The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Holiday Eating
The holidays are a time for good eats and sweet treats! And, it’s a time when being healthy can feel really hard. Do any of these healthy holiday eating tips we see all over the internet actually work? Is there such a thing as “healthy holiday eating?” It all depends on how you use those tips, and how you approach the season. We don’t HAVE to deny ourselves of indulging completely in order to stay healthy during the holidays!
You could throw all caution to the wind and indulge with abandon (and it would probably be delicious). Or, you can find a healthy balance that works for you. So, how do we get there? Start with these healthy holiday eating tips and see which strategies work for you! If a particular strategy resonates with you, give it a test run. It’s a process to figure out what works for each of us. Of course, ALL of these tips won’t work for EVERYONE, but take what you like and leave what you don’t!
For more healthy holiday eating inspiration, you can check out our Healthy Thanksgiving Recipes (which are also great for Christmas) and our Healthy Holiday Desserts blog posts! And, you can find even more healthy holiday eating tips in this Healthy Holiday Eating Strategies video:
Prepare Yourself Mentally
It’s the holiday season, let’s be real: we are going to indulge. (Most of us are, at least.) Recognize this fact, accept it, and enjoy those indulgences! For most of us, denying ourselves of ALL indulgences ends up backfiring. Our willpower muscles get tired and, when we finally give in to one temptation, we binge on everything in sight. Yes, we’ll stray from our normal healthy eating regimen and sometimes we’ll eat more food than we need, but this is okay! The holiday season is just one small part of the year.
Preparing ourselves mentally for the season of feasts and sweets will lessen the anxiety we feel when we do choose to indulge. We’ll feel less stressed when faced with the treats and temptations because they’re not catching us by surprise. Our anxiety comes from wanting to eat well, but then going to a party or dinner and having to deal with temptation. It throws off our “plan!” Instead, make that mental plan more flexible—expect to come across holiday treats. (And, you’ll probably want to eat some!)
Be a Friend to Yourself
In addition to preparing mentally, it’s just as important to give yourself permission to eat the treats that you enjoy! Rather than eating those cookies and telling yourself you’re “bad,” be a friend to yourself. By saying, “I want to eat these cookies, I’m allowed to eat these cookies, and I will enjoy these cookies,” we can stop the cycle of guilt-tripping ourselves. Plus, letting go of guilt can prevent us from saying, “screw it, might as well move on to the truffles and the pie and the cheesecake!” We often end up overeating because we think we’ve already been “bad.” Don’t guilt yourself into eating more—that only makes the guilt WORSE!
We have to practice being kind to ourselves when it comes to food and our health. Beating ourselves up mentally for indulging only leads to eating MORE out of guilt. Have self-compassion and learn to forgive yourself after you indulge. We don’t have to throw in the towel, and we can’t let our self-criticism fuel our overeating. Don’t listen to those negative voices! Every piece of pie that we eat is NOT adding a pound to our waistline, nor is it doing serious, long-term damage. Plus, being kind to yourself is key to finding a healthy balance. When you can be a friend to yourself, you can take better care of yourself!
Balance Your Meals
Holiday time probably isn’t when we’re going to shed major pounds. But, that doesn’t mean we have to give up eating healthy foods and habits altogether. Plus, practicing healthy holiday eating will make committing to New Year’s resolutions will be MUCH more doable! Accept the fact that you’ll indulge at holiday dinners and events. Then, plan for healthy meals outside of those events. (A.k.a. try to practice “moderation.”) If you ate an entire tray of truffles last night, make an agreement with yourself to focus on eating well today. If you know you’re going to a holiday party in the evening, balance things out with your other meals throughout the day.
Now, this DOESN’T mean starving ourselves, but eating more fuel-filled foods and less sugar and processed foods. Eat the wholesome foods you don’t eat at those holiday events, like veggies, fruits, and nutritious proteins. If we’re ravenous at the party, we’ll probably eat MORE than we would’ve if we’d eaten normally throughout the day. And, keeping up with those healthy habits makes us feel better after we indulge—physically and mentally. When we’re in the pattern of eating well and thinking about our health, we’re less likely to go overboard when we do indulge.
Think of Your Calories Like a Budget: Indulge in What You Love
When we’re living on a budget, we spend our money on the essentials. But, we occasionally splurge on something special that we really love or enjoy. Similarly, when you’re at a holiday dinner or party, choose those indulgent dishes that you truly love! Spend your calorie budget on foods (or drinks) that you genuinely enjoy, or that are unique to this time of year.
