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Living Well

How to Eat Healthy For the Holidays

Last updated: Nov 21, 2016

There is a reason for the sentiment “eat, drink, and be merry.” Most of us gain over a pound between Halloween and Christmas—and that extra weight typically takes more than five months to lose. That is not surprising considering the average Thanksgiving meal alone can cost you some 4,500 calories.

But what is a homemade feast without a side of your grandma’s mashed potatoes and slice of pumpkin pie? Here is how to indulge—in some of the trimmings—and keep those extra inches off your waistline.

1. Fix the Right Plate

Think before you sit down for the big meal. Choose your top three favorite foods and take small amounts of each to satisfy your cravings.

  • Remember a serving of meat is equal to a deck of cards. Fill one-quarter of your plate with lean proteins like turkey or chicken. Cut extra calories by sticking with white meat and taking off the skin.   
  • Limit starchy sides like sweet potatoes and biscuits to one-quarter of your dish.  
  • Load up the other half of your plate with nutritious, low-calorie fruits and veggies that make you feel full.  
  • Make sure you can see some of your aunt’s china pattern—if the food overlaps, you have too much.

2. Limit Alcohol

Holiday cheer brings out the holiday “cheers.” People tend to drink more alcohol between Thanksgiving and New Years. It may not feel like much going down, but every cocktail adds up. A glass of wine has 120 calories, while eggnog has nearly three times as much. Alcohol also lowers your inhibitions, making you more likely to indulge in savory snacks and yummy sweets.

3. Exercise Regularly

Everyone is pressed for time during the holidays, but do not let your workout suffer. Between wrapping gifts and preparing meals, squeeze in time for a walk or swim. Depending on the intensity of your sweat, a 154-pound man can burn some 295 calories during a 30-minute run or jog. Find fun ways to be active:  

  • Round up your relatives for a game of flag football or soccer before the big meal.   
  • Take advantage of vacation days—bring the kids sledding or ice skating.

4. Cook Healthy

Swedish meatballs, creamed spinach, and pecan pie may seem less threatening to your calorie count, but do not let the names fool you. Tweak these favorite recipes that call for heaps of fat, sugar, and salt.

  • Use half the recommended sugar and replace it with an alternative natural sweetener. Dribble in extra vanilla, nutmeg, or cinnamon for added flavor.
  • Reduce salt by easing up on spices and staying away from packaged foods and soups.
  • Cut fat by using skim milk instead of heavy cream and condensed milk. Unsweetened applesauce and mashed bananas can add guilt-free tastiness to baked goods.

5. Start the Day Right

Do you skip breakfast so you can pig out later? Think again. An empty stomach will only cause you to overeat at dinner.

  • Give your metabolism a jumpstart by whipping up some egg whites, yogurt, or fruit for breakfast.
  • Eating a nutritious snack—like a protein bar or nuts—before a holiday party will make you less hungry when it is time to hit the buffet.  

6. Ditch the Leftovers

When the feast is over, get back on track. Turn down your mother’s offer to take home that barely-eaten chocolate cake. You will end up snacking on it late at night. Find alternatives for extra food:

  • Ask guests if they want to take home small portions of their favorite dishes.
  • Create balanced meals and freeze them for future dinners.
  • Donate leftovers to a local food pantry or homeless shelter.

7. Don’t Talk and Snack

Step away from the food. You can easily pile in 500 calories just picking on the appetizer spread. Move conversations with relatives and old friends out of the kitchen and into the living room.

  • Stick with veggies, bean dip, and nuts. Avoid fatty dips and processed meats.
  • If you feel the need to nosh, remember moderation—an ounce of cheese is 100 calories, about the size of four dice.


1.    Helander EE, Wansink B, Chieh A. “Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries.” New England Journal of Medicine. 22 September 2016.

2.    Calorie Control Counsel. “Stuff the Bird, Not Yourself: How to Deal with the 3,000 Calorie Thanksgiving Meal.” Calorie Control Counsel. Web. 17 November 2016.

3.    National Institute on Aging. “Servings & Portions.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Web. 17 November 2016.

4.    American Diabetes Association. “Tricks and Tips for Holiday Cooking and Eating.” American Diabetes Association. Web. 17 November 2016.

5. “How Many Calories Does Physical Activity Burn?” United States Department of Agriculture. 22 July 2015. Web. 18 November 2016.