10 Tips for Healthy Eating During the Holidays
Ahh the holidays. A season of joy, generosity, quality time with friends and family…and food. Lot’s of food! Healthy eating during the holidays does not mean we can’t enjoy delicious food. But it can be helpful to strike a balance between nutritious foods and all those fun foods.
The most common trend I see is the struggle with an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to healthy eating and lifestyle habits. We have the desire to feel better, get healthier, maybe even lose weight, so we go all-in. We eat 100% “clean” and make a point to workout daily, but the minute we eat something “bad” or miss a workout, we feel like we’ve failed, so we feel like we might as well give up all together.
This happens so often when the holiday season rolls around. The minute we eat a piece of candy during Halloween, or indulge more than we feel we “should” at Thanksgiving, we think: well, might as well keep eating all the things until January 1st.
But, healthy eating is not about perfectionism (I learned this the hard way). Eating that one thing (whether it be a cookie, slice of pie, or chocolate candy) does not take away from all the other nutritious foods you have in that same day. Having an all-or-nothing mindset is not a sustainable way to make a lasting impact on our health, or keep lost weight off. Instead, it’s about finding the balance that works for you. For example, I like to eat lots of nutritious, colorful foods because I feel my best when I eat them, but I also have chocolate every single day in some form or another. That’s a balance that works for me. But, I get it. There’s definitely a lot more of those fun foods during the holidays, and it can be trickier to find balance. The following are tips to help you do just that!
10 tips for healthy eating during the holidays
1. Remember that the holidays are about more than just food
Food, gifts, travel…these things tend to take over during the holidays. But, that’s not what the holidays have to be about. Maybe for you, the most important thing is spending time with people you love. Food is just food, and the holidays will still be enjoyable even if you’re not eating ALL the things.
2. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing
You don’t have to miss out on all the fun food, nor do you have to eat it all, either. You can choose to indulge sometimes, while choosing healthier options at other times. And you can still choose which foods you indulge in.
I was talking with someone just recently who was nervous about the holidays coming up. She said someone had brought special donuts to her house, and they didn’t even appeal to her, so she chose not to have one. She did, however bake cookies, have one, and save the rest. Sometimes we feel the need to eat all the things just because “it’s the holidays” or we feel we should take advantage now because all those yummy treats won’t be around after a few months, but consider first if you even really WANT those foods.
Then know, when you do choose to eat something that’s maybe considered “less healthy”, that is totally fine! It does not mean you’ve “cheated” or “failed,” you simply enjoyed some yummy food. Continue on with healthier options the rest of the day, or the next day. If you decide to keep eating less nutritious foods because you had that one thing, then you’re only doing your body a disservice by depriving yourself of adequate essential nutrients (like vitamins and minerals). Which sounds better: a day of healthy eating plus a cookie or two, or a day of eating cookies plus a vegetable or two? The latter is what we tend to gravitate towards once we feel like we’ve failed, but the first option still provides us with all the nutrients we need AND allows room for fun foods. That’s the difference. Healthy foods AND fun foods, not OR.
3. Practice mindful eating
If you do truly want something, enjoy it! Eat it slowly, take in the smell, taste, flavors, and textures. Oftentimes we eat so quickly and distractedly that we don’t feel satisfied and immediately reach for more. But, when we practice mindful eating, we choose foods we actually want and may be satisfied with less (like one cookie instead of five).
It’s also helpful to pay attention to our hunger and fullness cues. There’s often more food around during the holidays (like baked goods in the break room at work, or a candy dish on the counter a home), and it can be easy to grab something without even stopping to think if we’re actually hungry for it. We reach for it simply because it’s there. Or, we may feel the need to eat past fullness simply because there’s an abundance of food (like at Thanksgiving). Pay attention to those signals. Before grabbing something ask yourself: am I actually hungry? Then, when eating pause during meals to check in with yourself on how full or satisfied you’re feeling. There’s no rule that says you HAVE to have a stomachache after holiday meals.
4. Bring a healthier dish to share
As mentioned in #2, there may be times in which we want to indulge, and times we don’t. I’ve worked with a number of people who get sick of eating less healthy options during the holidays. So, if you’re wanting more nutritious foods, bring one! I always encourage making a healthy dish and/or dessert to bring for yourself and to share. For example, I usually bring a veggie dish (as those are often lacking) and a lower sugar dessert. I think there’s a misconception that healthy meals aren’t as tasty, but that’s definitely not the case! In fact, I find many healthy holiday dishes more flavorful and dynamic than traditional ones (see #10 for some recipe ideas)!
