It’s the holiday season—which means holiday parties. Want to keep things healthy-ish over the holidays? RDs share their best tips for what to eat, what dishes they like to bring, and how to handle the dessert table.
True, singing loud is one way to spread holiday cheer, but gathering for a holiday party is a close second. And between the food and the drinks, it can be tough to eat healthily. If you struggle with this, you’re not alone. “It’s very difficult to stay healthy over the holidays as it usually entails more time out or at parties socializing with friends and family,” explains Jennifer Martin-Biggers, PhD, MS, RDN, vice president of scientific affairs and education at HUM Nutrition. “Traditional holiday foods also tend to be heavier with lots of added sugars, fats, and salt.”
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the festivities—in fact, RDs encourage you to do so. “There’s no need for ‘perfection’ when it comes to nutrition, especially around the holidays,” explains Chelsey Amer, RDN, CDN. “Prioritize your feel-good foods more often than not, but indulge and enjoy guilt-free too.”
And remember: “There are no ‘bad’ foods, and there’s room for everything with balance,” says Rhyan Geiger, RDN.
To help, we tapped RDs to see their favorite healthy holiday meal ideas, what they like to eat at parties, and how to handle the dessert table.
8 Healthy Holiday Tips Registered Dietitians Swear By
Follow these holiday nutrition tips from dietitians to maximize your nutrition during the holiday season.
1. Don’t Skip Meals Ahead of Time
You might think skipping meals earlier in the day will save you calories, but it can actually set you up for overeating. “Skipping meals can leave you feeling overly hungry which may cause you to overeat,” Geiger says. Skipping meals to save calories should be avoided in general, and if you do this regularly, you should speak to a professional to get support.
2. Scan the Options
We all know that feeling: You start adding food to your plate only to get to the end of the buffet and see the thing you *actually* wanted. Taking too much food initially can lead to overeating, which is why it’s better to size up the options ahead of time. “Before adding anything to your plate, do a table scan to look over all the available options,” Geiger says. “That way, you don’t put something on your plate that you didn’t really want because you found something better.”
3. Balance Your Plate
“To increase feelings of satiety and avoid that after-meal slump, aim to have at least half your plate vegetables, at least one protein, and then the rest of your plate for the holiday meal is left for carbohydrates and fun options,” Geiger says.
Dr. Martin-Biggers, Amer, and Geiger all recommend filling up on vegetables. Produce, like fruits and veggies, increase your overall nutrient intake, specifically fiber, which most Americans don’t eat enough of. Fiber will help keep you regular, which can help if you’re prone to indigestion from all that party food (you’re not alone).
Amer also points to the importance of protein on your plate. “By adding protein, you’ll achieve optimal satiation and stay full longer,” Amer explains. “Plus, protein helps balance your blood sugar when you’re also eating holiday desserts and drinks.” (It’s true: Consuming protein with your meals can help balance blood sugar levels—we tested it on ourselves with a continuous glucose monitor.)
4. Don’t Pass on Foods You Love
“Food is much more than just the energy and nutrients it provides to us, it’s also a way to connect with others and the center of a lot of different occasions throughout the year,” says Geiger. That means enjoying some of your favorite dishes—even if they’re not the best for you.
“If you live for your aunt’s sweet potato dish, go ahead and indulge and enjoy,” says Martin-Biggers. Just keep in mind that more rich or heavy foods may lead to digestive discomfort. Plan ahead by packing a digestive enzyme (like HUM’s Flatter Me) to give your digestive system a boost and reduce bloating.
5. Space Out Alcohol With Water
Of course, the best advice is to keep your alcoholic drinks to a minimum. “Not only can this avoid a hangover, too much alcohol lowers your inhibitions so you may grab more indulgent foods than you had planned (or want to choose),” Dr. Martin-Biggers explains.
Another strategy? Space out every drink with a cup of water. “Don’t forget to drink at least equal portions of water between drinks,” Geiger says. “One alcoholic beverage equals one glass of at least 8 ounces of water.” This can help prevent overconsumption of alcohol, as it slows the rate at which you’re drinking. Plus, the extra hydration can help stave off hangovers. Geiger also recommends opting for low-sugar cocktails if you’re going to have more than one drink.
6. Pair Each Appetizer With Vegetables or Fruits
We all know how tempting the appetizer lineup can be. But if you’re worried about staying healthy over the holidays, one strategy is to load up on fruits and veggies. “When choosing appetizers at a holiday party, select one that looks delicious and pair it with a vegetable option like bell peppers,” Geiger says. “Fresh fruits and vegetables increase the number of nutrients, like antioxidants and vitamin C, you are getting, which can be important during flu season, which sadly falls within the holidays historically.”
7. Have A Dessert Game Plan
We know, we know: The holiday desserts all look *so* good. But the key to staying healthy is to be extra picky. “Choose something you truly enjoy,” explains Amer. “If it’s not as delicious and satisfying as you thought it would be, skip it.”
Remember, you don’t have to eat all of the food while you’re at the party. “If you notice you start to feel sluggish and bloated, maybe approach the parties with a bit more discretion about what helps you feel your best (for example, taking a second dessert to go),” Amer says. This applies for all foods, including yummy appetizers.
8. Stop Stressing
Amer’s number one tip to stay healthy during the holiday season? Stop stressing. “Do your best to eat feel-good foods and well-balanced meals when you’re not at a party and enjoy stress-free at a party,” she says. “Stress may do more harm for your health and beauty than just enjoying your favorite holiday treats.” Stress affects every system of the body including musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive, according to the American Psychological Association. Plus, studies have shown that stress can cause skin aging.
What RDs Bring to Holiday Parties
Another key nutrition hack nutritionists love? Bring a dish you know you’ll want to eat. This way, you guarantee at least one item at the holiday party will be healthful and tasty.
Amer’s go-to healthy holiday appetizer is a charcuterie board. “If it’s not dessert (yes, this dietitian loves dessert!), I love to bring a charcuterie board,” she explains. “The options are endless, and there’s truly something for everyone! Plus, as a dietitian, I can sneak in a bunch of health-promoting foods that also taste great.”
Yam and Cranberry Crisp
Geiger likes to experiment each year with a new homemade recipe. However, she says this healthy holiday dessert has been a frontrunner. “The highest contender was a yam and cranberry crisp that is similar to apple crisp but uses vibrant colors from fresh cranberries and yams with a whole-grain crumble on top,” she says.
A Big Winter Salad
Dr. Martin-Biggers says her favorite healthy holiday meal idea is a big winter salad with kale or other hearty veggies. “I love vegetables and feel like it’s my job as a veggie lover and RDN to introduce people to delicious veggies,” she explains. “I have a kale and brussels sprouts salad that is my go-to for parties and I have shared the recipe with so many people.”
If you’re trying to stay healthy over the holidays, there are ways to ensure your body is getting enough nutrients and staying hydrated. But it’s also important to zoom out: Remember you’re at a party. “It’s supposed to be fun and you’re supposed to have fun,” Dr. Martin-Biggers says. “Have a plan in place and enjoy yourself without feeling out of control. And if it gets out of control, it’s only one day, move on.” Try not to stress too much about holiday weight gain and enjoy the time with your loved ones.
If your holiday parties are causing you extra stress, it might be helpful to seek out professional support. “If you find yourself nervous about eating desserts or feeling the need to restrict yourself it may be best to reach out to a mental health professional as well as a registered dietitian who can help you with symptoms of guilt around food and disordered eating patterns.”