When I think of Thanksgiving dinner or a Christmas party buffet, I think of wearing stretchy pants and the nap that follows. The holidays are studded with heavy meals. Holiday eating is about filling your plate to the brim with favorites like stuffing, biscuits, pecan pie, and cookies! I get it, you want to enjoy the holiday meals without overeating, is that even possible?
On average, a typical Thanksgiving plate can have a days worth of calories.
For those of us trying to beat holiday bloat or maintain a diet in moderation, the holidays can be daunting. And consuming a days worth of calories in one meal (and that doesn’t count snacks or drinks!) is not ideal if you are trying to maintain your goals through the holidays!
Holiday Eating: Design a Healthier Plate
Kicking off the major holiday season, Thanksgiving is a great time to enjoy seasonal foods and the company of family and friends. And within the weeks after there are holiday parties aplenty, all with wonderfully rich spreads. Below are some holiday eating tips. Think of it as “designing” a healthier holiday plate to maximize your satisfaction and nutrition, without the bloat and sluggish feeling!
Let Veggies Fill Your Plate
I give this general rule to my patients and clients daily, but especially want to focus on vegetable intake on holidays. Look for non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, mushrooms, and greens.
By filling half of your plate with veggies like these, you are setting yourself up to fill up on nutrient-dense foods. This holiday eating tip works at parties too: fill up on the veggies before moving on to the decadent treats.
Bonus nutrient boost: Non-starchy veggies like the ones above are high in fiber, aiding in heart and bowel health! All vegetables contain antioxidants to fight cellular fatigue and damage, making them a good choice for a holiday plate.
Load Up On Turkey
White meat turkey is very low in calories (about 150 calories for 3 oz). 3 oz is the recommended serving size for meat, about the size of a deck of cards. However, if you go a little overboard on the turkey it’s still a better choice than some other options (I’m looking at you, pecan pie).
Aim for 3-5 ounces of white meat turkey to add to your veggies. Skinless is slightly fewer calories (20-30) per piece of turkey, so aim for skinless when available!
Bonus nutrient boost: Turkey is high in protein and low in fat, making it an all-star for satiety and busting cravings. Turkey also has tryptophan, a compound the body turns into serotonin that provides after dinner happiness!
Be Choosy With Your Sides
Thanksgiving and the holiday season have traditions and foods unique to each family, they are part of what makes the day so special! Don’t feel you have to skip out on these food items you eat maybe once or twice a year, just be selective.
Decide what is worth it to you. Keep the everyday foods for every day, and enjoy special foods on holidays.
For example, I have a strange affinity for stove top stuffing, so it will always be on my plate. Dinner rolls don’t really excite me, so I pass on them. If your aunt makes a once-a-year fantastic Paula-Deen-so-much-butter-I-can-see-it casserole, and that’s your thing, dig in!
Bonus nutrient boost: Some sides are more nutritionally dense than others! Choose sides with root vegetables, hidden veggies or whole grains to maximize your nutritional punch.
More is Less: Portion Control
This holiday eating strategy works well for potlucks or family dinners. Instead of loading your plate with 3 items, why not try 4-5 in smaller amounts? You’ll end up with 1-2 ounces of each item and a varied plate. Not only does this create a colorful plate, but it also allows you to enjoy everything in moderation.
One meal will not derail your progress, so try to shake off any guilt around food choices today (and every day!). Keep the everyday foods for every day, and enjoy special foods on holidays.
Take Your Time
When we eat quickly, we don’t give our bodies time to signal our brain that we’re full. Not to mention, have you ever noticed that you are bloated after wolfing down a meal? Turns out, you’re more likely to ingest more air with your food the faster you eat! So slow it down, take it one bite at a time.
This tip requires mindful eating, which encourages you to be present and fully enjoy the delicious food you are eating! With family and friends buzzing with conversation, it can be hard to focus on your hunger cues and slowly eating.
Go Slow: set your fork down after each bite.
