Photo by Fairchild ArchiveEdited by Megan O. Steintrager, Epicurious.com
Epicurious editors are no strangers to the temptations of the holiday season-an ever-growing period of time that stretches from before Halloween through New Year's Eve (and returns for the Super Bowl and Valentine's Day). As food writers and editors, our holiday season is even longer than the average person's: We conducted our Halloween Candy Taste Test in September and started developing Thanksgiving menus back then, too.
Related: Easy Holiday Cocktail Party Bites
Giving up great food isn't an option-eating is our job and passion-so over the years we have developed strategies to make sure our waistlines don't grow along with the festive season. Read on for tips on how to enjoy parties and celebratory meals like Thanksgiving without gaining weight (or having to chain yourself to an elliptical trainer and subsist on air-popped popcorn for a month or so).
Healthy Eating Tips for Holiday Parties & Dinners
Go for the Passed Hors d'Oeuvres
"Partygoers tend to eat more food from a buffet than from passed trays, so hosts often serve their fancier, more expensive items as passed hors d'oeuvres," explains Senior Editor Lauren Salkeld, who oversees Epicurious's Entertaining section. "If you limit yourself to the passed hors d'oeuvres, or at least start with those, you're likely to get a more interesting and satisfying meal, which can help you eat less. Plus, if you have to wait for the trays to come out, it can slow down your eating, which will help you realize when you're full."
Choose Low-Calorie and Healthy Festive Foods
Baked Brie and creamy dips are festive calorie bombs, yet plenty of other party foods are naturally low in calories and seem equally merry. Go for crudités, lean deli meats, chicken kebabs, salsa (instead of using chips, spoon up thicker salsa straight from your plate or with a piece of chicken), steamed asparagus (one large spear has only four calories, according to SELF.com's Nutrition Data), boiled shrimp (22 calories for four large shrimp), and grapes (two calories apiece). On a cheese tray, go for lower-calorie selections such as soft goat cheese and Feta, and consider this trick from Assistant Editor Carolina Santos-Neves: Skip the cracker when eating hard cheeses.
Bring the Healthy Fare to Parties and Potlucks
To guarantee there's something healthy on the buffet, volunteer to bring it yourself. Managing Editor Siobhan Adcock recommends seasonal salads, homemade bean dip, or a big batch of roasted root vegetables, all of which provide flavorful, filling alternatives to foods higher in fat and calories.
Healthy Party Food
• Tuscan Kale Chips
• Whole Wheat Pita Chips with Garbanzo Bean-Cumin Dip
• Creamy White Bean Dip
• Roasted Chestnuts
• Scandinavian Ceviche
• Bloody Mary Soup Shots with Shrimp and Pickled Vegetables
• Bruschetta with Fava Beans, Greens, and Blood Oranges
• Roasted Carrots
• Chocolate and Pecan Tartlets
• Flourless Chocolate-Walnut Cookies
Act Like an Accountant
Instead of saying, "There's always room for dessert," actually leave room for it. "I love dessert and hate to miss out on the opportunity to enjoy the cake, cookies, or chocolates at a party or restaurant, so I make a point to not just leave room but also leave a calorie allowance for dessert," says Salkeld. "If you know you're going to want dessert, rather than denying yourself, simply cut back on the hors d'oeuvres or dinner-this can be as simple as not having bread or avoiding the pasta and having mostly salad or veggies. As with dessert, if you know you want to have the calorie-heavy specialty cocktail, find ways to cut back in other parts of the meal."
Don't Hover Around the Buffet Table
When you're at a party buffet table, choose three or four items you really want to eat, then step away from the table so you're not tempted to graze. If you're in the middle of an interesting conversation or standing on the other side of the room from the food, you're less likely to keep absentmindedly refilling your plate. To entice yourself away from the buffet, Santos-Neves suggests trying to meet at least one new person or checking out the art in your host's home.
Use a Napkin
An easy way to monitor portion size is to put food on a small plate, or even better, on a napkin. It's a simple trick: You can't fit as much on a napkin, so you won't eat as much. Another option: "Go ahead and take a big plate and fill it up once, taking one spoonful-not multiples-of each dish. No going back for seconds," advises Associate Editor Esther Sung.
Hit the Veggie Tray
Filling up on high-fiber and low-cal raw vegetables, salad, or broth-based (not creamy) soups is a strategy for many Epicurious editors. "Just as I recommend in my Real Food for Healthy Kids family cookbook, starting a meal with raw veggies fills the tummy with fiber-rich foods that provide a feeling of fullness," says Editor-in-Chief Tanya Wenman Steel. "Eating raw veggies also slows down the eating process, giving your stomach the 20 minutes it needs to signal the brain that it's getting full."
Follow the Three-Bite Rule
Steel says that when dining at a restaurant she generally only has a few bites of a dish unless she truly loves it. "Studies have shown that after the third bite, your taste buds don't register the flavors as sharply, so unless it's amazing, it's not worth the calories," she explains. "Take the leftovers home."
