Ah the holidays. The season of stuffed birds, indoor trees, and endless platters of food and cookies. While some may look forward to holiday feasts with hand-rubbing anticipation, others can view them with a great deal of anxiety. Not just because you have to pretend to enjoy hanging out with your in-laws, but because it has the potential to derail even the most-committed person’s efforts at maintaining dietary goals.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. By taking a few simple steps you can successfully sit at the dinner table without panicking when the gravy boat starts floating your way and actually enjoy the meal like everyone else.
Here are five tips on how to do it.
Tip #1: The “First-Plate Strategy”
I don’t know about you, but when confronted by a buffet designed to bring glad tidings of comfort and joy, the chance of limiting myself to one helping is like asking the dog to ignore the chicken nugget your kid just dropped on the floor. After all, with the abundance of delicious options, I can’t possibly fit it all on my plate the first time around. Plus, I don’t want to make Aunt Freda upset that I passed over her famous squash casserole because I needed to leave enough space for Aunt Ruby’s creamy mashed potatoes instead. More than one serving is a requirement because I never want anyone thinking I don’t like their cooking. That’s the only reason. It’s all about appreciating Aunt Freda and Aunt Ruby’s tireless hours in the kitchen. Really.
So here’s how the “first plate strategy” works: Load your first plate only with meat, fruits, and vegetables. And when I say “fruits” and “vegetables” I mean fruits and vegetables that are still in somewhat recognizable form, not the ones smothered in gobs of cheese or lost in pools of noodles.
Anyway, pile on the turkey or ham, green beans, steamed carrots, or cranberry sauce that first time around. Since protein takes longer to digest, this should keep you feeling full longer. And because fruits and veggies are low in calories, you can eat a large number of them without cashing in on all your calories for the day. Both will take up some of the volume in your stomach, leaving you feeling a little less hungry than when you started. Chances are, now that you’ve had a little food foreplay to satisfy that initial longing, it should be easier with the second helping to take only one spoonful of that Stove Top instead of two. Or three. Or six.
Tip #2: Bring a Macro-Friendly Dish in Disguise
It’s not uncommon to bring a dish to pass, and this is a perfect opportunity to slip in something that won’t completely derail your diet. However, if you arrive with something like orange wedges or a bowl of greens, you’re likely to go home with a whole lot of orange wedges and bowl of greens. So bring something no one would suspect is actually kind of healthy. Here’s some examples:
- Green bean casserole is a holiday favorite that’s easily modified for fewer calories. Simply replace traditional cream of mushroom soup with a low fat version (such as Campbell’s “Healthy Request”), and reduce the amount of French fried onions by half. If you’re really daring, you can replace the fried onions all together, and use crushed up bacon bits, roasted onions, smashed up croutons, or low fat crackers instead.
- Jello salad is a dish that even the kids love, and it’s super easy to tweak without anyone noticing. All you need is a 3oz box of sugar free raspberry jello mix, 16 oz low fat or fat free cottage cheese (or Greek yogurt), 8 ounces of sugar free or light Cool Whip, and some raspberries. Mix the jello and cottage cheese until well-blended, then fold in the Cool Whip and fruit. Refrigerate for an hour and now you have a dish that not only tastes great, but has a lot of protein (a “first plate strategy” qualifier!).
- Mashed sweet potatoes are a snap by simply using Stevia in place of sugar and Walden Farms Pancake Syrup in place of traditional maple syrup. To give it a little protein boost add some vanilla protein powder. If you prefer creamier mashed potatoes, mix in a little plain or vanilla greek yogurt. Toss in a bit of sea salt and you’ve got a delicious sweet-salty dish no one would suspect of being macro-friendly.
- If you are a clean eater and artificially-sweetened or fat-reduced foods are not an option, no problem. Steamed carrots in grass-fed butter, roasted veggies sprinkled with olive oil, or quinoa/lentil/rice-based dishes fit right into the holiday landscape. This roasted cauliflower potato salad is to die for (click here for recipe).
- Finally, Google is your best friend. There are a zillion healthy recipe sites out there just waiting to be explored. One of my favorites is the Protein Chef, who has a ton of sweet recipes that will rock your world. Here’s a recipe for his pumpkin cheesecake that’s both easy and delicious (click here).
Tip #3: Don’t Drink Your Calories
Alcoholic drinks are often as much a part of holiday gatherings as the spread of food itself. After all, how else do you survive an entire day with your obnoxious Uncle Ted? However, when you’re already trying to navigate the overabundance of delicious options at the dinner table, adding more calories with a glass of wine or beer compounds the dilemma.
That being said, if your adorable little niece won’t stop screaming about having to eat one spoonful of squash, or someone decides that politics seems like a wise choice of table conversation, a little bit of spirits might be impossible to avoid. In which case, stick with lower calorie options like light beer, Dry Farm Wines and other low calorie wines, or a mixed drink using diet soda or seltzer water. Bring your own if you have to.
Tip #4: If You Have a Chance to Workout, Make It Leg Day
These days there are several gyms open 24 hours every day of the year, so squeezing in a workout the morning of a holiday gathering is a realistic option for many. While any exercise is better than nothing at all, you’re going to get more bounce for your ounce with leg day. This is because leg exercises like squats or deadlifts engage several muscle groups at once (otherwise known as compound exercises), which burns a helavu lotta calories.
For example, a squat engages not only your quads, glutes, and hammies, but also your core, thighs, and calves. And while a bench press is also a compound exercise, your chest, shoulders, and triceps do not use as much energy when compared to the much-larger lower body muscles. So when facing a day of unlimited food, burning as many calories as you can ahead of time is a great way to reduce the guilt when slicing into that pumpkin pie.
If your gym is closed or you just don’t feel like working out that day, no worries! Simply do your leg workout the day after the food extravaganza to gain similar benefits. You might even hit a new PR with all that extra fuel on hand!
Tip #5: Don’t Go to the Table Hungry
I know this is probably obvious, but not going to the table super hungry is an idea many of us ignore. That’s because there is a belief that not eating all day gives us license to indulge once dinner is ready, you know, since we’ve had zero calories up until that point. While in theory this sounds like a reasonable plan, it works pretty much never. That’s because going to the table famished almost always results in a painful food bender that even yoga pants can’t relieve. In the end you’ll likely eat more calories than you would have had you just eaten a few light meals beforehand. Don’t. Do. It.
In fact, this is a great reason to bring a platter of veggies and dip as a pre-meal snack for everyone. You can find low calorie veggie and fruit dip options at your local supermarket, or make your own by using recipes like these online. You’ll not only be helping yourself stay satiated while you wait, but everyone will be none the wiser of your selfish motives, instead heaping on the praise for your thoughtful gesture.
So there you have it. Five tips that help you face the holidays with a little less panic. Whether you use one or all of these ideas, just the fact that you are trying to be more conscientious at the dinner table earns you a cookie. Don’t eat that cookie, however. That defeats the purpose of this whole damn article.
But what if despite your best intentions you end up binging anyway? Well, according to the Internet – which is always right – the average weight gain for Americans during the holiday season is five to seven pounds. Yikes! However, before you go to Costco to buy a case of Slim Fast, consider this: In a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, holiday weight gain is only around one pound. One measly pound. Chances are, any major jumps on the scale are likely due to water retention and poop, and the damage is not nearly as bad as you think. If you don’t believe me, check out my gripping article Five Things To Do When You Cheat On Your Diet for a little reassurance that everything will be okay. Because ultimately, the most important thing to focus on during a holiday get together is making memories with friends and family.
And how to get out of taking home leftovers.