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healthy holiday eating tips

Looking for healthy holiday eating tips to keep you feeling your best this season? I surveyed my dietitian colleagues to find the best tips and tricks to prevent bloat, weight gain, and allow you to enjoy this special time in the best way possible.

My colleagues and I agree – you can savor the seasons’ flavors without compromising your health and well-being. From sneaky calorie traps to healthy holiday food swaps, these insider tips from registered dietitians are your secret recipe for a healthier, happier holiday.  

So grab a cup of your favorite holiday beverage, and let’s dive into a world where taste and health go hand in hand!

10 Healthy Holiday Eating Tips

Between the indulgent food and added stress, it can be all too easy to overdo it on the holidays. But don’t worry, you have the power to take control and not let it get in the way of your progress. Here are our top 10 healthy holday eating tips to follow.

1. Use the Plate Method

plate method visual for healthy holiday eating

Image credit: Diabetes Food Hub

The plate method is an approach to healthy eating that guides you visually on building a balanced plate. 

“One way I make holiday meals healthier without affecting the taste is by planning a balanced menu following the plate method. That means about half the dishes will be veggie or fruit based, about a quarter will be protein (like the turkey!), and about a quarter will be carbohydrate based (like mashed potatoes or dinner rolls),” says Bri Bell, RD, Founder of Frugal Minimalist Kitchen.

“While this doesn’t control how much of each food your guests actually choose (and I wouldn’t want to anyway), in my experience, it’s more likely they will fill half their plate with veggies if half the dishes served are veggies! This is because people are more likely to take more food when there’s a lot of variety. So if there is more variety in vegetables, they’re more likely to put more on their plate!” adds Bell.

2. Serve healthy appetitizers

“One of my favorite healthy ways to start a holiday meal is having healthy appetizers. I always have cut-up vegetables with a healthy dip, such as hummus or a Greek yogurt dipping sauce with various flavorings added to it.  Having healthy appetizers sets the tone of the meal and gives people a healthy option,” says Amy Beney MS RD CDCES of mynutritioninsights.com

“Research has shown that when eating vegetables first, there can be better blood sugar control after a meal. Other healthy appetizers I serve are shrimp cocktail or a charcuterie that has a  variety of nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables,” adds Beney.

During our holiday, we also always have some sort of cut up raw veggies with hummus or baba ganoush (a delicious Middle Eastern eggplant dip). These high-fiber, high volume foods fill you up with minimal calories, and help you naturally eat less of the higher-calorie holiday foods.

3. Don’t save your calories

Even know most of us know this ends up backfiring, many of my clients still do this out of habit, and it’s a hard habit to break! But when it comes down to it, saving your calories until the big meal will lead you to overeat. Everything looks amazing when you’re that hungry, and you’ll also subconsciously feel you should eat more because it’s your first meal of the day. Whether you realize it or not, doing this will cause you to consume more calories by the end of the day than if you just ate as you normally would earlier in the day.

Instead, do this: Eat as you normally would earlier in the day, have a nutritious snack with protein and carbs, such as grapes and a cheesestick, beforehand and drink plenty of water.

4. Focus on the experience

While the food is a big part of our holiday celebrations, it is really the experiences that we remember. The taste of the food is short-term and fleeting, while the memories with your family is what matters. How many times do you remember exactly how the food tasted? Chances are you probably remember what your family said or did much more than anything related to the food.

Take the focus off the food, and put that energy into connecting with those you love. Maybe you’re traveling to another place or seeing family you haven’t seen in a while. Focus on that and the joy of it, so the food becomes more of an afterthought. It is still a way of connecting with your family, but there is so much more to the holidays than that.

5. Don’t hover near the food

appetizer board for healthy holiday eating

Image credit: Reluctant entertainer

Hanging out near the appetitizer and snack table can be dangerous. Before you know it, you’re grabbing for seconds of food you really don’t even care about. Doing this can lead you to consume a meal’s-worth of calories before the main meal is even served.

Instead, do this: Grab a small plate of your favorite apps (just your favorites you actually like, not a little bit of everything just because it’s there) and step away. Go and enjoy conversation and don’t hang out near the food to reduce the temptation to grab more just because. It’s amazing how much your environment makes a huge difference!

6. Keep herbal tea on deck

“Holiday meals with your loved ones may include an abundance of foods you don’t normally eat, which can throw off your digestive system and increase unwanted symptoms,” says Kathryn Durston, RDN, Owner of Naturally Good Nutrition.

“I recommend to my clients to have herbal tea on deck, such as ginger or peppermint tea, so that they can have a cup or two throughout the day. Herbal tea can help alleviate digestive symptoms after big holiday meals, including bloating, gas, and constipation,” adds Durston.

7. Drink water all day

Water is always important to drink, but especially is around the holidays! Staying in the habit of drinking water can help provide needed energy, curb appetite, and support healthy digestion when you’re eating heavier foods.

Keep a water bottle closeby at all times, and bring it with you when you’re on the go. Drink a glass of water before you drink any kind of alcoholic drink, to ensure you stay hydrated.

8. Choose alcohol wisely

Alcohol contributes a lot of calories and sugar that your body doesn’t process well. The more alcohol you have, the less efficient your body is at digesting your food, and the more likely you will be to gain weight. This is not to say you can’t enjoy a cocktail at all – you’ll just want to do it strategically.

Pick your favorite drink – whether it’s a cocktail, wine, or beer, and enjoy it. Drink a glass of water before each alcoholic drink to slow your pace down, and try to stick to 1-2 drinks. This will help keep calories in check and make it less likely that you’ll overeat. 

Drinking too much causes lowered inhibitions, which leads to overeating and craings for higher calorie foods. Keep your goals front and center and feel your best by limiting your alcohol intake. 

