices. From appetizers and drinks to side dishes and desserts, there are many simple swaps to try. Try these healthy food substitutions:
- Greek Yogurt Dips Instead of Sour Cream Dips. Greek yogurt has the texture of sour cream and a similar tangy flavor – minus the fat and calories. If you usually make a dip with sour cream, try using an equal amount of Greek yogurt instead. No one will know the difference.
- Hummus Instead of Cheese Spreads. Cheese spreads like beer cheese are tasty but also tend to be calorie- and fat-loaded. Hummus is an easy healthy food you can make yourself. It’s just as flavorful as cheese spreads but lower in both fat and calories. It’s also vegan.
- Mashed Cauliflower Instead of Mashed Potatoes. Mashed potatoes are a welcome sight on any holiday table. But they’re also high in simple carbohydrates, which your body quickly converts into energy, spiking your blood sugar without providing complex nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, according to Healthline. Add in heavy cream or full-fat milk and butter or sour cream, and you’ve got a calorie bomb on your hands. Mashed cauliflower is a zero-calorie food swap that imitates the texture, flavor, and appearance of mashed potatoes without the excess calories and carbs.
- Roasted Sweet Potatoes Instead of Sweet Potato Casserole. If you want to serve sweet potatoes without the accompanying blood sugar spike, roast or bake them instead of mixing them with marshmallows.
- Sauteed Green Beans Instead of Green Bean Casserole. Green bean casserole is another holiday classic that’s easy to substitute. Get rid of the french fried onions, the cream of mushroom soup, and the calories by sauteing some fresh green beans instead.
- Grain Stuffing Instead of Bread Stuffing. Make your stuffing more nutritious and worthwhile by trading the bread crumbs or cubes for a whole grain, such as brown rice. One particularly healthy combination is wild rice and quinoa, which is high in protein.
- Apple Crumble Instead of Apple Pie. You might argue apple pie is healthy because it contains fruit. But it also has a lot of fat thanks to the crust and a lot of added sugar. If you want to highlight the seasonal fruit, instead of a pie, whip up an apple crumble topped with oats.
- Fruits Instead of Holiday Candies. You may never know what you’re going to get in a box of chocolates. But you know exactly what you’re getting with mandarin oranges or pomegranates: sweet holiday treats that are also low in calories.
- Pumpkin Pie Instead of Pecan Pie. With its rich, creamy filling and whipped cream topping, pumpkin pie doesn’t seem like the more calorie-conscious pick. But it is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pumpkin pie has about one-third the calories of pecan pie.
- Mocktails Instead of Cocktails. Cocktails tend to have the most calories of all alcoholic drinks. An 8-ounce White Russian has 568 calories, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus, while a hot buttered rum has 292. Alcohol itself has about 7 calories per gram. To cut the number of calories you drink, get rid of the alcohol and try mixing up a mocktail or two this season.
- Wine Spritzers Instead of Champagne or Bubbly. Diluting your beverages also reduces the number of calories you drink. Instead of pouring a bottle of bubbly, mix up a wine spritzer. Pour 3 ounces of red or white wine into a glass and top it with 2 ounces of zero-calorie seltzer. It has the bubbly feel of Champagne with fewer calories.
- Tea Instead of Hot Chocolate. Some booze-free beverages still tip the calorie scale way over. If you love curling up with a mug of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream or marshmallows, try warming up with a cup of tea instead. You can find tea in plenty of festive holiday-themed flavors, such as gingerbread and peppermint.
2. Fill Your Plate Once, Then Step Away
Although food and drink swaps are great for times when you’re preparing a meal or deciding what to bring to a party, they won’t help you much when you’re sitting at a dinner table laden with with calorie-rich, sweet or fatty foods.
Think of a family-style holiday meal as a game you’re going to win. You can successfully limit the amount of food you eat by not overloading your plate.
To keep yourself from overindulging and to control portion sizes, use a smaller plate, if possible. For example, go for the salad plate instead of the full-size dinner plate.
Before you put food on your plate, review what’s on the table and map out an eating plan. Start by filling about half your plate with low-calorie veggies. Then select some lean protein, filling up about a quarter of the plate with it. Finally, go wild and fill the last portion of your plate with whatever looks good.