See also: The Rules of Regifting
Make Friends with Water
"Before I eat, I drink at least eight ounces of water, tea, or coffee so that my thirst is quenched and my stomach already feels a little full," says Steel. Drinking water before having an alcoholic beverage (and between alcoholic drinks) is also a good idea: You will be less likely to gulp down the alcoholic drink to quench your thirst. Sung adds: "Limit yourself to one or two drinks for the evening, and in order to keep to it, tell a friend who can make sure you adhere to that."
Keep Liquid Calories in Check
Eggnog-the famously fatty beverage of the holidays-has a whopping 343 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat per cup, according to Nutrition Data's analysis. Get the flavor of the season with a shot glass-size serving of nog, then stick to water, drinks made with seltzer, and wine. A five-ounce glass of red wine has only 125 calories. Not sure what five ounces looks like? "Before a party, measure out five ounces of water and pour it into a wineglass just to remind yourself what a 'serving' looks like," says Adcock.
Bring Mints or Gum to Parties
Once you've had your fill of the food at a party, pop a piece of gum or a mint in your mouth. You won't be as tempted to nosh-plus, your breath will be fresher than anyone else's.
Healthy Eating Rules to Follow Every Day During Holiday Season
Budget for Treats on Party Days
"My last name may be Steel, but I am no Superwoman when it comes to resisting brownies, chocolate layer cake, and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream," says Epicurious' editor-in-chief. "So, I allow myself those treats occasionally, and when I do, I try to be good for the rest of the day to balance out the calorie intake." If you know you're going to a party after work that's going to have amazing treats, pass up the so-so ones at your afternoon meeting.
Santos-Neves says, "If I know I am going to have a 'sinful' day full of holiday goodies, then I might take out an ingredient from my breakfast-for example, I love Greek yogurt with peanut or almond butter for breakfast, but I'll omit the nut butter or reduce the amount." Sung adds that she tries to eat healthily for several days before and after a big food event.
If you bake during the holidays, keep one day's worth of treats and give everything else away-either bring the surplus to work, give it to neighbors or family, or send it to your spouse's or roommate's office.
Regift Food Presents
"If you get a food gift, share it with others so you can't eat it all by yourself," suggests Sung.
Say No to Junk Food
Don't blow your calories on low-quality sweets. There are so many good homemade treats to enjoy at this time of year that there's no reason to buy an ordinary candy bar or take something from the candy jar at work just because you're having a craving. Try to save your snack "allowance" for better desserts that will really make you feel satisfied.
Consider Setting a Few Ground Rules
While most of us at Epicurious are opposed to the concept of "forbidden foods," we do have a few general guidelines we try to follow. For example, at parties Santos-Neves avoids anything fried; she also uses vegetables instead of crackers for dips, and dips only every other vegetable instead of every one.
Make Your Goals Realistic
This time of year is about celebrations, and food is an intrinsic part of that. Rather than striving to overhaul your diet and lose weight during the holidays, try to maintain your current weight. Adcock also warns against attempting to completely deny yourself "fun" foods. Instead, she "aims to be really healthy during nonholiday meals so she can still feel indulgent at the holiday meals."
Don't Turn Shopping Sprees Into Eating Sprees
"The holiday season is incredibly busy, and I always seem to be on the go," says Salkeld. "When I'm shopping or out running holiday errands, I try to set aside time to eat and plan what and where to eat." Her advice: "Instead of resorting to fatty pizza or other fast foods, seek out a healthier restaurant near the shops you're going to, or eat before you go. Maybe bring a bag of almonds, an energy bar, or dried fruit to tide you over if hunger strikes."
Eat Three Square Meals Every Day
Sure, it might make sense on paper to slash calories by skipping meals during the day when you know you're going to have a big feast later, but this strategy often backfires and can lead to overeating, low energy, and generally feeling bad. Take the time to have a decent-sized breakfast that includes plenty of protein, complex carbohydrates, and some dairy, all of which will help you feel full and keep your energy up.
The same advice goes for lunch and pre-party snacks or dinners. If you're going to a party where you can't count on a meal being served, eat a healthy, satisfying dinner with plenty of protein, but make the meal a little bit smaller than usual, so you can justify a blondie or two as 'dessert'.
Add Exercise Whenever and Wherever You Can
"If I eat a lot at a party or dinner, then I try to go running or work out harder than usual the next morning," says Santos-Neves. "During the holidays, I try to move my body more. So perhaps you could walk to the cocktail party, or park your car a little farther away." Even if you can fit just one or two short sessions a week into your schedule, exercise will give you a little leeway to indulge while still keeping your weight stable. Plus, it'll help you to better handle the stress of the busy season. Check out the SELF.com calculator to compare how many calories are burned by activities such as running, using a stationary bike, or snowboarding.
More from Epicurious.com:
• The Ultimate Christmas Guide from Epicurious
• Mario Batali's Traditional Italian Christmas Eve Dinner
• One-Dish Wonders: Our Favorite Casserole Recipes
• Blue-Ribbon Chicken Recipes
Photo by Fairchild ArchiveEdited by Megan O. Steintrager, Epicurious.com