November 30th, 2022

The Healthy Eating Survival Guide for Holiday Parties


This article was first published in Healthy Inspiration here.

Have you ever returned home from a holiday party, or any party for that matter, regretting your food and beverage choices?  Have you ever questioned yourself about why you chose to over-indulge or accept the second serving from a ‘good intentioned’ individual who reminded you that you won’t get to eat it again until next year?

I think we have all felt disappointed if not disgusted with ourselves at some point or another.  We have all wondered why we didn’t politely decline and walk away.  But in the moment, it can be incredibly difficult to execute self-control AND sometimes there is unfair pressure to please someone by saying “yes.”  Sometimes we chance disappointing someone as well.  To the dismay of some, choosing wisely can even draw attention to ourselves…

holiday weight gainDuring the holidays, most of us intend to have some treats and eat some foods that are richer and more calorie dense than usual.  I firmly believe that this is OK. But I also believe, and personally know from experience, that by giving ourselves the liberty to eat these indulgent foods, we often do not give ourselves boundaries or expectations about how much or how often is OK. It’s easy to just throw up our hands and say, “It’s the holidays…”

So, in essence, we set ourselves up for regret and personal failure. We tell ourselves it is OK to eat or drink something, but “failing to plan is planning to fail.”  In working with hundreds of individuals on weight loss and healthy living, the personal disappointment is not usually associated with tasting a food or even enjoying it.  The regret was attached to “too much” or “too often”… when a good thing goes too far.

This holiday season, join me in becoming intentional about holiday treats and meals.  Let’s not allow overindulgence to just happen. Instead, let’s choose delicious foods. Let’s determine when we will eat dessert. Let’s decide how much we will eat before we sit down to the table.

Let’s arrive at the party with confidence and a plan.

Let’s leave the gathering feeling satisfied and with peace of mind.

Create YOUR ACTION PLAN that you will execute every party day. This may sound formal, but it is actually a very simple mental plan you briefly walk through in your head to determine how you will respond.

Not only will you survive, but with a little practice and resolve, you can thrive. This Nutrition Survival Guide for Holiday Parties will not only help you avoid the prevalent holiday weight gain, it will empower you to live the life you want to live, every season of the year!

nutrition survival guide for holiday parties

Observe Before You Serve

When you are at the party or holiday gathering, assess the available food BEFORE serving your plate.  As a Registered Dietitian, I have done this well, but I have also failed miserably, just because I didn’t follow my own advice to look first.  At a recent holiday gathering  I began walking through the buffet line serving my plate and at the very end of the serving line, I saw it… the fresh salad… and I didn’t have any more room on my plate. And here is the kicker…. I BROUGHT THE SALAD!  I knew it was there but didn’t plan what I was going to serve on my plate in advance (and I refused to get a second plate to serve myself salad).  Don’t do what I did. ?

Begin by looking at all the dishes and sides available to you and choose what looks the most appetizing AND fits with your personal game plan. Make EVERY FOOD DECISION BEFORE YOU SERVE YOUR PLATE.

Determine what you will say “yes” to and what you will politely decline. Don’t put a single food on your plate until you have an action plan.  Commit to it. Following your plan initiates an amazing sense of self-value, something that no one can give you except YOU.

Exercise 10-15 Minutes Extra on Party Days

It is almost inevitable that extra calories will be consumed at a party. Even choices that appear to be “healthy” can be loaded with extra fat and calories. If you didn’t make it, then you don’t know exactly what is in it or how it was cooked.  BUT, instead of focusing on what you can’t control- other people’s recipes and cooking preparations- determine to focus on what you can control- your activity level the day of the party.  Make an effort to add 10-15 minutes of additional exercise minutes to your typical exercise routine.  Most individuals can burn an average of 100-150 additional calories with moderate to vigorous activity.

High-intensity interval training is my favorite way to get a great workout in limited time (you can learn more about it here).  But even walking counts!

Not only does this strategy help burn extra calories, but most individuals agree that they think twice before biting into higher calorie food choices when they consider the hard work they exerted in their work out.  Do your mind and body a favor by giving yourself an extra push during your workout on party day.

Eat Off the Dessert Plate

Choose the smaller plate or dessert plate for your meal and try to fill it half full of vegetables.  Often the dinner plates that are provided are the size of serving platters of the 1950s!  Don’t allow your curiosity to “taste” everything fill your plate to overflowing. Choose the foods you will eat and serve yourself appropriate portions on the small plate.  You will save yourself from consuming hundreds of additional calories by simply using the dessert plate! It’s a no-brainer!

Choose 1 Sweet Treat

Rich desserts are not only loaded with sugar, fat, and calories which makes weight management a tricky balancing act but affects blood sugar and cause a loss of energy. This doesn’t mean dessert is off limits, but it is wise to stick to no more than 1 sweet treat.

When you go out to eat with a friend or spouse and you decide to get dessert as a treat, do you order 2 or 3 or 4 desserts so that you can “sample” them all? No! You get 1.  Many people even decide to split the 1 dessert to practice moderation.  Why not apply this same principle to your holiday party?  There will be many desserts available but choose 1.  That’s right, just 1!  Which 1 treat is the very 1 you don’t want to go home without trying?!!– that is the one you should eat!  These Carrot Cake Snack Balls taste decadent- a must try!

Bring a Dish You Will Feel Good About Eating

Unless the party is catered, most of us bring a dish to a holiday party.  This is the perfect opportunity to bring a recipe that tastes amazing but is a wise food choice for our bodies. Even if you are asked to bring a specific type of dish, side, appetizer, dessert, you can bring your own lightened up version.  If a veggie platter and hummus are boring, don’t bring that!  If salad is dull, don’t offer to fix one!  Choose to bring delicious food that everyone will adore, just make it a bit lighter.  For some tips and tricks see my article 11 Secrets to Lightening Up Your Holiday Dishes Without Sacrificing Flavor.  I often choose to bring a vegetable side dish or appetizer because I find that vegetables are lacking on holiday food tables.  These Broccoli Hummus Snack Bites are so fun and festive for the holidays!

Alcohol: Decide Before You Arrive

While a teetotaler can thoroughly enjoy a party, alcohol is a beverage many people fancy, especially during the holidays.  But because alcohol may not seem indulgent and can be sipped easily, the actual caloric value of your favorite beverage may remain a mystery. Just 5 ounces of your ‘Aunt Betty’s’ spiked eggnog could have 250 calories or more!!  Of course, a 3-4 ounce ‘holiday cocktail’ with a merry concoction of simple syrups, juice, and alcohol can often boast 150-200 calories.  How many calories are you willing to drink? Decide before you arrive.  What might happen if you didn’t stick to your game plan? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting alcohol to 1 drink for women and no more than 2 for men.

The Christmas season can be such a fun time to enjoy some treats and fun experiences that are not common the rest of the year.  But your health values and goals don’t have to hibernate until January. Continue to plan…even your treats.

You can leave the party with no regrets.

So, What’s the Play Call?

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans. Proverbs 16:3

Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD
Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD is a nutrition communications dietitian whose joy and passion is to empower women to live healthy, balanced lives that are fulfilling and free of guilt and shame. She loves sharing real-life strategies to choosing nourishing foods, fitting in fitness and looking beyond the mirror. Jennifer enjoys encouraging women on her blog, Healthy Inspiration, taking walks with her daughter, cooking with her husband and trying out different kinds of physical activity.
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