From Buffets to Parties to Food Gifts

How can you enjoy the holidays guilt-free (it’s easier than you may think)

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you are watching your diet and trying to eat healthfully, the holiday season can seem a minefield of culinary hazards, from buffets to parties to food gifts. But it does not have to be.

“It is a challenging time, but it’s really about homing in on your expectations and being realistic,” said Sue Czap, registered dietitian and board certified specialist in oncology nutrition with Wilmot Cancer Institute/Pluta Integrative Oncology and Wellness Center.

While you may enjoy a few more treats than normal, no one wants to eat like the Grinch all season. Czap recommends focusing on more whole, plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains to increase nutrition and support good health.

“Animal-based protein should be smaller portions,” she said. “I make dips using beans and legumes instead of French onion dip.”

Using snow peas, watermelon radishes, red and green pepper strips or raw green beans to dip instead of predictable celery can dress up a plate of veggies and dip.

Czap likes stuffing halved mini peppers with a red quinoa filling for a low-carbohydrate, high-nutrient appetizer.

“Definitely try to be mindful of your alcohol intake as it’s a lot of empty calories,” she warned.

Instead, flavored seltzers garnished with pomegranate or “mocktails” with herbal tea and a little fruit juice offer a flavorful, festive beverage low in calories.

The dessert table can be dangerous territory during celebrations. While they are all high in calories, Czap encourages serving more nutritious treats such as bite-sized truffles made with dark chocolate, a good source of antioxidants, and nuts and fruit. Truffles also help with portion control. Baked apples or pears sprinkled with cinnamon can also provide a sweet treat without as many calories as pie.

Lindsay Bowes, registered dietitian and New York certified dietitian nutritionist with Finger Lakes VA, holds her daughter Evie Bowes. Her advice to not overeat: “Don’t arrive hungry. You’re much more inclined to eat more calories.”
Lindsay Bowes, registered dietitian and New York certified dietitian nutritionist with Finger Lakes VA, holds her daughter Evie Bowes. Her advice to not overeat: “Don’t arrive hungry. You’re much more inclined to eat more calories.”

Lindsay Bowes, registered dietitian and New York certified dietitian nutritionist with Finger Lakes VA, recommends making small tweaks to favorite dishes instead of completely overhauling them.

“We can find ones that offer more bang for the buck nutritionally,” Bowes said.

For example, instead of the creamy green bean casserole with a family meal, she likes to roast green beans with balsamic vinegar, pecans and olive oil.

Roasting chicken or turkey can offer a healthful source of protein.

“These are low in fat and cholesterol,” Bowes said. “Salmon and other fish are as well.”

Seasoning with herbs like rosemary, garlic, thyme, sage and oregano, a few of Bowes’ favorites, ramps up flavor and improves a dish’s anti-inflammatory properties.

She also likes to make typical bread-based stuffing. She uses whole grain brown rice with herbs, walnuts and cranberries for more nutrition.

Jane Giambrone, registered nurse and certified diabetes care and education specialist with Rochester Regional Health, is also a sub of smart substitutes, like homemade cranberry sauce with natural sweeteners like maple syrup and orange juice.

“It’s more nutritious,” she said. “Traditional cranberry sauce is full of sugar.”

Cranberries are good sources of antioxidants.

Giambrone recommends unsalted nuts, as they are good sources of minerals and healthful fats.

“What’s important is that healthful doesn’t have to be boring,” Giambrone said. “By making smart substitutions, that is really the key. Of course, quantity matters. If you have mashed potatoes, know that’s high in carbohydrates. It’s OK, but don’t go crazy with it. Have less of the high carb foods and more vegetables.”

The same holds true for treats. Eaten in moderation, they’re fine and should be eaten guilt-free. For example, a sliver of pie is fine.

“Apple and pumpkin pie are more nutritious than other varieties,” Giambrone said. “Even though you’re getting nutrition through the apples and pumpkins, be mindful of the sugar. You can often cut down the amount of sugar without compromising the taste.”

7 Ways to Handle Holiday Parties

As you attend holiday celebrations, you can plan to make better choices.

1. Don’t arrive hungry. “You’re much more inclined to eat more calories. Some don’t eat all day so they can feel free to eat at the party but by then, they overeat. Stick with your routine.
2. Scope out the whole buffet. “Prioritize that there are three things you’ll try and are most appealing, rather than start at the beginning and taking a little of everything. Focus on things that are different or traditional foods.
3. Don’t have something you could get every day at your home.
4. Bring a plant-based appetizer. “If you can bring an appetizer to share, bring one of the plant-based items I mentioned so you know something healthful is available to you.”
5. Share the sweets. “If it wasn’t your plan to indulge in a sweet treat and someone gives you something sweet as a present, you could offer to ask that person to share it with us. That way, you’re eating half of it. That’s the most honest way to deal with it. Thank them for their effort.
6. Choose your protein first at the buffet, a lean variety if you can. “Choose your non-starchy veggies. Fill half the plate. The last quarter should be a carbohydrate of your choice. Choose one high in fiber of a complex carbohydrate.
7. Enjoy your food. “Of course, what’s also really important is as we’re enjoying time with friends and family but enjoy and taste your food. Be mindful of what you’re putting in your mouth. If you’re not paying attention to the food, you’re likely to eat more.

  • Tips 1 through 4 by Lindsay Bowes, registered dietitian and New York certified dietitian nutritionist with Finger Lakes VA.
  • Tips from 5 to 7 by Sue Czap, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition with Wilmot Cancer Institute/Pluta Integrative Oncology and Wellness Center.