Holiday Eating Survival Tips
There’s no denying that the holiday season is in full swing. Halloween has come and gone, but I’m guessing that many of you still have remnants of mini candy bars lurking in your house or office! With Thanksgiving a few weeks away and Christmas and New Year’s just around the corner from there, now is the time to think about how you want to come out on the other side.
It may not surprise you that people tend to gain 7-14 pounds between Halloween and New Year’s Day. Rather than accepting this as your fate and heading into 2023 feeling pressure to shed those unwanted pounds, let’s talk about how to proactively make sure you don’t find yourself in this unnecessary predicament.
Many of my clients who have made great strides toward improved eating habits get anxious about the holidays. It’s totally understandable to feel overwhelmed and intimidated by holiday eating that threatens to throw us out of our normal eating routine. I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to worry, and it’s not at all necessary to take on a restrictive mindset, forgoing the fun and the food. That only leads to misery and feelings of deprivation.
Let’s break it down and look at things with a simpler perspective, which will lighten the load and set you up for success. Thanksgiving is one day. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are just one day. Sure - there are often celebrations surrounding these days whether it be a work party, neighborhood gathering, or a night out with friends and family. But, even then, we are not enduring nine solid weeks from Halloween to New Year’s where we are faced with daily choices that could completely derail us.
Healthy eating should be a lifelong investment that must be reasonable rather than restrictive. Restriction never works for the long haul. Healthy eating also requires having a peripheral vision of sorts in order to keep things balanced. So, instead of heading into the holidays with full force and allowing cravings to take control, let’s talk about the ways in which we can take charge and keep better tabs on our holiday eating.
This may sound obvious, but a lack of planning is a very common mistake that leads to overindulgent eating, often fueling a cycle of guilt, more overeating and weight gain.
If you are anticipating a special dinner party, work event, or a holiday in and of itself, it’s wise to buckle down and make good choices both leading up to, and following that event.
This is not a suggestion to skimp on food in an attempt to bank extra calories, which almost always backfires by leading to poor choices and less self-control as low blood sugar and “hanger” (hungry + anger = hanger) are given the upper hand. Instead, be mindful of what you eat and prioritize lean protein and healthy fat/fiber throughout the day so you can approach things with a level head (and appetite).
Be sure to have healthy choices available at home. This takes a little planning, but will serve you well in the long run. Keep pre-washed salad greens, cut veggies, lean protein, nuts, and fruit on hand that can make a quick meal or snack. If you’re really on top of your game, pre-portioned leftovers that can be reheated on the fly will be a welcome go-to when you’re hustling from one thing to the next and need a fast option.
Heading to a restaurant? If possible, scope out the menu ahead of time so you have an idea of what’s being offered and make a general game plan. It’s not necessary to choose the healthiest items on the menu, but having a plan before inhibitions are lowered after that first cocktail or when hunger sets in is a solid strategy. Consider pairing a small plate with a side salad for a meal in place of an entrée. Sharing multiple small plates or an entrée with a spouse will also allow you to try multiple dishes without going overboard.
With every holiday comes a favorite food that we all look forward to. Perhaps it’s a food that connects us to a childhood memory or a family tradition. Or, more simply, we just love the way it tastes and only get to enjoy it once or twice a year. For my family, that would be a decadent corn pudding that has a standing place on our holiday menu. It’s a bit tedious to put together, requiring several steps and strategic timing in order to pull it out of the oven at just the right time, so it retains the soufflé-like appearance. This is the kind of dish that IF there are any leftovers, you should probably eat them for breakfast the next day before someone else beats you to it. No guilt, no shame!
On the other hand, every holiday meal, party, etc. includes more common foods that we tend to eat throughout the year. Permit yourself to indulge in the foods that matter most and forgo some of the ones that are not as special, or that you can enjoy another time. For example, if you’re at a cocktail party with an array of holiday hors d’oeuvres, skip the cheese and crackers (even if it’s arranged in a beautiful Pinterest-inspired holiday shape!) as well as other more ordinary options, and make choices about the special foods you really want to try. Be deliberate about these choices and avoid mindlessly loading up a plate or hanging out by the chips and dip. Be sure to seek out some veggies or fruit (the exception to my ordinary rule) to help fill you up with healthy fiber.
Prepare a Healthy Dish:
If you’re invited to a gathering that calls for you to bring a dish to contribute, choose something that you know you will enjoy, yet also fits the bill as a healthier option. A festive salad with seasonal vegetables or a platter of vegetable crudité with a dip are always welcome and will help to keep you on track while enjoying a variety of other foods.
Maintaining a consistent level of activity through the holiday season is a significant tool to keep yourself grounded. Not only does it help offset some of the extra calories you may consume, but it adds an element of accountability with your food choices. When we’re invested in exercise and fitness, we’re more likely to also be invested in better food choices and less likely to let things unravel and lose control of our eating habits.
The busyness of the holiday season often becomes an excuse not to exercise or be active. Look ahead at the calendar and schedule your workouts as you would any other appointment. That way you’re more likely to make it happen. This may require shifting some things around, or getting up earlier than usual to fit in a walk or a workout, but making this a priority will help a great deal.
Seek out opportunities to be active with your loved ones as well. Instead of sitting on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner, get outside to enjoy a walk. The idea is just to keep moving and avoid the temptation to be sedentary after a big meal.
A lot of the tips I’ve mentioned about holiday eating are also applicable to everyday life. That’s not a coincidence! Healthy eating strategies should be reasonable and practical enough to persevere in all seasons of life in order to achieve long term success. Getting a handle on planning, prioritizing and being active will lead to success in the most busy and challenging times, once the tools and strategies morph into lifelong habits. Busy work seasons, transitions between homes or jobs, vacations, etc., all require a mindful and intentional approach if things are to stay on track.
I hope something in this post resonates with you and helps you on your journey of eating well through all the seasons.
Allyson Balzuweit, MPH, RDN, LD