The Holiday Meal Survival Guide

Strategies for Making Your Holidays Happier — and Healthier

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The Holiday Meal Survival Guide

Americans savor the winter holidays — but not necessarily in a good way. Statistics show the top three gatherings in the U.S. in terms of food consumption are Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday, and Christmas. And the average adult consumes about 3,000 calories in one Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, which easily can mean more than 4,500 calories for the day when you factor in any additional holiday indulgence. This translates to about 2–2.5 times what an average adult needs for daily energy — giving a new meaning to the word “stuffed.” All three events occur between late November and early February, so take some time now to prepare; these occasions are right around the corner.

The following strategies may be helpful, not only to make your holidays healthier — but perhaps happier as well.

Chart your course

When you hear the word “courses” relative to a meal, you might think of fine dining or extravagant meals. However, most of us actually consume our meals in courses, which are basically several food items served and eaten in the same sitting. For example, a five-course meal usually includes soup, salad, appetizer, entrée, and dessert. You might not eat this way routinely, but many holiday meals include multiple courses, spanning many hours and many calories.

First, think through the upcoming meal and then pick and choose the courses you like most. No one says you have to eat them all. A polite “No, thank you” always is appropriate. When your options are in front of you, try to make healthful choices.

Soup. For many, this course easily can be a meal on its own. To cut down on calories, a broth-based soup typically is a better choice than a cream-based soup. Some broths are high in sodium, so if you are watching your salt intake, you will want to beware. Skip the soup altogether if you want to use your calories during a different course.

Salad. All salads are not equal. Salads with non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, celery, peppers, and radishes generally are your healthiest option. Dressing on the side can help you minimize calories and yet still savor the flavor. Try to avoid items such as meats, eggs, and croutons, particularly if the salad is just a start to your meal.

Appetizer. If you go for the appetizer, avoid grazing. Eating snacks straight from the bowl often leads to overeating. You can lose count quickly if you aren’t paying attention, especially if you are socializing while eating. Instead, measure out a portion by placing it in a cup or small plate. Use those raw vegetables for dipping instead of higher calorie chips or crackers. Be cognizant of calorie-loaded items such as cheeses, meats, and creamy dishes; try to avoid or at least minimize these items.

Entrée. Described as the main part of a meal, the entrée usually is the food around which the meal is centered. When you choose an entrée, think about an option that suggests a healthier overall meal choice. For example, a lean slice of roast beef might pair very well with roasted vegetables. Using non-starchy vegetables can give you more volume for the calorie count. Also, lean toward baked, broiled, or grilled meat to avoid unnecessary calories. Keep in mind a portion of protein is three to four ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.

Dessert. When it comes to healthy eating, it is no surprise dessert is not listed as a food group. That’s because most desserts offer very little nutritional value and often are high in unhealthy fats, added sugar, and calories. Therefore, try to keep portions small and keep count of the carbohydrate, especially when you have diabetes. You may want to consider fruit with a low-fat whipped topping as a lower-calorie dessert option; however, be sure to keep your carbohydrate content in check.

Portion patrol

Family-style meals can lead to overeating. If you are the holiday host, consider serving up individual plates to your guests. Start by determining which plate size to use. The typical diameter of a dinner plate that was nine inches in the 1960s increased to 11 inches by 2000. Drinking glasses have grown in size, too. Whether you are serving others or are the guest, consider using a smaller size plate and, unless you are drinking water or sugar-free drinks, opt for a six-to-eight-ounce glass to minimize beverage calories.

Think through the servings you place on your plate by using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate, a visual tool that serves as a reminder to help with healthful eating. The MyPlate method is fairly simple. Divide a nine-inch plate into four sections and cover one side with fruits and non-starchy vegetables. If you are counting your carbohydrate intake, you will want to make sure your fruit is equal to the number of servings appropriate for you. The remaining half of the plate is divided in two, with one section for protein, ideally a lean meat, and the other for a serving of whole grain or starch (both of which contain carbohydrate).

If you are heading to a holiday party, consider these tips to help you size up portions.

• Plan ahead, inquire about the menu at the party and decide what and how much you are going to eat before you get there.

• Ask the hostess if you may bring a dish — something you enjoy that provides a healthy choice.

• Before leaving for the party, have a healthy snack, such as raw vegetables and a glass of water, so you’re not hungry when you arrive.

• Stay away from foods that tempt you to overeat.

• Remove extra fat or skin from meat to minimize the calories.

• To lessen your chance of overindulging, chew slowly and enjoy the food’s flavor.

Many restaurants’ menus now are available online, along with the individual items’ nutrition facts. You also can search certain apps or websites (such as to help you determine nutrient content (carbohydrate, fat, and calories) and potentially make better food choices while enjoying the festivities.

Avoid buffet binge

If your holiday gathering has a buffet and you just can’t skip it altogether, strategize to avoid overeating. Take an inventory of the items on the buffet before starting to fill your plate, to help you make good choices. Again, choose a smaller plate instead of a regular dinner plate. Try to add items to your plate in order of healthiness, saving the least healthy items for last when there is less room left. Ideally, put an amount of food equal to one serving on your plate.

To minimize the possibility of going back for seconds, sit as far away from the buffet as possible. Another strategy is to sit with your back to the buffet. Data suggest that just being aware of food will trigger the thought of eating, even if you aren’t hungry. If the eating area is small, park yourself closer to the healthy foods. That way, if you do reach out for more, you will be closer to the healthier options. Stick close to friends and family who make better food choices so you will be in favorable company.

Adult beverages

Holiday celebrations often include alcoholic beverages. If you drink, do so in moderation, generally considered no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. If you enjoy having an adult beverage during a holiday party, do your homework ahead of time. Keep in mind that a “standard” drink in the U.S. contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol. That equals 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Be aware of the type of drinks that will be served. Consider some lighter options such as:

• light beer (around 4% alcohol content);

• wine or a wine spritzer (half wine/half club soda; add ice and garnish with lime);

• one ounce of spirits with splash of light cranberry juice (or a calorie-free mixer); or

• champagne (with a twist of orange peel).

Try to avoid specialty drinks, which might be flowing freely at holiday gatherings. Such drinks, which can be loaded with calories, include egg nog (300-plus calories), white Russians (4.5 ounces contain 170-plus calories), and Christmas ale (12 ounces contain 7.5% alcohol and 200 calories). Pay attention to the portions served and track your alcohol intake. Avoid drinking on an empty stomach; if you become less attentive, you likely will relax your focus on your overall calorie intake of food.


If you are celebrating and things don’t go as planned, forgive yourself. Tomorrow is another day. Take a moment to reflect and plan what you might do differently at the next event. Keep in mind you can always counterbalance an extra holiday indulgence by staying active. Walk an extra mile after you eat, play games, or put the dance floor to good use. So, whatever winter holidays you enjoy…be safe and stay healthy!

Originally Published November 4, 2016

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