Healthy holiday tips: Eat what you want this Thanksgiving without skipping dessert

There's no need to avoid your favorite holiday foods -- these tips will help you eat healthy while still indulging.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read

Go ahead, eat that slice of pie. Just make healthy choices when it comes to most of your meals.

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If you've found yourself typing "how to avoid holiday weight gain" into the Google search bar this year, know that you're not alone: Research shows that between mid-November and mid-January, adults tend to gain weight, even those who actively attempt to lose or maintain their weight. And while it's definitely not the end of the world if you gain a few pounds this holiday season -- a couple pounds is nothing compared to the lifelong happy memories that come out of food-centric gatherings -- you can take some steps to minimize the pressure you feel around holiday food.

One of the biggest problems for many people is the development an all-or-nothing mindset: Give up on your healthy eating efforts all together and "get back on track" when the New Year passes, or spend the holiday months in fear of food, refusing dessert at every function. 

In reality, you can remove yourself from both of those categories, because it's totally possible to stick to your healthy eating plan (and avoid a food coma) while fully enjoying the food and festivities this Thanksgiving

Use these nine tips to make all holiday gatherings stress-free, when it comes to food. But don't forget to also read up on how to avoid that dreaded food coma (aka holiday hangover) and plenty of other tips for keeping relaxed during one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year.

How to have a stress-free holiday season

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1. Bring your own meal to the party

There's no better way to share your healthy intentions with friends and family than by making them a nutritious meal. These days, you can find all sorts of healthy recipes online that comply with any diet you can think of. For example, try these paleo Instant Pot recipes or these Whole30-compliant dishes.  

Oh, and if you're looking to save a little money on the healthy ingredients you need, here's how to navigate Whole Foods (and other grocery stores) for the best deals

2. Practice mindful eating

Eating while distracted can have a big impact on your weight and overall health. That's not to say you must eat alone and in silence all the time (because, boring), but you should make it a point to pay attention to your food. 

Appreciate the scents, tastes and textures while you're eating, as well as the environment you're in and the people you're with. You might just find that mindfulness helps you eat less.  

3. Beware kitchen counters and office break rooms

If there are two hotspots for holiday treats, kitchen counters and office break rooms take the cake -- literally. It's so easy to grab a handful of whatever treat is lying around as you walk by, but resist the urge. You'll enjoy food more when you actually sit down to eat a meal rather than shovel mouthfuls on the go, anyway. 

Gingerbread house and cookies on a kitchen counter.

During the holidays, treats are readily available and easily swiped from kitchen counters. Resist the urge to grab one on-the-go and instead enjoy it with or after a meal. 

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4. Don't skimp on sleep

Ever notice how you crave sugary or salty foods when you're exhausted? That's not just in your head: Lack of sleep can seriously alter your appetite. Research shows that poor sleep is associated with increased food intake and an increased risk for weight gain, so make sure you're getting enough Z's at night. 

5. Keep stress levels in check

During the holidays, all of our normal duties and responsibilities are compounded by holiday shopping, extra cooking, caring for children who are out of school, hosting guests and attending functions. If it all feels like too much, it probably is. Try to carve out some time for yourself and decompress -- high stress is linked to overeating, especially of hyperpalatable foods, which tend to be high in fat and sugar. 

6. Pack on the protein

Of all the macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat), protein is the most satiating. Studies suggest that eating lots of protein can reduce your appetite and assist in both weight loss and weight maintenance -- so don't feel bad about going back for seconds on the turkey. 

holiday turkey and vegetables on a table set for a holiday dinner

Filling up on turkey and veggies is never a bad idea -- protein and fiber help keep you full. 

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7. Fill up on fiber 

Fiber helps keep your digestive system regular and, like protein, helps to keep you full. Fiber-rich foods also tend to provide fewer calories with more volume, meaning you can become satisfied on fewer calories. 

For example, one cup (about 100 grams) of broccoli contains just 31 calories and offers 2.4 grams of fiber. Fibrous foods like veggies and whole grains also provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to keep you healthy.  

8. Don't go to the grocery store hungry 

Going to the store while hungry may result in you doing a real-life version of the shopping cart dance: swiping anything and everything off of shelves as you walk by. This is extra risky during holiday season, when the aisles brim with cookies, cakes, candy and other treats. 

Make an effort to eat a snack or meal before grocery shopping, so you don't end up with a cart full of peppermint patties and snickerdoodles -- you'll save money and calories.

9. Likewise, don't cook while hungry

A taste test or two can make turn a good meal into a fantastic one. However, when you're hungry, a couple of taste tests can easily expand into what would constitute an entire meal. Fight temptations to prematurely eat the meal you're cooking by having a snack before you set up shop in the kitchen. Bonus points if it's got fiber, protein or healthy fats that keep you full.

couple cooking a meal together

Taste testing your holiday meals is all good until you've eaten enough to constitute a whole meal. Try to avoid cooking on an empty stomach so you can save room for the real deal. 

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10. Limit liquid calories

During the holiday season, it seems like every weekend (and many weeknights) are scheduled with get-togethers, from friendsgiving to work parties to family functions. All of these events usually involve alcohol, and I'm not talking skinny margaritas. 

Nope, it's all eggnog and spiked hot chocolate and pecan pie martinis. While one or two won't make or break your diet, try making simple drinks of liquor, a low-calorie mixer and berries or citrus. For example, vodka and sparkling water with smashed raspberries and blackberries makes for a refreshing, low-calorie (and pretty!) drink. 

11. Stay hydrated

Sometimes your body sends your brain hunger signals when you're actually just thirsty. There's no one-size-fits-all number for water intake, but a good approach is to drink at least 8 ounces of water every one to two hours, and more if you exercise. Staying hydrated can fend off false hunger cues and prevent you from eating food you don't really want or need. 

12. Don't let others influence you 

If you often find yourself dodging comments like "That's all you're going to eat?" or "Really, no dessert?," tell friends and family when enough is enough. No one should have to endure shame for their diet preferences, whether they're eating healthy or not. Don't let judgement of others sway you -- stick to your guns and eat the way you want to eat. 

These Tips Help Make Thanksgiving Cooking Less Chaotic

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13. Everything in moderation 

Even if you are on a diet, allow yourself some room for indulgence if you want to. It is the holidays, after all, and it's not every day you can eat Grandma's homemade pumpkin pie. You shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying the foods you love while spending time with people you love. Plus, restricting yourself from certain foods can lead to you wanting those foods more and eventually overeating them.

14. Use smaller dishes 

You can trick yourself into eating less by using smaller plates and bowls. People tend to fill up their plates no matter the size, so you may end up packing a larger plate with way more food than you need. This trick also works if you love to go back for seconds -- if your first plate was small, going back for seconds won't necessarily derail your healthy intentions. 

15. Plan ahead 

If you're really serious about sticking to your healthy routine during the holidays, plan ahead for events. For example, if you're going to a sit-down dinner at a restaurant, look up the menu online beforehand. This gives you a chance to spend time looking at ingredients and nutrition facts, rather than choosing a meal under pressure at the restaurant. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives. 

These Tips Help Make Thanksgiving Cooking Less Chaotic

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Originally published earlier this month.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.