Now, this isn’t to say that calories work EXACTLY like a budget. Weight gain and loss is much more complicated than just counting calories. Different foods provide us different types of calories, so eating 1,000 calories of carrot sticks is very different than eating 1,000 calories of cookies. But, a calorie budget is a helpful analogy when we’re faced with lots of temptation. With SO much food around us during the holidays, we have to make choices! And, we’ll eat less if we make those choices all at once, rather than deciding in the moment.
Check out the entire spread of food at an event BEFORE you choose what you truly love and want to eat. (If we were at a store, we wouldn’t and couldn’t buy every single thing on display!) Then, decide what’s worth spending your budget on. Are those dime-a-dozen sugar cookies from the grocery store worth it? Or would you rather spend those calories on something special, like your sister’s homemade cupcakes? Which treats make you swoon? Indulge in THOSE!
At holiday gatherings and events, we rarely take time to stop and enjoy all of the food. We eat while we’re socializing, we eat standing up, we might just circle the table of food for awhile so we have something to do. Instead, focus on eating mindfully. Actively pay attention to what you’re eating (the taste, the texture, the smell), as well as how much your eating. If we eat while we’re doing something else—like talking or people-watching at a party—that distraction tricks our brains into thinking we haven’t eaten. So, because we weren’t paying attention to the food we ate, our brain tells us that we’re hungry even if our stomach is full!
These are some of the most important healthy holiday eating tips—especially at holiday parties! Rather than hovering near the table of food, fill up your plate and go somewhere else to enjoy it. If we’re grazing constantly, a bite here and a bite there can add up quickly. Also, try not to eat while you’re chatting with people. Mingling quickly turns into mindless eating! Pay attention to the food while you’re eating, and focus on the conversation while you’re talking. Plus, being engaged while you socialize helps take the emphasis off of the treats that are tempting you!
But, If You Have to Mingle While You Munch
Of course, we all have to socialize while we’re eating at some point. Whenever you do, try these healthy holiday eating tactics:
- Mingle while you munch on fruits and veggies. If you’re chatting with someone and feel pressured to eat, nosh on a plate of fruits and veggies! That way, you’re eating more wholesome foods and don’t have to feel as bad about snacking.
- Don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s an old-school rule, but it still applies! If conversation is happening over dinner or at a party, make an effort to NOT put food into your mouth while you’re speaking. Take bites while you’re listening to someone else. Even better, take a pause from eating while you’re engaged in a conversation. With so many people around, the conversation is constantly shifting, so you’ll be freed up to chow down again in no time.
- Eat slowly. Research shows that eating with more people increases the likelihood that we eat more food—often because the meal can last longer so we spend more time staring at the food. Be aware of this! Focus on chewing your food, listen to the conversations at the table, and take time to breathe between bites. One great trick to try is put your fork down on the table (let go of it completely) between each bite!
- Sit next to someone who you feel comfortable around. If we’re anxious or nervous at a group gathering, that can cause us to eat more! Choose a seat at the table next to someone who puts you at ease. This could be a trusted friend, who you can talk with openly. Or, sit next to someone else who’s eating healthy—it may help you feel more comfortable doing so. But, if sitting next to a healthier eater in the group stresses you out more, don’t sit there! Find the spot that makes YOU feel most comfortable.
Know You Can Say NO
When we’re surrounded by friends and family, it’s hard to say no to all of the food that’s offered—especially when those people made the food themselves. Even if we’re full or we don’t want to eat any of Grandma’s fruitcake, we’ll eat it because we don’t want to offend anyone. But, we shouldn’t just eat to please other people! Will you really enjoy eating that fruitcake, or are you eating just to please someone? YOU are the only one who should decide what food goes into your body. Yes, it can be awkward to say no. But, sometimes accepting that momentary awkwardness is better in the long run.
We don’t have to eat everything, and we don’t need to show our love by eating ourselves sick! Eating to please can make us feel resentful towards those loved ones, and the guilt we’ll feel about overeating can lead to more unhealthy behavior. Sometimes, it’s enough to just say “no thank you,” or “I’m a bit full right now,” or “maybe I’ll have some later.” (Most people will forget about it soon anyway.) Or, just have a bite or two! Share with someone else, or take what you don’t finish home. That way, you don’t have to feel guilty about overeating, and you can still let Grandma know that her fruitcake is delicious.