5. Stay physically active & incorporate stress management strategies
It’s not just food that impacts healthy eating during the holidays. Our lifestyle choices matter too. While staying physically active can burn extra calories, I mainly recommend this to keep metabolic function, energy, and mood up, while keeping stress levels down.
Are you someone who tends to feel more tired and down from living in a climate that gets dark and cold during the fall and winter (and seasonal affective disorder sets in)? Do the holidays bring about unhappy emotions or increased stress, say, from family drama or missing family members? All of these feelings can lead to more emotional eating during the holidays, especially with the abundance of comfort foods. Emotional eating is not bad, but for some it can start to negatively impact health and/or weight loss goals. Exercise, or other forms of stress management/enjoyable activities, can serve as other coping mechanisms that don’t involve food. Working with a dietitian and counselor* can help address emotional eating if it’s something you’re struggling with on your own.
6. Take advantage of the freezer
Who says you have to eat all the leftovers in a few short days? Or leave the plate of cookies on the counter? Freeze portions of meal leftovers and store desserts in ziplock bags in the freezer to enjoy at anytime without feeling rushed to finish it all (or making it harder to practice mindful eating because it’s sitting there all day/night until it’s gone).
7. Walk the buffet before filling your plate
Walk through the line once to see all the options (or sneak over early to take a peak), then go around again to pick what you actually want. This way, you don’t wind up with more food that you feel like you have to finish because you don’t want to waste anything. Additionally, starting with smaller amounts, and then going back for seconds if you’re still hungry will also help prevent unwanted overeating.
8. Keep your goals in mind
If you’ve started changing your eating or lifestyle habits for health and/or weight loss, remind yourself of those reasons, and continue to ask yourself if certain foods or decisions will help or hinder your goals. For example, if you’re working to balance your blood sugar, a dessert here and there can absolutely fit into a healthy eating pattern and continue to move you in the direction of your goals, but multiple cookies each day will likely begin to increase your blood sugar and negatively impact your health.
9. Eat balanced meals
Eating enough food each day and eating balanced meals with enough protein, fiber and healthy fats will help keep you feeling satiated and keep blood sugar balanced, making it easier to make mindful decisions around food. We are way more likely to grab that cookie in the break room in the afternoon when our blood sugar is low, or if we’re starving since the only thing we had for breakfast was coffee!
10. Embrace the bounty of delicious, healthy, seasonal foods.
When we think of holiday foods, we often think of the desserts and candy and comfort food dishes, but there is an abundance of yummy seasonal foods that can make for some incredibly flavorful and nutritious meals! Kale, pomegranates, brussels sprouts, winter squash (butternut, hubbard, buttercup, acorn, delicata, pumpkin, etc.), cranberries, oranges, apple, potatoes…all excellent foods to incorporate as the whether gets cooler and we enter the holiday season.
Here’s a list of recipes & recipe round-ups from some of my go-to healthy food blogs:
- Complete Guide to Having the Perfect Gluten Free Thanksgiving (Over 50 Recipes) from Fed & Fit
- 16 Healthy Thanksgiving Side Dishes from Cookie + Kate
- Easy Thanksgiving Recipes from Fit Foodie Finds
- This dish from Hummusapien is one I’ve made a handful of times, but she has many other holiday recipes!
- 50+ Best Healthy Christmas Recipes from The Clean Eating Couple
- Christmas Recipes from Well Plated
- Gluten Free Christmas Cookies from Cotter Crunch
- Healthy Hot Chocolate from So We Gathered
BONUS: Prioritize sleep
When we are sleep deprived, our hunger levels and cravings go up, and our satiety and energy levels go down. We’re more likely to seek out energy-dense foods, lean on pre-pared foods, and make less healthy decisions simply because our body is seeking the energy it didn’t get from restorative sleep! In fact, one research study showed participants consumed 559 extra calories with just 2.5 hours less sleep. I’m not one to focus solely on calories, but they do matter to some extent.
I hope these tips help equip you with the tools and mindset shifts you need for healthy eating during the holidays. Perhaps you will actually look forward to all the delicious food knowing there can definitely be a balance?
If you need more help with finding a balance that works for you, making balanced meals, and/or addressing health concerns, check out my nutrition coaching page to learn more and apply to work me me!
*I personally have no ties to the company Stephanie talks about, but I have heard about it a lot from her. BetterHelp is another counseling company if you’re struggling to find a counselor near you (or one you like). Again, I am not affiliated with either of these companies, I just love that they work to make therapy accessible.