Between indulgent appetizers, stockings stuffed with sweets, and cookie exchanges galore, the holiday season isn’t exactly known for promoting healthy eating. And even though the average person puts on only about one pound over the holidays—despite what our loosened belts and stretchy pants are telling us— nobody wants to see these excesses add up year over year.
As a nutritionist, I find talking about healthy eating to be one of my favorite topics any time of year, but especially from October through New Year’s. I’ve learned there are some relatively simple steps we can all take to get through the season feeling—and eating—well. Here are some of my top tips.
Don’t eat out of obligation.
Food is, of course, one of the most enjoyable ways to celebrate good times. Who doesn’t look forward to Grandma’s apple pie at Thanksgiving or your BFF’s famous eggnog at Christmas? My year-round craving is for the pumpkin rolls my husband’s aunt always makes. But don’t let tradition turn into obligation. Just because Grandma slaved over her signature dessert doesn’t mean you have to eat a super-sized slice. (As I always say, “Just say no to food pushers.”) Praise her amazing efforts at a flaky crust and cinnamon-y filling. Then enjoy an appropriate-sized portion—or just a nibble, if that’s all you feel like eating.
Start a healthy new tradition.
Holiday traditions aren’t set in stone. Why not start something new and healthier for you (and your whole family)? A few years ago, after always being asked to bring the same buttery corn casserole to my extended family’s Christmas dinner, I wanted to switch it up. The casserole was delicious, without a doubt, but I was working on cleaning up my diet. I asked my aunt if I could make something else in its place. Turns out, the avocado salsa I brought instead was a major hit!
Use the 80/20 rule.
The fact is, we’re not celebrating every day from Halloween to Christmas. That means there’s plenty of space to make healthy choices during the day-to-day. Observe an 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the holiday season (like when you’re making dinner at home or at workday lunches), you’ll aim to make moderate, nutritious choices. The remaining 20 percent you can live it up a little. When I know I’m attending an event with bottomless booze and all-you-can eat apps, for example, I’ll earmark that time in my mind as part of my 20 percent and counterbalance it the day before and after with more vegetables, lean proteins, and plenty of water!
Write down your goals.
Before you get swept away on the express train of indulgence steaming toward January, try writing down your health or dietary goals for the season. Alternatively, inform a friend or accountability partner of your intentions. Keep your statements simple, like “I’d like to leave this party without feeling over-full” or “I’d like to drink less than I did last year.” Goal setting and accountability really do help you stay on track. I’ve seen this personally. When I take a moment to write down a healthy eating goal before a party, it stays in my mind throughout the event.
Survey the buffet.
Navigating a Christmas party buffet can be a bit like going to Las Vegas—it’s an overwhelming cacophony of sights and sounds all calling out to be sampled. Prior to diving in (and ending up with a plate heaped as high as a faux Eiffel Tower) take a few moments to survey the scene. Which items do you absolutely want to try? What’s available that’s nourishing, such as foods based on fruit, veggies, or whole grains? This way you can take what you really want, instead of a little of everything.
Find what’s already healthy in holiday foods.
Holiday foods aren’t all calorie bombs. Many are surprisingly nutritious! Pumpkin contains plenty of fiber and vitamin A, while cranberries are packed with vitamin C and other antioxidants. Meanwhile, green beans and root vegetables can shine outside of heavy casseroles. Use these already-good-for-you seasonal foods as building blocks for festive menu planning. My favorite lightened-up recipes include and lemony green beans with feta and almonds and perfectly roasted vegetables.
Believe it or not, the more you enjoy that to-die-for cheesecake, the less likely you are to overeat it. Savoring our food has been shown to help us consume it in moderation. So when you decide on something extra indulgent, give it your full attention. When I’m at a holiday party, I try to at least sit down with my plate. It helps me focus on eating, rather than plow through my food mindlessly as I mingle throughout the room.
Give yourself a break.
By implementing some intentional strategies, you can make more food choices you feel good about this season. But when you inevitably overdo it on peppermint brownies or knock back one too many glasses of champagne, beating yourself up over your dietary choices doesn’t help. Forgive yourself and move on, remembering that food is meant to be enjoyed! Take it in stride as a reminder to enjoy more moderately next time.