Exercise, Even If It's Just a Little Bit
Most of us are NOT worrying about exercise during the holidays. And that can be a good thing! It’s okay to skip the gym or stray from the normal workout routine—don’t beat yourself up over it. Plus, working out will never “cancel out” the eating and indulging that we do anyway. It’s also dangerous for our mental wellbeing to view the gym and exercise as a “punishment.” Exercise is definitely an important part of a healthy lifestyle—for our bodies and our minds! Even though working out is not the “solution” to eating poorly, it also shouldn’t be our “enemy.”
Keep things simple. Pick one day each week that you can commit to working out. And, just make the effort to just do something active each day—take a walk, play outside with family or a pet, blast some music and get moving while you clean the house. Break up your physical activity into pieces throughout the day. Exercise helps with digestion, it can relieve some of that holiday stress, and it can do wonders for our mental wellness. When we’re making efforts to be healthy, we quiet some of the negative voices that criticize us for indulging. Plus, keeping just a little bit of exercise in our lives during the holidays will make it SO much easier to stick to New Year’s resolutions!
Make Time for Sleep
Sleep is key to staying energized and managing our stress during the holidays. And, less stress means less chance for stress eating. But, getting enough sleep is actually essential for maintaining a healthy weight! Research has shown that a lack of sleep ramps up our carb cravings and actually makes people gain more weight than those who get enough sleep. All of those healthy holiday eating efforts could be for nothing if we don’t make sleep a priority!
When we’re low on sleep, the body releases more hormones that make us feel hungry, and less of the hormones that help us feel full. Plus, our body starts to store more fat rather than use it for energy. We also need sleep to help our digestive system function properly, and to recover after workouts. Aim for 6 to 9 hours of sleep every night!
Find a System That Works for YOU
For some of us, having some structure or “rules” about our indulging can help during the holidays. Of course, this won’t work for all of us—rules may make your food anxiety worse, and that’s okay! We each have to find a system that works for us. If you’re looking for more structure to keep you on track, try some of these healthy holiday eating strategies:
Pick an "Indulgence Day".
Once we’re in the mode of indulging, even if it’s just after a big Thanksgiving feast, it can be hard to get out of that mode. Give yourself some structure by picking one (or just a few) indulgence days per week, and stick to eating well the rest of the week. If you have a holiday event coming up, plan for that to be your indulgence day. If you’ve got events every day, choose the one or two events that are truly splurge-worthy!
Do Something Healthy Before Indulging
Drink a full glass of water BEFORE you reach for the treats or have an alcoholic drink. It can help fill you up so you're not as likely to overeat! And, it’s important to stay hydrated so your digestive system keeps moving and your immune system stays strong. Take a walk around the party or climb the stairs at your office BEFORE you chow down. This can help us feel a bit better about indulging, so we don’t go down the spiral of guilt.
Whatever it is, find something healthy, big or small, that you can do before indulging. Keeping our health in mind—especially right before we indulge—makes us more likely to make healthier choices. Often, when we start mindlessly eating food, we turn off that part of our brain that’s concerned with our health. Think about those small, healthy things you can do so that health-conscious part of your brain stays up and running!
Choose the Real, Whole Foods Before the Treats
Just like we’re taught as kids, you’ve got to eat your veggies before you get dessert! First, eat from the veggie or fruit trays, serve yourself a plate of salad, or have a bowl of soup. THEN move on to the less fuel-filled dishes—whether it’s the mashed potatoes and gravy, the cheddar caramel popcorn, or the chocolate fudge brownies. You’ll at least be getting some healthy fuel in your body, and you’ll feel more full before moving on to your treats!
Make a "One Plate" Rule
A simple way to stop ourselves from going overboard at a party is to agree on a “one plate” rule (or a “one drink” rule). Fill up one plate of food with the items you love, enjoy it, and wait before you go back for more. It takes 20 minutes for the brain and body to realize we’re full, so give yourself time! If you happen to still be hungry, you can of course go back for more.
You can also get more specific with this rule, like making a “three-bite” rule on desserts. Most often, we just want a taste of those sweets. (And, at that point, we’re probably already full…) Since it’s really the first and the last bites that leave an impression on us, three bites is just enough! Savor those bites and spare yourself the guilt. You can also share those more indulgent dishes with someone else. And, remember that you don’t have to try every single dish!
Take it Easy on Extras
During the holidays, there are SO many forms of sneaky calories that we don’t think about, and they can add up quickly! Allow yourself to indulge, but find small ways you can cut back. Limit your alcohol intake (LOTS of empty calories). Choose seltzer water instead of sugary sodas. Have just one cup of eggnog. Go light on rich sauces and gravy, or go without. These are small changes, but they can seriously lighten our calorie load!
