By: Julane R. Contursi, MS, RDN, LD

The holidays should be a time to gather with friends and family and enjoy the comfort foods we look forward to at this time of year. In this article we will discuss ways to approach cooking our favorite traditional, festive foods in a way that tastes just as good (and in some cases, better) as their higher caloric/fat/sodium counterparts!

Because it is the holidays, many perceive this as a time when weight gain is expected since mindful food choices are usually not a priority during this time.  The average 5–8-pound weight gain does not need to be your reality.  And if this extra weight was taken off the following January, it may not be that bad.  However, the fact is that most do not take all this weight off come January.  Year after year, this can result in an additional 15-50+ pounds!  This additional weight has a significant impact on the risk for a multitude of chronic diseases – Coronary Heart Disease, Diabetes Mellitus, Hypertension (High Blood Pressure), Cancer, and others.

Whether you are attending parties or hosting them, try including some of the strategies below to prevent, or, at least, curtail, the usual 5–8-pound weight gain.

  1. Plan ahead.  When invited to a party, try to find out the types of food that will be present.  Undoubtedly, there will be many great-tasting, calorie-dense festive foods, but there will probably, also, be some nutrient-dense foods such as turkey; fresh, raw vegetables; fresh fruit; crackers; and other foods.  When faced with all this food, go for the higher nutrient-dense foods first.  Then, when you return to that never-ending buffet table with all those delectables, you can select some favorites that probably will be a smaller portion.  Your appetite will be a little more satisfied with your previous selections.
  2. Minding hunger-fullness cues. Be sure to include foods that keep you more satiated for a longer duration such as foods containing protein and fiber.  Fruits and peanut butter; whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese; celery and peanut butter; a protein shake or smoothie made with dairy milk or protein powder are all examples of fiber and protein-containing snacks.
  3. Bring a covered dish that you made. When attending a party, bring a dish that you made that’s more nutrient-dense and filling so that you can include this as part of your meal.  This is a great way to introduce people to this novel concept that healthy, holiday, and great tasting can all be descriptors of a food!
  4. Do not go hungry to a party.  This is a common mistake people make, which is done with the best intention but usually results in disaster!  Frequently, a partygoer will “save” their hunger by not eating all day as they plan to indulge at the party. The problem is that since hunger is such a powerful drive, the need to satiate it will far outweigh any discretionary choices you may have made when not so ravenous!  Eat something before going to the social event – such as a half sandwich; fresh fruit; raw vegetables and low-fat dip; or whole grain bread or muffins.  This will help with portion control so that you don’t overindulge.
  5. Choose festive foods judiciously.  Choose the foods that are more special to the holidays, and consider skipping the chips, dips, cheeses, crackers, and chocolate candy.  These items are too common when there are so many other festive foods to enjoy!
  6. Alternate alcoholic drinks with a non-caloric drink. Besides the danger of drinking excessive alcohol, it is a concentrated source of Calories and a stimulant of the appetite.  So, pacing yourself  will help you to better pace your intake.  Wine spritzers, light beer, and wine are some examples of refreshing lower Calorie alcoholic drinks.  Eggnog is the traditional drink at Christmas, but this can contain up to 4-5 times more Calories than a regular beer or glass of wine!  That’s just the Eggnog and does not include the liquor that’s in it!  A recipe for a Light Eggnog follows and is a great-tasting alternative to the extremely high-fat and high-caloric traditional eggnog.
  7. Place food in one central location.  Since the sight of food stimulates the appetite, its placement throughout the entire area where people mingle encourages overeating.  And don’t stand around the food table at your event!  If attending a party where food is everywhere, do your best to be in a location where your highest temptations are not!
  8. Exercise!  If you have been exercising all along, this is NOT the time to take a break.  If anything, this is a time to increase your exercise – if possible.  Adding a few minutes to your usual regimen (10-15 minutes) and/or frequency (i.e., from 3 or 4 times/week to 4 or 5 times/week) will help to counter the additional kcal/fat being consumed.  If not able to do this, then try to stay with the regimen.  If unable to get your usual activity in, just get in any activity – a walk with the family or dancing in your home with the kids.
  9. Substitute the lower-fat ingredients for the usual high-fat ingredients in favorite recipes.   There are so many dishes that can be dramatically reduced in Calories and fat without sacrificing taste, texture, or quality by just making some minor substitutions.  Because there are several ingredients in many “dishes,” you usually cannot decipher that healthier substitution.  Some very basic substitutions are listed below.  There are others, but the ones listed here are almost guaranteed not to result in an altered product.
  10. Live by the 80/20 rule.  The 80/20 rule can help you keep some balance in your holiday routine while still enjoying what you love. The goal is to fill up on nutrient-rich food 80% of the time. This includes high-fiber carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables. Then 20% of the time splurge on those comfort foods and desserts that only come around once a year. If most of the time you are fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods, the 20% is likely not to have as much of an effect.
  11. Choose what desserts/drinks you’ll have before you see them.  Telling yourself you’ll avoid those indulgent treats will just feel like deprivation and interfere w/your festive mood.  Choose those you like the most AND those that are different than the other more common desserts and drinks – those “specialty/holiday” items.  Make what you enjoy count!
  12. Stay hydrated.  Not being hydrated sufficiently is often mistaken as hunger.  Drink 10-16 oz. H20 before eating an additional serving if you feel hungry.

Adopting the mentality that holidays can include healthy eating does not come by reading this or any other article.  It occurs through the desire to change, which, for most, is difficult.   Eating is a way of life – a behavior – one that is not readily relinquished. Making a few changes at a time is more easily accepted and accomplished than trying to change it all at once!  Don’t expect that you’ll be able to face the holidays without eating any of the wonderfully prepared, not-so-healthy foods as that is unrealistic.  But the usual weight gain does not have to be a “fact” of the holiday season either.

Try some of the recipes that follow and decide for yourself if the title of this article is an oxymoron or not!  Happy, Healthy Holiday Eating to You!

By: Julane R. Contursi, MS, RDN, LD / Nov. 2023