This time of year is a minefield of health saboteurs, and eating well can be the first thing to go. Even the most dedicated health foodie can watch all of her nutrition goals get tossed out the window as fast as she can say “Happy holidays!” All it takes is a few too many turns at the office-party buffet, an extra pass at the hors d’oeuvres at the friends-like-family soirée or a second helping (with everything and anything carb- and sugar-loaded) at the New Year’s Eve dinner.
If you’re making poor food choices, overeating out of habit (after all, that’s what we’re supposed to do at a holiday buffet, right?) or overindulging because you’re simply losing track of portions due to all the excitement, conversation or a few too many cocktails, you may want to reframe how you approach holiday-party fare.
“Think about your values and what’s important to you over the holidays and put food in the overall context of the whole celebration,” says Pamela Fergusson, a registered dietitian in Nelson, BC. In other words, you can avoid overdoing it on rich meals and desserts just because they’re available if you keep it all in perspective. And what you do indulge in should be pleasurable. “Think ‘Is this something that will make me feel joyful?’ or ‘Am I going to feel good about eating this?’” she says. If not, let that party platter pass you by.
Here are a few more tips to keep in mind when you navigate the buffet table and cocktail-party circuit this holiday season.
Let Go of Guilt
According to Canada’s Food Guide, eating dishes you like without judgment can help you develop a healthy attitude toward food. This applies all year round, but it’s especially important over the holidays, when there is a tendency to serve meals with a side of guilt. “There’s no use in shaming yourself over food during the holidays or at any time,” says Fergusson. “When you are enjoying foods over the holidays, remember that it’s in the context of celebration and family, so it should be a joyful experience.”
Make It Count
The idea of indulgence is synonymous with holiday feasting, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that if you make it count. Indulge in the dishes you love, but pass on the foods you’re so-so on, says Fergusson. “Have a piece of your grandmother’s pie if that means the holidays for you, and enjoy it,” she says. But skip the ho-hum Hello Dolly bars or mushy-looking mashed potatoes. The holidays are a time to really enjoy the flavours and textures of the special foods you don’t get to eat year-round. “You need to keep coming back to the question of whether or not this food brings you joy,” says Fergusson. If it doesn’t, take a hard pass.
Stop When You’re Full (Not Stuffed)
It’s all too easy to walk away from a family dinner wishing that you’d worn stretchier pants. Over the holidays, there’s a tendency to overindulge without even realizing it. Studies show that distractions like great cocktail conversation (or quarrelling relatives) can make you more likely to overeat because you aren’t paying attention to your body’s satiety signals. On the other hand, some people simply ignore theirs because they think they have to overeat to truly enjoy a holiday feast or because it’s what they’ve always done. “I think it’s healthy to keep returning to that question of whether this is in line with your values and whether you’re getting joy from this experience,” says Fergusson. “You don’t have to eat a third helping if it’s not something that resonates with you.” (Here’s what happens to your body when you binge at a holiday party.)
Update Family Recipes
Making your holiday spread a bit more nutritious is another way to curb overindulging at your big family dinner. Add more plant-based foods (like our Veggie, Fruit, and Nut Holiday Salad) or an alternative protein (like our Spicy Italian White Beans with Rapini) to the feast, alongside the usual suspects. And don’t be shy about adapting the recipes you usually make to include low-sugar and vegan options. Grandma’s gingerbread cookie recipe may be a family favourite, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment a little. “We prepare meals differently than we did a generation ago, so the favourite dessert could now be made differently, too,” says Fergusson.
Say It, Don’t Snarf It (Unless You Want to)
Accepting an edible gift can be tricky — if you don’t actually want to eat it. It’s easy to feel pressured to nibble on a pie or down a bag of roasted nuts because it was handed to you with a bow on top. But it is possible to graciously accept food without stuffing it in your face, says Fergusson. “Recognize the intention behind the gift and really praise that person’s effort,” she says. If the pie crust looks impeccable or the sugar cookies are iced beautifully, say so. But you shouldn’t feel obligated to eat a box of goodies just because a colleague, neighbour or friend baked what’s inside, she says. Sample it if you like, thank the giver sincerely and share it with your family or pass it on if you don’t want it.
This advice holds true in a party setting, too. Just because you’re offered food or drinks doesn’t mean that you have to indulge if you don’t want to. Avoid making excuses or overapologizing — a polite “No, thanks” is all that’s required. And don’t be shy to ask for something else, like an alcohol-free cocktail.
Start New Food-Free Traditions
Food tends to take centre stage in our holiday celebrations, but there are other ways to make memories and family time special. “It’s just one part of the overall celebration,” says Fergusson. “Maybe start a new tradition of going to a Christmas market instead of baking Christmas cookies.” Or, instead of a family dinner, why not organize a skating party? “Yes, this is a time of celebration, but we can think more about what our celebration actually needs,” she says. And maybe another turkey dinner or stack of sugar cookies just isn’t it.
Consider Your Serving One and Done
If you struggle with portion control, you may have heard the advice that eating from a smaller plate can help you eat less. But, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Appetite, this old diet trick doesn’t necessarily work. Researchers found that hungry people can spot a small helping, no matter what size plate it’s served on, and this doesn’t necessarily deter them from piling it on. At a sit-down meal, the best strategy is to be thoughtful with your choices when filling your plate, whatever its size.
In a party setting, though, arming yourself with one small plate might help you choose your hors d’oeuvres more carefully and consciously. “When I go to a cocktail party, I get one plate,” says Fergusson. “I go to the table where the buffet is, fill it with foods that look delicious and enjoy them,” she says. She is choosy about what she nibbles on and only takes one shot at the spread. “I don’t go back for more.”
Now that you know how to prevent party circuit bingeing, learn how to recover from a holiday eating binge, just in case.