Healthful Holiday Dining

By Janelle Gonyea RD, LD

The holiday season is almost upon us and with it comes a whole host of temptations. From family dinners to holiday parties, treats are everywhere, making it very hard to not indulge. If there is ever a time to treat yourself, it's the holidays, but the key to doing so is moderation. Start your menu planning now as it will ensure that healthy options are available throughout the season.

Creating a healthy menu starts with a trip to the grocery store. Keep in mind that there are many things you can do to lower the calories, fat and sodium in your holiday menu.

Shopping Tips:

  • Read labels - Aim to purchase foods lower in sodium and fat, especially trans and saturated fats, by choosing foods with more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as canola, olive, soybean and sunflower oil. Remember that partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats.
  • Choose assorted unsalted nuts, cooked seafood, fiber-rich crackers, fruits and raw vegetables with low fat dips, dressings or hummus. These items make quick appetizers that are colorful and much more healthful than the typical meat and cheese platter that is loaded with calories, sodium and saturated fat.
  • Skip the packaged pies, cakes and cookies as they can be laden with saturated fats. Choose instead crustless pumpkin pie, fruit crisps or angel cake topped with berries. Better yet, make baking part of the festivities by having friends and family join in on the fun. By doing it yourself, you can eliminate the added salt and use heart healthy fats when possible.
  • If you like eggnog, be sure to pick up the low fat and fat free pasteurized varieties. Mulled apple cider and sparkling juices are good choices as well.

Food Preparation Tips:

  • Stuffing is a holiday classic, but can be heavily laden with fat and sodium. Instead of a high sodium, high fat packaged mix, make your own healthful version by using low sodium broth rather than meat drippings or butter and mixing in dried cranberries or apricots instead of meat.
  • Instead of bottled and prepackaged gravy mixes, make your own with low sodium broths and skim milk.
  • Add simple vegetable and fruit dishes to your menu rather than heavy dishes with lots of sauce on them. For example, serve green bean almandine instead of the traditional green bean casserole.
  • Shave calories with some easy ingredient substitutions. Use low sodium chicken stock, fat-free yogurt, light or fat free cream cheese and low fat milk instead of high fat counterparts. Swap applesauce for oil in baked goods.
  • Roasting or grilling meat, seafood, vegetables and potatoes is easy and brings out the natural flavors in the foods. Consider grilled pork chops with mango salsa rather than baked pork chops smothered in mushroom soup.
  • Check the web for menu ideas and recipes as there are a lot of websites with healthy versions of holiday treats that are very tasty.

Attending the Celebration:

  • If you are worried that there will be nothing for you to eat at the party, offer to bring something healthful so you know there will always be a good choice for you to eat.
  • Eat a healthful snack before leaving for the holiday get together. Attending a party hungry is almost a guarantee that you will overeat while you are there.
  • Eat smaller portions – it's okay to enjoy those family traditions, but don't indulge. This is especially true at a holiday buffet where you will want to sample everything. Be sure to choose the items that you want the most, eat small portions and skip the rest.
  • Be sure to eat slowly and savor your foods. Those who eat quickly eat more as their stomachs do not have enough time to register that they are full. Leave 20 minutes been your rounds of the food tables to allow yourself to feel full.
  • Limit alcohol consumption as it is high in calories. Enjoy diet sodas or sparkling water with a twist of lime instead.
  • Don't stand by the food table. Doing so will increase your food intake significantly compared to standing across the room.
  • Don't forget, conversation is calorie free so settle into the festivities by catching up with friends and family rather than eating throughout the entire party.

Other Considerations:

  • The average American gains 1 to 2 pounds during the extended holiday season. This is in part due to the goodies, but also the fact that exercise is usually the first thing to go when the season starts to get hectic. Get your exercise by going for a walk with family after the main meal. You can walk off those calories while visiting with family and taking in the holiday decorations.
  • For those who have been working hard to lose weight, it's a good idea to shift your focus from weight loss to weight maintenance from mid November until after the first of the year. It is hard enough to avoid weight gain over the holiday season and weight loss is unrealistic, so you need to do yourself a favor and shift your goal to weight maintenance.

Food and holiday gatherings go hand in hand, so proper planning can allow you to enjoy holiday treats while avoiding the regret one can feel when jumping on the scale after the New Year. If you are able to keep these tips in mind, you can get through the holidays without significant weight gain. Don't forget, you can also ask your registered dietitian for additional tips on holiday dining.