Try to set your fork down after each bite, a tip I learned from my father, to really savor each bite. This simple act lets you focus on a singular bite and allows you to pause for conversation. This slows your overall eating pace which helps with bloating and allows your body to send its “I’m full” signals to your brain when it’s time!
BYOSD (Bring Your Own Side Dish)
If you just know you won’t feel comfortable eating what is being served this Thanksgiving, you can always bring your own foods! Most hosts appreciate the help, and it’s a way for you to have direct control over what you are eating. Bonus, you may even educate some family members on healthier choices (yay!).
There are so many ways to make over a traditional Thanksgiving side dish, here’s one of my favorites:
Bonus nutrient boost: The recipe above is high in vitamin A (beta-carotene) and fiber to help keep you full! Also, pecans are high in antioxidants linked to hair and skin health.
Bonus: Stay Hydrated
Hydration is key to overall health, but it can actually help curb cravings and prevent overeating! Sometimes hunger pangs or cravings are actually our body’s way of asking us for water. Try having 6-8 ounces of water (or tea) when a craving strikes.
If the craving and hunger passes, you just answered a hydration call! If the hunger remains, go ahead and have something to eat. Never ignore your body’s hunger cues!
After Dinner, Get Moving
As tempting as it may be to sink into the couch… After indulging usually comes food-coma and lounge time. Activity, even light activity, can help with digestion and reduce bloat after a large meal. Here are a couple ways to beat holiday bloat here.
Feeling a little sluggish after the holidays? Try a post-holiday detox to reset. Check out this guide to get started.
Help With Cleanup
Since the chef likely used the entire kitchen to prepare the meal for the day, offer to help with cleanup! Not only are you being helpful, but you’re adding a touch of activity to your day instead of lounging on the couch all day.
Start A New Tradition
Some families run races, some have football games before dinner. While I don’t typically run races, I will run a Turkey-Trot each year with my family to get in the spirit. Other friends I know will go on a morning walk or hike to enjoy the fall weather! Starting an active tradition can make sure you keep it moving on Thanksgiving day!
Turkey trot sound right up your alley? Check out this website to find one near you!
Holiday foods that add both color and flavor to the table.
Recipe: Pomegranate Kale Saute
This is one of my favorite holiday greens recipes.
- 1-2 lbs kale, destemmed (you can substitute spinach here, but it may cook down to a smaller amount!)
- 1 cup pomegranate seeds
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1-2 tbsp water
- Juice of 1 lemon, + zest
- ½ c parmesan cheese, to taste
Heat olive oil over medium heat, saute garlic until fragrant. Add kale and water, toss to combine with olive oil and garlic. Add lemon juice, cook 5-8 minutes on medium heat until kale slightly wilted. Add pomegranate seeds and parmesan cheese, toss to combine and serve.
Recipe: Lightened Up Sweet Potato Casserole
(adapted from SkinnyTaste)
- 2 lbs sweet potatoes, roasted (or can peel and boil)
- ¼ cup golden raisins
- ½ tsp cinnamon (to taste)
- Pinch of nutmeg, allspice, clove
- 8 ounces crushed pineapple, drained
- 2 tbsp chopped pecans
- 1 cup mini marshmallows
- 1 tbsp maple syrup (to taste)
This recipe saves you about 150 calories per serving!
Roast sweet potatoes (can be done ahead of time) and let cool. Scoop out flesh into a large bowl, mash, and add remaining ingredients except the chopped pecans and marshmallows. Once combined, press mixture into a baking dish. Top with chopped pecans and mini marshmallows, drizzle with maple syrup if using and roast for 15-20 minutes or until marshmallows are melted. Enjoy!
Caroline is a Clinical Registered Dietitian for MedStar Health and Hospital Systems in Baltimore, Maryland. She completed her Masters Degree in Dietetics from San Jose State University and moved back to Charm City to be with her fiancee. When she’s not providing medical nutrition therapy to her patients, Caroline enjoys cooking, waterfront walks and crab-anything (crab pizza is the best!).