The holidays are a time of gathering with friends and family, showing our love and appreciation for each other, and sharing in large, delicious meals. It can make it hard to maintain a healthy, portion controlled diet–even for the most disciplined among us. Temptations lie at every turn with multiple courses of food, calorie laden drinks, and well-meaning relatives encouraging us to take seconds. It is easy to recall Thanksgivings past, when we’ve eaten too much and regretted those choices almost immediately. But holiday meals like Thanksgiving don’t have to be a diet disaster. With a game plan, and some helpful tips, you can enjoy a Thanksgiving meal and leave feeling satisfied.
1. Create a plan of action. Going into your holiday meal prepared will help you to better succeed at having a dinner that fits into your meal plan. Figure out what your day will look like and try to follow your normal routines beforehand. Be realistic about your goals. The holidays can be a hard time to lose weight, but an easy time to maintain your weight. Think about what holiday foods you’d most like to enjoy, what treats you’d like to enjoy so you don’t feel like you’ve missed out. If you aren’t hosting, ask your host if you can bring a side dish. This gives you a known healthy option at the meal. Taking time to imagine the day will help you feel better prepared and ready to face challenges.
2. Review what a healthy portion looks like. Knowing what a portion size actually looks like is a key to portion control success. Each type of food has a different appropriate portion size and knowing how many ounces of a certain item you can eat, isn’t always super helpful if you don’t know what that looks like. For proteins, the rule of thumb is typically said to be about a deck of playing cards. A 1.5 ounce chunk of hard cheese is the sizes of 3 dice. A serving of mashed potatoes is about equal to a light bulb. This handy visual guide by WebMD, gives you helpful visual references for each type of food. Being able to visualize what a portion actually looks like while you are putting food on your plate will help you to keep those portions in check. Remember though, you cannot choose a healthy portion of everything! Stick to one plate of food and not one that resembles Mt. Everest. Beforehand, you can also test yourself. Estimate a one cup portion of rice or pasta and put it on a plate, then transfer it to a measuring cup to see how accurate you are with your portion.
3. Exercise that day. Exercising on the day of Thanksgiving will help to burn additional calories before the meal, but also will leave you feeling energized. Getting out and getting moving typically leads to an improved mood, better energy levels, and increased self esteem. If you are feeling good about yourself on Thanksgiving, it will be easier to maintain a healthy diet. Confidence keeps us focused on what’s best for us, and puts those doubts at bay. Exercise also reduces stress. Holidays always come with some level of stress, so a 30 minute workout can do a lot to help keep your stress levels in check.Incorporating a group walk into your holiday gives family and friends another opportunity to socialize and reduces the time spent near appetizers and holiday beverages. Exercise can also be incorporated into your holiday. Plan a pre- or post-dinner walk with your family and friends. It is a great way to get everyone moving, start a new holiday tradition, and have a low key group outing.
4. Be wary of high calorie drinks. At the holidays, comes alcohol. Wine, beer, and cocktails can all add up quickly in terms of caloric intake. It is nice to partake in a drink at dinner, but limit it to just one. Mixed drinks typically have an average of 100 calories, while wine has roughly 105 – 130 calories per glass, and a 12oz beer has 150 calories on average. 2 or 3 of those add up quickly. Some holiday drinks, like hot buttered rum and eggnog, have as many as 300-400 calories per drink.
5. Drink plenty of water. Drinking plenty of water will both keep you hydrated and also help you to feel full. Several studies have shown that drinking about 16 oz. of water about 20-30 minutes before meal time, will reduce caloric intake. The water in your stomach will help you to feel fuller, leading you to be less likely to overeat. Staying well hydrated also will help to keep your energy levels up during the busy holiday season. Even the slightest amount of dehydration can lead to feelings of fatigue.
6. Socialize. The whole point of holidays is to get to spend time with people we do not see regularly and to take some time to slow our lives down and really enjoy quality time with our loved ones. Keep social interaction as your priority at dinners and events. Move away from the buffet table, and find a comfortable place to talk. Catch up with old friends and relatives. Seek out conversations with family members you don’t know as well. Suggest a board or card game, or some other party game. Find ways to switch the attention from the food and move it back to the people, the part that matters the most.
7. Practice mindfulness. Paying great attention to your choices and feelings, and being in the moment as you engage in holiday activities, can help you to maintain healthy portions and make good food decisions on Thanksgiving. Before selecting any food, review what is available and what are the best options for you. Think about how much you actually want before you put any food on your plate. Be ready to say no to seconds or another glass of wine. Being aware of what you actually want to eat and combine that with a portion size that works with your nutrition goals. Focus on the food you have on your plate, savor the flavors and textures, instead daydreaming about what you are going to eat next, can help you to have a much happier holiday and allow you to only eat as much as you actually desire.
