8 Ways to Eat Healthily as a Guest This Holiday Season

Don’t let the season’s indulgences derail your choices.
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Don’t let the season’s indulgences derail your choices.

’Tis the season for tempting treats. As we gather to give thanks, express love, and celebrate faith and tradition, mouthwatering meals and delectable desserts are aplenty. Unfortunately, that also means our healthy eating habits can easily get swept away amid the holiday spirit. When your host passes an irresistible platter your way, how can you refuse?

Much of the year, I stick to a balanced and boring diet. But from apple pie on Thanksgiving to chocolate truffles on Christmas, my sweet tooth tends to win the battle against my healthy standards from November to January. In the moment, it feels amazing! My taste buds relish the rich flavors and beg for more. Later on, the regret creeps in as I reflect on how much I’ve indulged—whoops.

Between the overindulging and Ugh, I ate too much! cycle, the holidays can really stress our physical and mental health. It doesn’t have to be this way though. You can enjoy holiday helpings in someone else’s home without sacrificing your healthy diet.

01. Indulge in Moderation

Don’t add more stress to your holiday season by inflicting too much restriction; that will just make you crazy. Portion control should be your ever-guiding principle. Doctor and award-winning author Michelle May recommends viewing your appetite as an expense account. “How much do you want to spend on appetizers or the entree? Do you want to save some room for dessert? Go through this process mentally to avoid eating too much food and feeling uncomfortable for the rest of the evening,” she says.

Don’t deprive yourself completely either. Avoiding all treats can wear on your self-control. You’ll be more likely to binge if your will breaks. Dr. May explains, “Overeating and restrictive eating are often two sides of the same coin. Deprivation can be a trigger for overeating.” I’ve found that indulging in moderation—for example, a piece of cranberry bread and one cookie dough truffle alongside Thanksgiving turkey and salad—allows me to get a few sweet bits to curb my cravings without filling me with post-meal regret and the food coma that comes with it.

02. Practice Politely Declining

When you’re a guest, it’s easy to think, “Saying no would be rude,” when offered more servings of diet-busting cuisine. You never want to insult the hostess. But don’t hesitate to turn down a hearty helping when you’ve maximized the recommended caloric intake. To do so graciously, say, “That looks amazing, but I’m so full from my last serving, I couldn’t possibly have more!” or, “Thank you, but I’ll pass for now. I might have some later!”

You can even be intentional about leaving extra food on your plate. An empty plate invites offers from an eager hostess. Leaving food on your plate signals that you’re not quite through. You may even gesture toward your plate and say, “I’m actually still working on finishing this, but thank you!” If your hostess remains persistent anyway, take a little more and only have a bite. Just because you have some food left on your plate doesn’t mean that you’re required to eat it.

03. Scope Out the Spread

A buffet-style meal, a common occurrence during holiday gatherings, is a double-edged sword. It lets you manage your own portions (great!), but it also leaves you to your own discretion with serving sizes and rounds (yikes!). Take a glimpse at the spread before you begin. Scanning what’s in store for your stomach will help you plan what to pick before you’re invited to help yourself. If your host is serving the meal in courses, casually ask, “What’s on the menu? It smells great!” Don’t let one pile of corn bread catch you off guard. Planning is key to controlling what you consume.

Identify dishes that lead you to dish up serving after serving—and steer clear. If one serving just isn’t enough, don’t get started. It’s one thing to have several helpings of Brussels sprouts; it’s another to have several helpings of candied yams covered in marshmallows. Recognize these weaknesses, and keep them in mind as you fill your plate.

Another helpful tip is to pace yourself with smaller portions, knowing that you can go back for more later. Dr. David Katz advises in his book The Flavor Point Diet, “Variety stimulates appetite, and if you limit your choices to just a few items and stick with these, it will be easier to control than eating a little bit of twenty different dishes.”

04. Compartmentalize Your Plate

Because you can’t always serve yourself, learn how to compartmentalize your plate when you’re served by someone else. Before forking your food, analyze whether the serving size fits into your “budget.” If it doesn’t, divide your plate into what you do and don’t plan to eat, and exercise control to leave it untouched. Remember, you don’t have to polish your plate clean! Suzanne Hollander, RD, says, “Make half your plate fruits or vegetables to fill up on lower-calorie, higher-fiber foods, and allow the other half for your curated indulgences.”

05. Think About Tomorrow

The aftertaste of a holiday binge is not so sweet. Keep perspective, and think about how you’ll feel afterward before reaching for a second round of Bundt cake. Project your thoughts to tomorrow or later on in the day to step back from an in-the-moment urge to eat in excess. Remembering that you could feel sick, or at least disappointed in your lack of self-control, will help you resist in the moment.

During the holiday season, there’s always another special occasion—or more likely, several—coming along. Don’t rationalize your way into a holiday binge by thinking, “It’s OK because it’s a special occasion. A holiday gathering is special by nature, so we can easily fall into this excuse time and time again. This way of thinking leads us to succumb to temptation without putting up a fight. Similarly, the excuse, “I owe it to the hostess to enjoy everything she made,” isn’t valid. You owe your hostess a thankful spirit, not a bottomless stomach.

06. Pack Your Own Food

If you’re staying over for an extended time during the holidays, bring along a few of your usual go-to food options. Give your hostess a heads-up that you’re bringing a few items so that she knows ahead of time. You can make light of it, and share that you’re hoping not to pack on the pounds during the holidays. She may appreciate not having to plan and prepare every meal for you. Of course, you don’t want to only eat your own food. But when you can—such as light breakfasts and snacks—opt for your own selections to keep up your healthy routine. Holidays also often involve travel. If you’re hitting the road or flying somewhere, taking along your own snacks can prevent you from opting for the unhealthy fast food.

07. Snack Before the Big Meal

If you’re heading to a holiday gathering, don’t show up starving. Registered dietician and author of Diet Simple Katherine Tallmadge suggests, “Eating sensibly throughout the day will take the edge off the appetite and empower a bit of restraint.” When you’re hungry, your willpower lessens and increases the likelihood of a dietary wreck. I like to eat a small snack packed with protein before parties to tide me over and keep me feeling full. Last Thanksgiving, I ate a light turkey-and-vegetable wrap before meeting with family at my grandparents’ home. It held me over until the main course and prevented me from filling up on all the tempting appetizers scattered about.

08. Prepare a Healthy Dish to Share

If you’re tasked with preparing a holiday dish, make something as nutritious as it is delicious. That way you’ll have at least one healthy option to fill your plate. As much planning and prevention you can do ahead of time, the better. You’ll be able to better enjoy your loved ones and the holiday spirit without worrying about the menu. Try some of these healthy and untraditional Thanksgiving sides that are sure to please.

You don’t need to stress that the winter holiday season means you will shake up your healthy eating habits. If you stay mindful and arrive at each party with a game plan for your plate, you’ll be able to savor the holiday spirit and keep your mental and physical health in check. Here’s to a happy and healthy holiday season!

Photo Credit: Julia Gartland