I promise your holiday will be just as fun (and probably more fun as you’re more in the moment) without a lot of alcohol!

9. Be mindful of what you really want

It’s easy to grab ALL the foods during the holiday festivities because it looks good and it seems like everyone else is doing it. But what if you just grabbed what you actually liked and left the rest? 

Being intentional and mindful on what you really want to eat and enjoy is going to naturally shave hundreds of calories from your day. And, it will leave you feeling just as satisfied because those foods you did eat are more memorable. So pick your top 3-5 favorites, fill your plate with them, and fully enjoy!

10. Remember that you can have these foods any time

Holiday food is often associated with the holidays only. But the reality is that you have access to these foods at any time – including turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the desserts. If you tell yourself you can ONLY have them on the holiday then it’ll lead to an all-or-nothing mentality with those foods. 

But if you remember that you can truly have them when you want, they will feel less important and not as much of a big deal to you. Then you will not feel the pressure to eat so much of them!

Healthy Holiday Food Swaps

Healthy holiday food swaps

In addition to these healthy holiday eating tips, there are several easy healthy holiday food swaps you can make to cut calories, fat, sugar, and boost nutrition without sacrificing taste! Here are some of our favorite swaps:

1. Make your own cranberry sauce instead of the store-bought

“I love making my own cranberry sauce using fresh cranberries and natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. This helps me better control the amount of sugar that I am using in the cranberry sauce,” says Wan Na Chun, MPH, RD, CPT of One Pot Wellness.

I can personally attest that the homemade cranberry sauce tastes much better, and I love that you have control over the ingredients being added.

2. Use whole-grain or sourdough bread instead of white

“I love using whole-grain bread or sourdough instead of white bread in my Thanksgiving stuffing to add additional fiber and nutrients. I also add some hidden veggies like celery, carrots, and onions to increase the fiber content,” says Chun.

These types of breads are more nutritious and flavorful than white, and they also result in a slower blood sugar response. This means your blood sugar is less likely to spike and then crash, leading to longer-lasting energy and less energy slumps as you get deeper into your holiday activities.

3. Lighten up your sweet potato casserole

“Instead of traditional sweet potato casserole, I make a lighter version. I mash boiled sweet potatoes with orange juice and add cinnamon, ginger, a dash of brown sugar, and chopped pecans. They are lighter but just as tasty,” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD owner, www.soundbitesnutrition.com.

You can also make these simple swaps with just about any casserole, decreasing the amount of butter, cream, and added sugar with these natural substitutes.

4. Swap out your butter

“Break up with butter.” This is the #1 tip from my colleague Melissa Altman-Traub, MS, RDN, LDN

“Reduce saturated fat by choosing olive oil, fruit juices, or homemade vegetable broth instead. Lots of holiday side dishes and desserts include butter but you can also substitute fruit purees for some of the fat in baked goods and have a delicious and more nutrient-dense result.”

Here is an example for a delicious acorn squash.

Olive oil is bursting with healthy fats and is just as satisfying as butter without all the artery-clogging fats. Enjoy it as a substitute in most savory recipes that call for butter.

5. Make plant-based swaps

“Try swapping some of the meat for legumes! Some research suggests many Americans aren’t getting enough satiating fiber, and legumes are one of the highest fiber-containing sources! Legumes also contain almost zero saturated fats,” says Christine Milmine, RDN from Plant Powered You.

You can also try Tofurky as a tofu-based turkey substitute and make your veggie sides the star of the show.

“Here’s a kidney chili bean recipe that is a real winner in my house (and contains beans)!” adds Milmine.

6. Add milled flax seeds to baked goods

“Typical holiday dishes tend to be low in fiber, making it more challenging to hit your daily fiber intake that you need to support digestion. Adding milled flax seed powder can easily increase the fiber content of your baked goods, such as cookies and muffins. Incorporate 2-4 tbsp, depending on the servings in your dish,” says Kathryn Durston, RDN, Owner of Naturally Good Nutrition.

The overall theme here seems to be fiber, fiber, fiber, and for good reason!

Sneaking more fiber into your desserts can help you feel more full and satisfied, leading you to naturally eat less without feeling deprived.

7. Include lots of veggie-based sides

“To make your holiday meals healthier, include lots of vegetable-based side dishes. Roasted Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, squash,and sweet potatoes get golden and caramelized when roasted and are so flavorful. They are great prepared simply without lots of butter or sauces,” says Christina Iaboni, RD

I couldn’t agree more. Many traditional vegetable sides are loaded with butter and salt, but they don’t have to be to taste good. Baking veggies with a bit of olive oil allows them to caramelize perfectly and develop rich flavor. Baking is also such an easy cooking method that you can employ during the holidays or at any time.

8. Focus on fruit-based desserts

“Fruit-based desserts will add fiber to your meals and are lower in fat than more indulgent options like cheesecake or cakes with lots of frosting,” says Iaboni.

“Choosing a fruit crisp over a pie will also lower unhealthy fat since you don’t have the pastry. This apple and strawberry crisp is delicious and a lower-sugar alternative to pie and even traditional fruit crisps. In the fall and winter, I make this with just apples and serve it with some vanilla ice cream.”

It doesn’t get more simple and delicious than that!

You Can Eat Healthy Around the Holidays and Still Lose Weight

Healthy holiday eating is possible without sacrificing taste and enjoyment. Utilize these healthy holiday food swaps and tips from registered dietitians to help you stay on track without feeling deprived this holiday season.

Remember that this article is not intended to replace the personalized guidance of a qualified nutrition professional. If you need support and guidance in your healthy weight loss journey, contact me to schedule a free call. We’ll discuss where you are now, where you want to be, and the best path to take to get you there.