Healthy Holiday Eating Tips

Holiday meal setting with decorative ornaments on the table

The holiday season is a time of joy and celebration, but also a time when many people struggle to stay healthy and make healthy choices.  Weight gain is very common during the holidays, and it can be very difficult to get the pounds off after the holidays have passed.  Even if the weight gain is small, it can add up year after year and become a longer term health challenge. The following are some tips to help you focus on making healthy choices:


1. Enjoy Your Time with Others 

Have a mindset to go to family gatherings, work parties, and other social events to see your friends and loved ones. It’s not just about the food, it’s about the gathering, the conversation, the family, and the connections. Try not to rush to eat. Instead use these times to socialize and be present rather than rushing to get holiday treats, wine, and cocktails. A good idea is to “pre-eat” something with protein and vegetables to stabilize your blood sugar. 

2. Pay Attention to Hunger Cues

Try to be mindful while eating. Start paying attention to hunger and fullness cues so that when you’re in the middle of your meals, you’re sort of judging whether are you still enjoying the food or are you full. Choose the foods that satisfy you the most. Take small servings, eat slowly, and savor every bite. Before you go back for seconds, wait 10 minutes then ask yourself if you’re still hungry. This practice can really serve us throughout the year, not just during the holiday. 

3. Eat a Healthy and Hearty Breakfast

Eating a healthy breakfast sets the stage for the entire day. If you start your day off with a doughnut or leftover pie, you can trigger a relentless sweet tooth the rest of the day. Skipping breakfast can leave you dragging through your morning and more likely to overeat later because you’re starving.  Start with something that has lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and some healthy fat to give you energy and keep you satisfied until your next meal.  Some healthy breakfast choices include oatmeal, whole grain toast with peanut butter, Greek yogurt with fruit, or an omelet with veggies. 

4. Don’t “Save Up” Calories

Fasting before a big meal can backfire. Hunger is a lot like a pendulum. Imagine this pendulum being pulled to one side, so say we’re trying to save calories for later, we’re going to get really hungry. If we let go of that pendulum, we’re going  to extreme hunger. Then often what happens is when we get to that extreme hunger phase, we eat way past being full. Also hunger increases cortisol levels, which leads to cravings for fatty, salty, and sugary foods. Instead of fasting, eat a reasonable breakfast and a light lunch, especially if your holiday dinner is at or near dinnertime. Don’t try to save up those calories. Make sure that you’re doing yourself a favor by eating throughout the day. That’s going to help keep your blood sugar stable and it’s going to control those massive cravings that would otherwise come from fasting. 

5. Stay hydrated while limiting High-Calorie Beverages 

Don’t wait till you’re thirsty to drink. By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already slightly dehydrated. Focus on hydration by drinking water throughout the day. Drink low-calorie beverage options, like tea, no-calorie bubbly water or decaf coffee. These simple changes can help you avoid drinks with little nutritional value and excess calories.                                                                                            When it comes to drinking alcohol, satisfy your thirst before having an alcoholic drink. Also avoid alcohol on an empty stomach. Alcohol increases your appetite and diminishes your ability to control what you eat. Moderate alcohol consumption is up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks for men. 

6. Be Aware of Portions 

Being aware of portions sizes is a great way to keep your holidays healthier. Get a good idea of what is being served. Start a meal with a broth-based soup or salad, then move on to lean protein, and by the time you reach the dessert, a few bites will be all you need to feel satisfied. Focus on making half of your plate veggies, a quarter of your plate protein, and the last quarter carbohydrates. Starting with smaller more accurate portions can prevent the dreaded overeating, and can set you up for a more pleasant holiday experience. Remember, you can always start small and get seconds or take leftovers with you. You don’t have to eat all your food at one mealtime!

7. Change your Mindset around Holiday Treats

Most people eat particular foods like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving or drink cups of eggnog at a Christmas party because that’s what we do during the holidays. Do you really even like pumpkin pie or eggnog? Or if you could have any treat, would you choose your favorite ice cream or hot cocoa instead? Enjoying your holiday desserts by eating small portions or by following the two-bite rule can also can help set you up for success. Two bites cure the sweet craving, everything after that is just feeding old behaviors and habits. The other thing to think about is the fact that holiday treats don’t need to be restricted to the holidays. Make pumpkin pie later in the winter or make “Christmas” cookies for Mother’s Day. This tactic will help prevent some of your “last chance” eating.

Also rather than letting your holiday feast roll into pie for breakfast, limit your splurges to once in a while.  Feeling guilty after eating foods you don’t usually allow yourself to eat can cause more unhealthy behaviors. So abandon those negative voices in your head, give yourself permission to enjoy the indulgence guilt-free, and then remember to get back on track with your normal eating routine the next day.

8. Focus on What You Can Bring to the Table

Focusing on what you can bring to a holiday celebration is a great way to set yourself up for success. Bring a veggie tray, healthier side item or even offering to host the holiday (so you can be in control of the meal and modifications). These options give you more control over the variables that can potentially derail a healthy holiday experience.

9. Try Ingredient Substitutions in Recipes

You can also make your favorite holiday recipes a little healthier with these simple substitutions.

For This Ingredient…        Substitute With…


Use 1/2 of the amount


2 Egg Whites per Egg

White Flour

1/2 Whole Wheat Flour 1/2 White Flour

White bread/rolls

Whole Wheat or Sprouted Bread

Creamed Vegetables

Steamed Vegetables

White Rice

Brown Rice, Wild Rice, Quinoa, or Pearl Barley

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed Cauliflower or Mashed Sweet Potato

Enriched Pasta

Whole Wheat Pasta or Spaghetti Squash

Sour Cream

Non-fat Plain Greek Yogurt, Reduced-fat or Non-fat Sour Cream

Oil/Butter for Baking


Whipping Cream

Evaporated Milk


It’s important to remember that frozen and canned foods contain just as many nutrients as fresh foods and can cut costs quite a bit. Also this is true with dried foods like beans and lentils that can supplement the table and bring a lot of nutrition into the meal.

10. Stay Active During the Holidays

Remember the holidays are not just about eating! Incorporating more physical activity into your holiday plans and traditions is a great way to feel healthier during your celebrations. A scavenger hunt, tossing a football or going for a family walk will add to your family’s holiday memories!


Happy Holidays!                        

Traci McIntosh, MA, RD  East Area YMCA Dietitian 


If you’re looking for some extra help and motivation to stay on track this holiday season,  you can always schedule a nutrition consultation through the YMCA. To do this please contact Kim Leonard East Area YMCA Health and Wellness Director at 315-637-2025 X220 or