There tends to be a lot of options at family-style holiday meals. You won’t offend anyone by not taking what they brought. If someone asks you if you tried their dish and you didn’t, be honest and say there wasn’t room on your plate.
3. Eat Before Drinking Alcohol, Drink Water Before Eating
If possible, don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach. Having a meal before you drink some wine, eggnog, or cocktails can help slow down the rate at which your body absorbs the alcohol.
It also helps you avoid overeating. The U.K.’s National Health Service points out that alcohol tends to wear down your willpower. Before you have a cocktail, you’re less likely to want “drunk” food like a pecan-topped cheese log or other fatty, high-calorie snacks. But after a couple of drinks, you decide to go for it and head to the buffet for literally all you can eat. If you’re already full, you’re not likely to overindulge.
Drinking water before you eat can help you feel full and avoid empty calories. A 2018 study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition Research found that people who drank water before a meal ate less than people who didn’t drink anything.
4. Don’t Feel Like You Have to Serve Everything
There are lots of foods people think of as traditional during the holiday season. Many people feel they simply have to serve green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, or sweet potato casserole at holiday gatherings. Depending on how many people you have over, the dishes on the table may outnumber the guests.
The key to portion control is not serving everything at your meals. If you have fewer choices on the table, there are fewer calories for everyone to consume. You’ll also have fewer leftovers and less wasted food.
Not sure what to keep and what to cut from your holiday menu? Ask around. Poll your family members to find out what they really like and what they wouldn’t miss if it weren’t on the menu.
There are likely several classic holiday dishes no one in your family cares about. If one person in your family loves the one dish no one else fancies, invite that person to make or bring the dish in question, and don’t think about it again.
5. Time Yourself
Time is your friend during the holiday season. When you’re enjoying a meal, some healthy snacks or a drink, pay attention to how long it takes you to consume your food. The CDC recommends eating slowly at holiday events. It takes your brain about 20 minutes to realize you’re full, so eat slowly over at least 20 minutes.
It’s also a good idea to time yourself if you’re thinking about seconds. Instead of hopping up and hitting the buffet again the minute your plate is clean, wait about 10 minutes. Taking time to let your body process what you ate allows you to realize you’re no longer hungry.
6. Create Your Own Rules & Limits
One motto to keep in mind during the holiday season is, “You do you.” If you have a system that helps you eat healthy foods, or your own rules that help you avoid eating that entire batch of cookies for breakfast, use it.
If you don’t, set a few limits or rules for yourself. Use these ideas to get started:
- Don’t Skip Meals. If you get invited to a party that begins at 8pm, eat your usual dinner beforehand unless it’s a dinner party. That way, you’re less likely to fill up on canapes and appetizers at the party.
- Alternate Drinks. Have a glass of seltzer or plain water for every glass of wine or Champagne. You’ll not only avoid drinking too much, you’ll also cut calories.
- Decline the Foods You Don’t Like. There’s no need to eat something you dislike to be polite. Just don’t make a fuss about skipping the pumpkin cheesecake or fondue in case the person who made it happens to be standing right behind you.
- Be Proactive. If you get invited to a meal or party, ask the host if you can bring a specific healthy dish. That way, you know there will be at least one calorie-conscious dish on the table.
- Only Eat While [Fill in the Blank]. Food and drink tend to be abundant during the holidays. If you set limits for when or where you can eat, you’re less likely to overindulge. For example, at a party, tell yourself you’ll only eat while sitting down. That way, you won’t constantly be noshing on cheese and olives while chatting with your friends in the kitchen.
- Limit Yourself to New-to-You Foods. Another way to limit what you eat at parties and other events is to only try dishes you’ve never had before.
The holidays have a reputation for excess. But it’s not that tricky to stick to your diet and health goals as you celebrate. Try keeping track of what you eat and drink from Thanksgiving until New Year’s. That way, you’ll know you ate a bunch of cookies on Thursday and had two glasses of wine on Friday. Then, come Saturday, you know you need to abstain from both cookies and wine.
Keeping a food diary also lets you see what works for you and what doesn’t when it comes to making healthier holiday choices. Once you know how to convince yourself to eat healthier foods and portions, you can keep it up, perhaps year-round.
How do you plan on eating healthier this holiday season?