For anyone trying to eat healthy, the holiday party can be a minefield.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Registered dietitian Denise Holston-West, director of LSU AgCenter’s Smart Bodies Program and an instructor in the School of Nutrition and Food Science, offers these party navigation tips:
Before the party
Plan ahead: As you go about your daily eating and exercise routine, incorporate more (exercise) or less (food) to account for a calorie splurge at a party.
Eat: Eat a small meal or a snack before the party so you’re less likely to overindulge.
Exercise: “We encourage people to be physically active throughout the day — as they normally should be,” says Holston-West. But, if you’re not normally active, it might be a good day to take a walk or fire up a dance game on the Wii.
At the party
Greet, don’t eat: “The reason that you’re going to the party is not to eat,” says Holston-West. “It’s to socialize and celebrate with loved ones or friends or to socialize and to be in the company of others.”
Location, location, location: Circulate. As you mingle, avoid hovering near the buffet table, bar or wherever food is served, which will make you more likely to graze and lose track of what you’ve consumed. Keep busy — volunteer to be the party photographer, coat check or help entertain the kids.
Pass on big plates: If more than one size is available, choose the smaller plate. It holds less food, so you’re likely to eat less — unless you make multiple trips through the buffet line.
Veg out: Try to fill half of your plate with — preferably, fresh — fruits and vegetables. These nutrient-dense foods have a lot of different vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. But watch the sauce. Dousing vegetables with ranch or blue cheese dressing ramps up the calories and fat content. Fat, however, helps your body absorb the food’s nutrients, so it’s OK to have a little dressing.
Seek out seasonal favorites: As you peruse the party spread, take just a taste of special holiday foods and savor them.
Then focus on dishes such as grilled shrimp, which is a lean protein, or smoked salmon. Save the calories for something festive.
Food prep: Always look for foods that are grilled, broiled, boiled or baked as opposed to fried, which is going to be higher in fat and calories.
Go skinny dipping: Avoid dips that may have added mayo or a cream base. Unless it’s made from a health-conscious recipe, spinach and artichoke dip is likely to have a high fat content.
A better choice would be hummus or salsa.
Too much of a good thing: Just because a food is healthy for you — with good vitamins and minerals — doesn’t mean it isn’t high in calories. Cheese is an excellent source of calcium. However, one cubic inch of cheese is about 70 calories; one slice is 114 calories. The calories can add up.
At the dessert table
Savor small sweet treats: “I’m a big believer that if you don’t treat yourself, you’re going to over indulge,” says Holston-West. “I recommend you have a small piece of dessert.”
That might mean a cake ball or a cupcake instead of a slab of doberge or another multilayer cake. Split a decadent dessert or indulge in a small brownie or cookie and really enjoy it.
At the bar
Mocktails and cocktails. Since alcohol can be high in calories and dehydrating, include some non-alcoholic drinks in your celebration. Try alternating alcoholic and zero-calorie, non-alcoholic beverages.
Bring on the bubbly: A flute of Champagne is about 75 calories, so it’s less caloric than a mixed drink with fruit juice and alcohol.
If you can have some kind of bubbly with wine, that’s also a good choice. With the added seltzer, there’s less alcohol content and calories.
Keep count: After too many drinks, some people stop keeping track of what they’re eating and the calories pile on.
When it comes to holiday nibbles, how do you plate up?
Pitting Olives Against Nuts: Both are both high in monounsaturated fat, which helps lower your bad — LDL — cholesterol. However, because they are so small, people typically eat a couple of handfuls of nuts. It’s easy to lose track of how many nuts — and calories — you’ve consumed. “Given the choice,” says dietician Denise Holston-West, “we suggest olives. Most people don’t eat handful after handful of olives. (Sometimes) they have the pits, so you can keep track of how many you’re eaten.”
Nuts are a good source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, she says, and they’re not a bad for you as long as you keep track.
To Brie or Not to Brie? Soft cheeses may be a smarter snacking choice than cubed cheese. “You’re not likely to consume as much,” says Holston-West, “because you might spread it on a cracker.”
For example, Brie has 57 calories per cubic inch versus 70 for hard cheeses. A cube of cheese is also more dense than a dip like hummus or salsa, so its concentrated calories come in a small package.