Every holiday season, we vow that this will be the year that we don’t throw out every healthy habit we’ve cultivated. Then we’re faced with busy days, boozy parties and indulgent meals featuring all our favorite seasonal foods. Before we know it, we’ve fallen into a familiar, far less healthy cycle of too much sugar, sodium and stress.
Believe it or not, a balance between totally indulging and absolutely abstaining from the seasonal foods and drinks you love is possible. It takes advanced planning, says Beth McCall, a certified specialist in sports dietetics based in Durham, N.C., but she insists that none of us has to let the holiday season derail our healthy habits.
“I use the idea of fueling your body, whether you’re an athlete or not,” McCall says. No matter what your daily activity level looks like, the best approach to healthy eating is to continue fueling with nutritious foods consistently throughout the day. Of course, how you do that might differ from one day to the next, so McCall shared her tips for staying on track no matter what your schedule throws at you.
Healthy Home Habits
First, you need to have the right foods on hand, and that starts with your cart. To shop smart, stick mostly to the perimeter of the grocery store where you’ll find produce, meats and dairy. “That’s the answer, really — building a plate full of healthy, wholesome, whole foods,” McCall says.
After you’ve brought home your groceries, there’s more work to be done. “A good tip, especially during the holiday season when you’re running around from one event to the next, is prepping or bulk batch cooking,” McCall says. Setting time aside one day a week to chop up your vegetables and prepare some of your lean proteins will make it easy for you to build a quick plate when you’re short on time.
On days when you have the time and inclination to whip up one of your favorite holiday recipes, take a moment to consider whether you can make some healthy tweaks by swapping out an ingredient or two. McCall likes replacing sour cream with plain Greek yogurt, using an olive oil-based dressing rather than a creamy one in salads and, for baking, using applesauce or banana in place of oil.
Charleston, S.C.,-based dietitian Mia Syn is also a big fan of swaps. One of her favorite tricks is to lighten up holiday dishes by adding veggies. “Try replacing half the potatoes in your mashed potato dish with cooked and mashed cauliflower, puree butternut squash into your mac and cheese sauce or use spaghetti squash in lieu of pasta in your favorite holiday noodle dish,” she says. She’s noticed the emergence of meat and veggie blends in the consumer packaged goods market, too, which helps people decrease their meat consumption — and increase their veggie intake — without missing out on the foods they love.
That doesn’t mean every indulgent dish needs a makeover, says McCall. “If you’re having your grandma’s famous apple pie that she makes once a year, don’t recipe swap it. Enjoy that!”
What about the times when you’re not in charge of the food being served, like at a dinner party or holiday gathering? “Don’t arrive on an empty stomach,” McCall says. “You’ll get there, see all this food and be really hungry, take big portions and potentially overeat.”
McCall also has advice for building the perfect party plate. “When you’re first going through the buffet line or building your plate at the party, start with small portions of the foods you want to try,” she says, noting that now is the time to sample the special foods you rarely see. “Then you know what you really like — and after you finish your first plate, if you’re still hungry, you can go back and choose just the ones you really enjoyed.”
And enjoyment is an important part of the equation. “Slow down and actually take that time to enjoy the family and friends around you,” McCall stresses. “That allows you to slow down, enjoy your meal and listen to your body. Your body will tell you if you’re full or if you still want more.”
When it comes to cocktails, beer and wine, a good rule of thumb is to alternate a glass of water with every alcoholic drink, says McCall. “It slows you down a little, for one, and helps keep you hydrated — and that helps in the longer term.” She also likes incorporating nutrient-dense mixers, such as orange juice or a tart cherry juice, like Cheribundi, into mocktails and cocktails, along with seltzer water. “(Cheribundi) has antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in there, so your calories aren’t entirely empty calories,” she says.
Stocking up on produce and other fresh foods is never a bad idea, but some packaged foods can also help make healthier snacking and sipping simpler, says Rachel Krupa, founder of The Goods Mart, which she calls a socially conscious convenience store. “Consumers are savvier now than ever before,” she says. “We know that what we consume has a direct impact on our health. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the growth of better-for-you brands through innovations utilizing ingredients that are less processed and more nutritious.”
Krupa sees other exciting trends emerging in this space. “There is also growth of products healthy not only for you, but also the planet, with regeneratively farmed ingredients, (and) upcycled and fair-trade foods, such as Goodfish, which upcycles salmon skins,” she says. Additionally, she’s seeing nutritious ingredients from other cultures being introduced in the U.S., such as Ancient Provisions, which uses green banana flour in its Cheddar Cheezish crackers.
Ancient Provisions founder and CEO Alex Duong saw the growing popularity of green banana flour during his time at Thrive Market, an online organic retailer. In addition to being allergen-free and naturally prebiotic, the product is also relatable — people around the world are familiar with bananas. “But even more importantly, it’s got a similar texture to wheat flour,” Duong says, and since his company focuses on buying bananas from farmers to be sent directly to mills as much as possible, farmers are “not cleaning and prepping the bananas for retail. They’re prepping for the mill to be processed immediately,” he explains. “They don’t have to worry about them becoming too ripe or being disfigured, which inherently saves up to 20 percent in waste saving.”
In other cases, the inspiration strikes closer to home, as it did for Tommy Kelly, co-founder of Sound, an organic sparkling beverage company, and his wife, Lauren, a registered dietitian. While working as a nuclear engineer, Kelly found himself craving something cold, crisp and caffeinated, “but without the garbage,” he says. “I looked at my sparkling water and then looked at my tea, and thought, why can’t I carbonate that?” Turns out, he could — and after buying some loose leaf tea and a SodaStream machine, he did.
Sound also focuses on sustainability and giving back. They’ve avoided using any plastic bottles throughout the supply chain, but now, they’ve taken that commitment a step further. “Earlier this year, we made a decision to completely eliminate the plastic shrink-wrapped trays that most canned beverages come in, and instead, use a cardboard box,” Kelly says. “It’s more expensive for us, but it was important to eliminate all that plastic waste.” They also recently began a new partnership with EcoCart, which allows customers to add a small amount, often less than a dollar or two, to offset the carbon emissions of their order.
And outside of their own product, Lauren says they have a passion for partnering with organizations to improve food access. “We’ve been working with Wellness in the Schools for a handful of years, primarily through a program called WITS BITS, where they provide nutrition education and cooking demonstrations to the kids throughout the school day,” she says. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some changes to these programs, of course, but Sound continues to give back with donations and by using social channels to highlight other organizations that make it easy for people to make a difference.