Traditional family meals and party tables piled high with treats are a big part of the holiday season. But navigating these culinary indulgences while maintaining a healthy diet can be a challenge.
Fear not! It is possible to enjoy some of your favorite foods, cookies, and drinks with friends and family without adding a lot of unwanted calories and pounds. By planning ahead, thinking about what you put on your plate, and adding nutritious elements to your holiday offerings, you can enjoy your favorite meal or dessert and maintain a balanced diet.
Registered dietitian Milette Siler, lead culinary medicine instructor at UT Southwestern and co-founder of our Culinary Medicine clinical service line, joined me in preparing these six quick nutrition tips and strategies to keep in mind during the holidays:
1. Everything in moderation
You are the architect of your plate, so you can create a healthy mix. Start with a smaller helping and go back for more if you’re still hungry. Plan to fill half of the plate with fruits and veggies; consider adding multiple colors to each plate to create a balance between proteins, fruits, fiber, and sweets.
2. Don’t be a diet grinch
It’s OK to enjoy your favorite dishes during the holidays, and don’t feel as if you need to “earn” them. Guilt and shame should not be on the holiday menu. Instead embrace intention and mindfulness, putting high-sugar or high-fat treats in the occasional category, where they feel special because they are infrequent.
3. Have a pre-party strategy
If you’re going to a holiday party or event where you anticipate feeling overwhelmed by options, consider eating a nourishing pre-party meal (think veggies, fruits, nuts/seeds, legumes, lean protein). Then you can focus on socializing and just grab a few light additions.
4. Try the 10-minute wait
If you just ate a delicious cookie and feel compelled to have another, try waiting 10 minutes. Grab some water, a savory food item, and distract yourself. Then, if you still badly want another cookie, go for it. However, you might just find you’ve moved on!
5. Limit how much you drink
Calories from alcoholic and sugary holiday beverages can quickly add up, and they don’t do much to help us stay full. Plan ahead when you expect to indulge and be sure to drink lots of water throughout the day before a celebration.
6. Think beyond your plate
Holiday wellness isn’t just about nourishing food. Don’t forget about getting consistent and adequate sleep, daily movement (even small bursts of 5-10 minutes are helpful!), and stress management strategies that help you stay on track (think herbal tea, aromatherapy, a warm bath, or a massage). A healthful holiday season will set you up for wellness year-round and doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all strategy. The most important approach is one you can stick to – consistency matters!
Related reading: 7 ways to manage family stress during the holidays
Add ‘Mediterranean’ flavor to the holiday menu
If you’re hosting the family gathering or a holiday party with friends, consider adding fruits, vegetables, grains, and other healthy items that take a page from the Mediterranean diet.
Fruits and vegetables
- Fill half your plate with non-starchy fruits and vegetables.
- Enjoy your favorite holiday dips with slices of apple or cucumber, or carrot or celery sticks.
- Consider adding multiple colors to each plate as a goal.
Breads and grains
- Instead of a usual serving of starch, pair a small serving of bread (such as a small roll or scoop of dressing) with a whole grain if possible (brown rice, oats, whole wheat, etc.)
Try Quinoa Butternut Squash with Dijon Vinaigrette (recipe below) as a nourishing side dish.
Legumes, beans, and lentils
- At the salad bar or buffet, add a spoonful of chickpeas or black beans to your plate.
- If you’re enjoying homemade soup on a cold night, add a handful of dry lentils. In 20 minutes, they will be tender, and your soup or stew will have more fiber and protein and be more nourishing!
- Look for ways to incorporate fruit, nuts, or legumes.
- Choose dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate.
Try Cranberry Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies (recipe below).
Have yourself a pair of healthy holiday recipes
Quinoa butternut squash with Dijon vinaigrette
This hearty winter salad is chock full of nutrition and interesting flavors and textures. Vegan, and gluten- and dairy-free. 6 one cup servings
1 medium butternut squash, cubed (about 6 cups)
1 tsp olive oil
1 cup quinoa, red or white
2 cups veggie broth (low-sodium) or water
2/3 cup dried cranberries, unsweetened
½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup parsley, fresh, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp honey
½ tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
To taste: salt and pepper
Gather all equipment and ingredients. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large bowl, toss cubed butternut squash with 1 tsp olive oil, salt and pepper.
Spread squash onto a foil-lined cookie sheet, roast in oven for 20-25 minutes till tender but browned at edges. Remove from oven. Place back into large bowl.
Rinse the quinoa under cold running water until the water runs clear.
In a medium pot, cover the quinoa with the broth. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer with the lid on loosely.
Cook for about 12-18 minutes, until the quinoa is translucent and broth has absorbed.
Remove from heat and let sit covered for 5 minutes, fluff with a fork and combine with squash, dried cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds.
While the quinoa and squash cook, add dressing ingredients to a small bowl. Whisk together. Set dressing aside.
Add the dressing to the quinoa mixture and toss to coat.
Season with kosher salt and pepper to taste.
This salad is delicious warm or cold and keeps in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Nutrition facts: Calories 320 | Sodium 153 mg | Carbohydrates 22 g | Fiber 6 g | Protein 7 g
Cranberry Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies
Cookies for breakfast? Yes, please! Enjoy this crunchy, delicious take on that healthy morning bowl of oatmeal. Gluten free and can be made vegan with simple substitutions! Freezer friendly. Makes 3 dozen cookies
2 cups old fashioned oats (divided)
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¾ cup milk (can substitute almond milk)
2 large bananas, ripe, mashed
½ cup peanut butter (or any nut butter)
2 tbsp honey
½ cup cranberries, dried or fresh
½ cup nuts, chopped (almonds or pecans)
Gather all ingredients and equipment. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In food processor or blender, “pulse” oats for 30 seconds to 1 minute until coarse.
Remove, add to medium bowl along with baking powder and cinnamon. Combine.
In another bowl, combine mashed bananas, peanut butter, and honey.
Gradually stir in oat mixture.
Gently stir in cranberries and nuts.
Mix in the dry ingredients, adding about one-third of the mixture at a time.
Stop the mixer as you make each addition, and beat no longer than necessary to incorporate the dry ingredients.
Using a large spoon or scoop, place on lightly sprayed cookie sheets.
Flatten slightly until uniform in shape (cookies will not spread much!)
Bake in oven for 13-16 minutes until brown at edges. Remove from oven.
Nutrition facts: Carbohydrates 9 grams | Calories 95 | Protein 2 grams | Sodium 78 mg | Fiber 6 g