Healthy Holiday Eating: Keeping Your Loved Ones (and Yourself) on Track

The holidays are quite an obstacle course for those normally committed to healthy eating. Traditional treats, fantastic family meals and gifts of the culinary sort all work together to spoil even the most nutritious diet. This holiday season, make sure that you and your loved ones remain on track by pledging your loyalty to a healthy lifestyle and a fitter family. No excuses allowed!

Stay Hydrated

It’s tempting to celebrate the holidays with a champagne toast here, a mixed drink there and a few glasses of wine in between. Unfortunately, in addition to leaving you with a pretty nasty headache, alcohol can actually sap moisture from your body and leave you dehydrated.

Jennifer Stefanik, a registered nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, recommends drinking plenty of water prior to holiday parties and limiting your alcohol and coffee intake. Sarah Morris of UMass Medical School in Worcester, Mass., also advises alternating an alcoholic drink with a glass of water while celebrating. Alternating your drinks will halve the number of calories you might inadvertently consume from your beverages.

Eat Little and Often

Stefanik and Morris agree that the best way to counteract holiday binges is to eat six small meals per day rather than three large meals. “Eating six small meals will keep your body from feeling ‘starving,’ thus the potential for overeating is decreased,” Stefanik says.

If your loved one has special needs, Stefanik advises keeping specific food choices on hand to suit the individual’s lifestyle. “If a loved one has problems chewing or swallowing, make sure they have small bites or soft foods available,” Stefanik says. “If they follow a special diet, make sure you know what they can and cannot eat.” Planning snacks and meals in advance will help you make sure you have the necessary foods on hand for all your guests to enjoy.

Slash Hidden Calories

Rich holiday foods often conceal an abundance of unnecessary calories. “Be careful of foods that contain loads of butter, and prepare your mashed potatoes and stuffing with olive oil or chicken broth as a substitute,” Morris says.

Stefanik also reminds everyone to make sure meals and snacks are balanced. “Don’t load up on a single food group,” she says. “Make sure that everyone gets a little of everything. This will help keep the overall amount of calories down and promote a healthier meal.”

Limiting high-fat food will also help you stick to a healthy holiday lifestyle. “Try filling your plate mainly with proteins and some carbs,” Stefanik says. “That way by the time the dessert is served you won’t be as hungry and there will be less potential for overeating the high-fat sweets.”

Remain Active

Fitting in at least 30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week, but optimally every day, will keep your family fit and happy during the holiday season and all year round. If you are stuck for ideas or your loved one has special needs, Stefanik has some good ideas for activities you can do.

“Consider taking them [your loved one] for a walk, help them ride a bike or treat everyone and go to an indoor pool,” Stefanik says. “The activity itself doesn’t matter much as long as it is something that they like to do and that keeps their heart rate up.” Checking with relevant doctors and physical or occupational therapists should provide you with a wealth of options for activities your whole family will enjoy.

When in Doubt, Leave It Out

If, after all your careful planning and commitment to healthy eating and exercise, you still find yourself wondering if you should be partaking in that cheesy side dish, extra celebratory toast or last slice of fudge cake, the answer is probably “no.” Find a scoop of steamed vegetables, switch to sparkling water and ask for a serving of fruit salad instead. Try to stick to the general nutrition guidelines of eating a minimum of five fruits and vegetables per day, and only move along to higher fat, high calorie foods when you’ve fulfilled this obligation.

As you’re loading up your plate from the holiday buffet, remind yourself “when in doubt, leave it out.” Use this same test when serving up healthy meals for your loved ones and everyone will benefit.

Healthy holiday eating needn’t be a chore. Delight in the array of seasonal fruits and vegetables available at this time of year, and make sure all your loved ones get their fill. Stay active and use interesting outings both as exercise and family fun activities, and make sure that everyone gets their fill of water — at least eight glasses per day — to stay healthy and hydrated during the holidays.

But most of all, have fun and enjoy your time together. If you do happen to overindulge, just make it a New Year’s resolution to get back on track to a healthy lifestyle!