8. Eat mainly fruits and veggies. By filling your plate up with fruits and vegetables, you’ll be creating a low calorie plate. Think about serving vegetables first and filling about half your plate. Some typical holiday vegetables are actually quite filling. Broccoli, carrots and peas are all vegetables that are more likely to leave you feeling full. Go for fresh vegetables first. Avoid those that could be cooked in large amount of butter or that are smothered with cheese. Glazed carrots, roasted brussel sprouts, broiled asparagus, and peas are all great choices that are typically low in calories. Make sure that your contribution to a potluck dinner provides a low calorie veggie option in case there are no others!
9. Eat what you enjoy. Select foods you love to help minimize any regrets you may have. There are often a large number of dishes at any Thanksgiving Day meal. Think about what foods you enjoy the most before you put anything on your plate. Love turkey? Take a little more of that and avoid having that roll. Cranberry sauce a childhood favorite? Choose that over the sweet potato casserole. Focus on the foods you’ll find the most pleasure in, that will make you the happiest first. You do not have to try everything on the table. By eating the foods you most enjoy, in reasonable portions, you’ll feel more satisfied.
10. Have a distraction on hand. Having distractions at hand to keep you from overeating can be a big help when temptation looms large and second helpings are easy to reach. A distraction can be as simple as a cup of tea, or a quick walk around the block with a friend or relative from the party to catch up one-on-one. Mints, gum, and lozenges like MealEnders can also create a helpful distraction when you are tempted by something that doesn’t fit into your eating plan or while you are still in the overeating zone after having filled up. The 20 minutes after you’ve eaten but before your natural satiety has kicked in, known as the overeating zone, is the time in which we are most likely to consume more food than we should. Knowing when to stop and having a tasty treat to pop in your mouth, will help reduce your chances of overeating.
11. Host the meal yourself. There is no better way to control the menu and the amount of available food than to host Thanksgiving yourself. It can be extra work, but if you want to keep your diet in check, this can be an excellent way to do so. Plan a menu full of vegetable dishes, whole grains, and of course turkey. Keep the appetizers to fruits and vegetables as well as other healthy snacks. Avoid making too much food so there aren’t endless leftovers sitting around. By cooking the meal yourself, you get to have control over what’s served, what ingredients are used, and how much you have of each dish. Create a wholesome meal for your family and friends that isn’t weighed down by heavy dishes and tons of sweets.
12. Eat slowly. It is always best to slow down when you eat. Eating slowly helps aid digestion, it gives more time for your brain to receive the signal that you are full, and you get to spend more time enjoying your food. When you eat quickly, it can lead to overeating. If you rush through food, your body doesn’t have the time to catch up and notify your brain that you’ve had enough. You can also feel like you’ve finished too soon and should still be eating. Eating more slowly will result in feeling fuller with the same food consumption, leading to less calorie intake. You’ll also have time to savor the delicious Thanksgiving meal that you or a loved one made.
13. Pay attention to your feelings. Holidays are not always 100% happiness and reconnection. There can be a great deal of stress in preparing a big meal or hosting a larger number of people. Family can be complicated, and often certain family members or relationships can cause added anxiety. Overeating can be triggered by stress or other emotions. Pay attention to how you are feeling throughout the day. If getting ready for your guests is causing stress, ask for some help. If your aunt pokes at an emotional hot button, take a breather before reaching for the wine. Being aware of our feelings, taking note of them, and then finding a healthy way to cope can help us to avoid emotional eating.
14. Eat like normal that day. People have a tendency to skip breakfast and lunch on holidays, “saving” all their calories for the big meal. This is a recipe for an overeating disaster. This sends you to the party hungry, with low energy, ready to fuel up on empty calories for some quick energy. Instead, eat a normal breakfast. If dinner is early, still have a light lunch like a salad with grilled chicken. If dinner is in the evening, consider a filling afternoon snack like plain yogurt with fresh fruit or avocado toast. Going into dinner with a normal appetite will make eating the correct amount a breeze, and help you to avoid a lot of overeating pitfalls.
15. Stay away from buffets. Many Thanksgiving dinners start out with (or are entirely) a buffet. Appetizers of all varieties line the table, making for very easy snacking. Buffets are very easy opportunities for overeating. Typically full of bite sized or handful style snacks like cheese and crackers or chips and dip, buffets can lead to overeating quickly. And, often before the main course! Avoid filling up pre-turkey by moving away from the buffet table. Chatting next to it can easily lead to mindless eating. Move the conversation to a more comfortable spot, preferably one that faces away from the food.. Proximity can be everything.
The main thing to remember is that holidays are really the same as every other day: we must thoughtfully select our food to maintain a healthy diet. It’s a common mindset to think that the holidays are a time to overindulge, but they don’t have to be. There will be extra temptations on the table and pushy relatives wanting us to have seconds, but you have the willpower to say no. You know what foods (and how much of them) leave you feeling your best. Have confidence in yourself, allow yourself to enjoy your favorites, and keep in mind these tips for a successful portion controlled Thanksgiving.