Set a Time to Stop Eating & Drinking
If you’re at a holiday event, the food and alcohol are often out and available for hours. Before you start, choose a time when you’ll stop eating and drinking. Then, you won’t be tempted to keep mindlessly noshing and drinking throughout the entire event.
Try popping a mint or a piece of gum in your mouth when your ‘stop time’ arrives. The minty flavor helps cleanse the mouth, and gum keeps our mouths busy so we can’t go back to eating! Plus, stopping at an earlier time means the body has more time to digest. You’ll feel better AND sleep better!
This works for some people! Getting on the scale frequently can help you stay aware of changes in your body, which may be a motivator for you to ease up on the indulging. Another similar strategy is to pick a pair of form-fitting pants that you like and try them on once per week. If they’re feeling too snug, it might motivate you to make some healthy choices!
Don't Weigh Yourself
I personally am a fan of this strategy, because weighing myself stresses me out! It’s easy to become obsessive over it, and our weights fluctuate so much from one day to the next that it can be demoralizing. And, this can be especially true during the holidays, when we tend to carry more water weight and bloat!
The number on the scale is less important to me than how I feel. Am I feeling irritable or overly tired? Or am I having stomachaches or headaches? Our nutrition plays a major role in how we feel! Paying attention to those feelings can also motivate us to make healthy changes.
Don't Give Up! Make Healthy Holiday Eating Easier
It’s so easy to give up on eating well during the holidays. (I’ve done it many times...) But, making the effort to fit some healthy foods into each day is so important for our bodies and our moods. Let your indulgences be indulgences—enjoy them occasionally, not constantly. Then, find ways to make healthy eating more accessible throughout the season. Rather than eating out for every meal or just noshing on that gift box of holiday goodies throughout the day, try some healthy holiday eating hacks:
Bare Bones Meal Prep
During the holidays, most of us aren’t thinking about meal prep. But, doing a simplified prep of healthy essentials like veggies, fruits, and proteins means healthy options will be easily accessible! You’ll be more likely to make healthy choices if they’re prepped and ready to go, instead of noshing on those holiday goodies. And, if you want to go the extra mile and do an entire meal prep for the week, check out this Healthy Meal Prep for the Holidays!
Keep Healthy Snacks On-Hand
At work, during holiday shopping, while you’re traveling, or even at a holiday event, keep some healthy snacks with you! Packing some on-the-go healthy snacks can fit more fuel into your days, and you’ll be less tempted to grab fast food or a food-court meal.
Have Freezer Meals Ready
When you’re too tired or don’t feel like cooking a healthy meal, it’s easy to just decide to eat out or order in. Instead, have some healthy freezer meals ready so you can have a nutritious meal ready in minutes! You can even meal prep SMOOTHIES so you can quickly blend up an on-the-go meal anytime. Check out these freezer meals for the microwave, slow cooker, and oven that can make your healthy holiday eating easier!
Keep Treats in Covered Dishes, Out of Reach
This might seem oddly specific, but it works! Research shows that when snacks and treats are kept in covered dishes that aren’t see-through, we’re less likely to eat them. And, it helps to keep those treats out of arm’s reach. Put the candy in a covered bowl in the pantry, instead of out on the counter. Keep those holiday cookies off your desk and out of the desk drawer. Make the treats a bit harder to get, and we’ll be less inclined to eat them!
Choose Activities That Aren't Centered Around Food
So much of the holiday season revolves around eating, but there are plenty of other fun activities during this time of year! Plan some outdoor fun, like going on a hike, sledding, or making snowmen. Play games or make some non-edible holiday crafts, like ornaments or decorate stockings. Take a walk to see the lights in your neighborhood. There are tons of options!
Make Healthy Substitutions in Holiday Cooking
There are SO many simple changes that can make holiday cooking healthier! Make your own, lighter gravy. Have turkey without the skin on it. Make crust-less pies, or miniature single-serving pies. Add more veggies into your stuffing. If you’re looking for some ideas, check out my Healthy Thanksgiving & Christmas Recipes blog, and my Healthy Holiday Desserts blog!
These are just SOME of the ways we can make healthy holiday eating more possible. You may find other tactics that work for you! But, for any kind of healthy holiday eating strategy to work, we have to actually USE it. Be realistic about your expectations for the holiday season, and be honest with yourself.
Are you committing to your healthy holiday strategies and sticking with them? Have you tried a certain strategy and found it didn’t work? Try another one! Fine tune your tactics until you’ve found a game plan that works for you. And, remember, indulging is not “bad.” Allow yourself to enjoy the holiday season and find a healthy balance you can feel good about!
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