We’ve entered a season of celebrations! Whether at the office, in your neighborhood, at your place of worship, or among friends, you likely have more than one holiday gathering on your calendar through the end of the year.
One thing these gatherings have in common? Food, and lots of it! While endless sweets and rich meals can be pitfalls, you don’t have to deprive yourself. With a little effort, it’s possible to have fun without putting your health on hold.
We asked our nutrition experts—Aramark Registered Dietitians (RDs) Emily Frack, Abby Buettner, Lauren Hickman (left to right in photo), and Danielle Gehrke-Spering (not pictured)—for their tried-and-true tips to get you through the holidays as healthy as you started them.
1. Get more nutrients with each bite. Some traditional holiday foods offer more nutritional value than others. “Cranberries are a nutrient-dense fruit with disease-fighting antioxidants. Choose a tablespoon or two of cranberry sauce over the turkey instead of gravy,” suggests Danielle. When it comes to dessert, Lauren says pumpkin pie is the real winner: “Pumpkin pie [typically] has less than half the calories and fat of pecan pie, with a healthy dose of vitamin A.” Pumpkin is also a source of fiber and beta carotene, which gives it its beautiful orange color. Remember to keep portions small as these items also come with added sugars.
2. Put protein and fiber first. Follow the MyPlate method. ”First pile on the vegetables and fruits, which have a high nutrient content, and then focus on protein-rich foods such as lean meats, which will help fill you up,” Emily advises. That way, Lauren says, “You will be better able to control your appetite for indulgent foods. Chances are, you will be satisfied after a little bit of each.”
3. Don’t drink your calories. “Alcoholic beverages are a source of empty calories, especially fun cocktails with added sugars,” Emily cautions. Same goes for eggnog, hot cocoa, and punch. Abby offers a simple solution: “Drinking mostly water is a good lifestyle change that doesn’t take too much effort. To start, substitute one glass of water for a drink you would normally reach for.” Not only will this keep you hydrated, it leaves more room for your favorite foods.
4. Listen to your taste buds. “Practice getting in touch with what you truly like most. If you are intentional, it can be easier to select the right foods,” assures Emily. This may take some practice if you’re accustomed to always eating what’s offered. “Don’t feel you have to say yes. If you aren’t hungry, or it’s not your favorite, say no,” Danielle encourages. “Or opt to take a few treats to go for later.”
5. Host with the most. If you’re throwing the party, you’re in control. You can provide options for guests with certain dietary needs or those who are trying to eat more healthfully. “As a host, be aware of who is attending. Provide simple, healthy options like roasted turkey, Brussels sprouts, and mashed butternut squash,” Abby suggests. Danielle asserts that you can “trim calories without compromising flavor or tradition. Simpler sides will help save time, too!”
6. Bring something you can count on. Heading to a party? Plan ahead so you have a guaranteed healthy option. “Be the one to bring the healthier dish,” proposes Lauren. “Bruschetta has a simple, yet elegant appeal. It’s lower in calories [than many other appetizers], plus it’s a source of healthy unsaturated fat if drizzled with a little olive oil.” Abby’s go-to potluck contribution? “A veggie tray is always a good option with homemade Greek yogurt dip. This is simple, healthy—and everyone always eats it,” she says.
7. Focus on more than just the meal. Find a worthy distraction to curb mindless eating—and make time for what matters. “During dinner, catch up with family! This will naturally slow down your eating pace,” suggests Danielle. “Once you are done with the meal, get away from the food. Offer to help hosts clean up. Chew gum. Sip herbal tea. Curb your desire to munch.” Other ideas: initiate a board game or family craft project.
8. Get moving, even if you can’t make it to the gym. “The holidays are busy,” Abby admits, “but this doesn’t mean we don’t have time to be physically active. Take a family walk or jog when you’re all together. Don’t forget activities around the house, like cleaning up.” And Lauren reminds us about good, old-fashioned offline shopping. “Head to the mall and walk a couple laps before going into stores. You may find that perfect gift you wouldn’t otherwise see while getting exercise.”
9. Aim to maintain. You don’t have to lose to win this season. “If you’re on a weight loss journey, focus on maintaining instead of losing,” Emily offers. And, as Abby puts it, be kind to yourself. “Don’t get down if you do indulge. Every meal is an opportunity to make a healthy choice.” There will be plenty of chances to stay healthy this season.
10. Try to relax. Perhaps the best tip is to keep everything in perspective (and keep your stress down). “Do your best not to get wrapped up in the ‘work’ of the holidays—the cleaning, decorating, planning, and gift finding,” says Lauren. “Remember the fondness of memories made during the holidays, and make it a priority to enjoy the memories to come!”
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.