Smart-Eating Strategies for Healthy Holiday Parties

By: Abbey Sharp, RD, AbbeysKitchen.com

Guilt is not a holiday gift you should give yourself this season. Here, a dietitian's survival guide to enjoying your favorite holiday foods without regret.

The holidays may bring joyful times for celebrating with family and friends around delicious food and drink, but for many chronic dieters, this can be a real source of anxiety.

Tell me if this routine sounds familiar: You anticipate the fatty prime rib, deep-fried hors d'oeuvres, mountains of buttery potatoes, sugary pie and bottomless glass of wine, so you starve yourself all day. By the time you arrive at the party, you're so "hangry," you blast past your host and shove five mini-sausage rolls into your mouth. The power-feasting doesn't stop until you're physically (and emotionally) ill, so you go home feeling guilty and resolve to start your "cleanse" the next day. But after a few more days of restriction, you're itching for your festive fix, and so the whole episode plays out again from Thanksgiving until the New Year.

Get out of the restrict-binge-regret-repeat cycle and learn to enjoy the holidays, guilt-free, with these dietitian-approved strategies for healthy holiday eating.

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1. Quit Restricting Yourself

Let go of the "good food" versus "bad food" mentality, and accept that foods don't hold moral value. While you may think eating less or squeezing an extra run in the day before a party will help balance out an indulgent night, restriction almost always results in overeating.

Instead, on the day of the party and on days leading up to a big feast, try to maintain your usual level of exercise and enjoy your normal-size meals and snacks. That way, you'll arrive at your holiday event without the ravenous appetite or "I earned this" mentality.

Keep Reading: The One Trick You Need to Outsmart a Holiday Eating Binge

2. Seek Out Pleasure

When you mindfully eat what you truly love without judgment, you'll find yourself satisfied by eating far less. Do a lap around the buffet to scope out your festive favorites. Then, add a small portion of your must-try bites to your plate, and fill out the rest of the space with lighter fare, like salads and veggie sides. Once you've finished round one, you can re-evaluate your hunger level and decide which dishes are worth revisiting for round two.

3. Move the Candy Dish

peppermint bark

Recipe to Try: Peppermint Mocha Chocolate Bark

Research suggests that we tend to mindlessly munch on chocolates and candies about 70 percent more often when they're displayed in a clear container within arm's reach. So if you're hosting the get-together, put the sweets in an opaque container; if you're a guest, just stand farther away from the dish. When the sweet craving hits, then know you can walk over and grab a candy judgment-free—but at least you won't be eating out of mindless convenience.

Read More: 5 Diet Tips for Surviving Holiday Parties

4. Hang Out with Family, Not Food

Eating-behavior expert Brian Wansink, Ph.D., found that people who sit facing away from the buffet tend to be slimmer than those who sit looking at it. Standing right in front of the snack table also makes it easy to mindlessly pop a bunch of mini quiches in your mouth, even when you're no longer hungry. Find a friend in the room and stand far enough away from the buffet that you'd have to leave a good conversation and make a conscious trip to take another spin through the offerings.

5. Keep the Eating Evidence

lemon-garlic marinated shrimp

Recipe to Try: Lemon-Garlic Marinated Shrimp

When we pop back the finger foods mindlessly, we tend to feel less psychologically satiated by what we've eaten compared to how we feel when sitting down to a formal meal. The sad reality, however, is that it only takes a few mini hors d'oeuvres to equal the calories of a full meal, even if we think we've just had a few bites.

The solution? Remind yourself what all those small bites look like put together by keeping evidence of your snacks on hand. One study found that when chicken-wing bones were left on the plate as evidence of consumption rather than thrown out, participants ate less. Enjoy your appetizers, but leave the bones, shrimp tails and wrappers in sight to serve as a cue of how much you've eaten.

Keep Reading: "Healthy" Holiday Food to Avoid (and What to Eat Instead)

6. Reduce White Plate Space

Studies show that seeing white space on a plate can feel psychologically unsatisfying, so we tend to feel that we don't have enough unless the plate is completely full. Use this optical illusion to your advantage by picking up the smallest cocktail plate for your main dinner, or lining the bottom of your plate with lettuce leaves or extra veggies to cover up the white.

7. Watch Your Liquid Calories

holiday drinks

We all know how easy it is to overdo it on the fun juice, which not only piles on the calories but also interferes with our ability to listen to our hunger cues. Thankfully, you don't have to be the designated driver to be in the clear.

Stretch out the booze by making a wine spritzer of half white wine and half calorie-free seltzer. No wine? No problem. Simply pace yourself by enjoying at least two glasses of water between each glass of alcohol. This way, you'll have a drink in your hand, and get some extra hydration as well.

Try These: Healthy Christmas Drink Recipes

8. Make Every Bite Great

Even the most decadent foods lose their appeal after a while, so aim to stop eating before the flavor dies out. Most people find that food starts dulling in flavor after around three good-sized bites, so serve yourself small portions of all of your favorite foods to start, and if you're still craving more, go in for another small portion guilt-free.

9. Eat Slowly and Savor

You've heard it before—it takes at least 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain you've had enough to eat, so try to trick yourself into eating slower. Eat with your nondominant hand, or put your fork down between bites to savor every morsel. Once you've finished your plate, take a few additional moments to enjoy a conversation with family or friends before checking in with your body on whether you're physically hungry for more.

Try These: Healthy Christmas Appetizer Recipes

10. Sit with a Healthy-Eating Buddy

Dining in large groups tends to increase the amount of food you eat, so buffer this problem with the right company. Find a seat beside a family member who has a moderate-sized appetite, eats slowly naturally and, most importantly, is not on a diet.

Bottom Line

While all of these little tips and tricks are designed to help you mindfully enjoy the holidays guilt-free, the most important thing is to not judge yourself if you slip up or overdo it on one (or more) occasions out. Mindful eating is largely about body kindness and feeling your best, and guilt never feels good. Be kind to yourself this holiday season, and know that tomorrow is another day to eat, drink and feel great.

Keep Reading:
7 Tips for Easy Holiday Entertaining
Avoid Holiday Weight Gain with These Healthy Eating Tips
Low-Calorie Party Foods

Watch: Party-Ready Lemon-Garlic Marinated Shrimp