Healthy holiday eating tips to keep in mind, according to experts

By | November 20, 2023

It’s the Christmas season, a time full of Christmas lights, holiday parties, and lots of delicious food.

The end of the year is quickly approaching and it seems like you don’t have time to take care of your health between events to organize, gifts to buy and family to visit. Maybe you’re among the 64% of Americans surveyed who plan to postpone their health goals until the start of the new year.

But healthy eating is not only possible, it’s preferred, experts told USA TODAY. Here’s what else you should keep in mind this year.

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Health is about much more than just the food you put in your mouth, but healthy habits can certainly start with the food you eat. If you want to stay healthy this holiday season but don’t know where to start, try these tips from registered dietitians.

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1. Let go of the “all or nothing” mindset

Some people tend to go to the extremes when it comes to holiday food. On the one hand, it’s about giving it your all at the end of the year and getting back on track in January. On the other hand, some people follow a strict diet and forego the holiday fun altogether.

This “all or nothing” mindset ultimately leads to failure, says Kara Collier, a registered dietitian and co-founder and vice president of health at wellness tech startup Nutrisense.

Instead, you can use the 80-20 rule, she recommends. This means that 80% of the time you choose nutrient-dense foods, but the other 20% of the time you recognize your body’s desire to eat less nutrient-dense foods.

“Give yourself a little freedom and wiggle room in your plan for meals that may fall outside of the ‘ideal’ so you can build flexibility into your plan instead of feeling like a failure.”

2. Prioritize nutrition and real meals

When hunger strikes and there are leftover treats on the counter, it can be tempting to reach for candy or cookies first.

But registered dietitian Abra Pappa has a message before you grab one: Cookies and candy are not meals. Eating three complete meals with every macronutrient (protein, fat and complex carbohydrates) is important year-round, but especially to support less nutrient-dense holiday diets, she says. Read USA TODAY’s guide to the healthiest breakfasts and lunches here.

“It sounds so simple, but this is one of the biggest changes we can make when it comes to eating during the holidays by not giving up the need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Pappa. “If you eat a balanced diet, it’s obviously easier for us to balance out the sweets.”

3. Honor family traditions

We attribute cultural and emotional meaning to food – that’s why our holidays include social gatherings around food. You can focus on balanced and nutritious options while emphasizing comfort foods and family traditions.

“Make sure you respect that and that we don’t dismiss them, because that connection with food can be a healing time,” Pappa says.

A healthy lifestyle is about more than just physical health, registered dietitians previously told USA TODAY; It also takes into account your mental, emotional and social well-being. Many diet trends demonize foods from Black, Asian and Latino communities, which can lead to feelings of shame and interfere with the mental or emotional aspects of healthy eating, according to experts at USA TODAY. In general – but especially around the holidays – you value traditions and culturally significant foods.

4. Estimate the cooking process

“Intention” begins not when you sit down to eat, but in the kitchen.

Pappa commented on her family’s cooking process, previously telling USA TODAY the importance of starting with fresh ingredients and taking the extra step to make things from scratch. The benefits of home-cooked meals are numerous: you get to spend time in the kitchen with your loved ones while also having control over what goes into the food you eat.

“There has always been this honorable tradition of appreciating the ingredients and the food you start with,” Pappa says. “And I think from both a culinary and nutritional perspective that makes a huge difference.”

5. Avoid stigmatizing language

This holiday, approach food with curiosity, compassion and context, registered dietitian Kat Benson previously told USA TODAY. What do you want this food to do in terms of taste, feel and nutrition? What benefit should it offer you in everyday life?

Registered nutritionist Rose Britt also advises against labeling foods as “junk” or “bad.” For parents who want to instill healthy habits in their children, Britt recommends serving small desserts with a meal rather than afterward. It helps kids see their whole plate as good – vegetables aren’t just something gross that you have to dig through to get to the good stuff.

“We can tune into this eating behavior if we internalize the shame: ‘I ate that bad candy, so now I’m a bad person,'” Britt previously told USA TODAY.

6. Keep an eye on other aspects of your health

Aside from the physical, mental, emotional and social impacts of food, it’s important to take a holistic look at your health amid the holiday chaos.

There’s a lot going on this time of year, but try to fit a regular walk, run or workout into your week, experts advise. Regular exercise has benefits for physical and mental health, including fighting seasonal depression.

“You’ll be surprised how much just 10 minutes of exercise after eating helps,” Collier previously told USA TODAY.

It’s also helpful to review your sleeping habits. A consistent bedtime routine can improve both the quality and quantity of sleep, setting you up for success before parties and busy days. Read USA TODAY’s expert-recommended tips for improving sleep hygiene here.

How is your stress level? Are you worried about upcoming family gatherings and buying gifts? We’ve got tips on how to deal with awkward questions at the dinner table, what to do if your family hates your partner, and how to deal with chronic stress that experts say should be taken seriously.

7. How to navigate the party snack table

At holiday parties, we sometimes fill up before the side dishes or main course even reach the table. With so many appetizers and snack bowls, it can quickly happen that you eat too much and develop unhealthy habits. To adhere to the guidelines of moderation, Pappa recommends serving yourself and then walking away from the table.

“If there are tables with food, make yourself a plate and walk away,” Pappa says. “I think we often eat pointlessly when we lean on this table all night.”

She also recommends prioritizing traditional holiday foods over snacks you can eat year-round, like chips and pretzels.

8. How to manage diabetes around the holidays

People with diabetes are advised to avoid added sugars and refined starches, two categories of foods commonly found in holiday spreads. Collier, whose work with Nutrisense includes monitoring glucose levels, advises diabetics to carefully consider the carbohydrates they put on their plate and instead prioritize sources of fiber and protein.

Desserts can be high in sugar, so she recommends getting creative with keto and low-carb recipes.

“Bring a sugar-free or low-sugar dessert that you enjoy so you know there is something there,” says Collier.

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image issues or eating disorders, contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders’ free, therapist-operated hotline at 866-662-1235 for emotional support or treatment recommendations. If you are in crisis or need immediate support 24/7, Text “ALLIANCE” to 741741.

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