Healthy Holidays! Buffet Survival Strategies

What’s the holiday season without a party, right? Navigating a buffet table laden with enough food to feed the neighborhood is no easy task, but we’ve got some helpful strategies that will let you enjoy the party without derailing your healthy eating habits.

Cheese Platter
Camembert and Gouda Cheese with Wine / Stephanie Berghaeuser / Used under standard, royalty-free license

Prime Yourself with Protein

We’ve all heard the advice about not going to a party totally famished, but what exactly should you eat before setting out to the soiree? Short answer: protein. Why? Protein is filling and provides actual nourishment—a smart move before you’re faced with the dessert table. For the record, fat is also satiating, but I’m not going to tell you to eat more fat. I figure if you’re going to a party, you’ll likely have that covered. (Most protein foods have some fat mixed in with them anyway.)

Here are some ideas that are quick and easy to snack on before you set out for the party:

  • Sliced turkey breast rolled around a pickle
  • Low-fat yogurt and small handful of raw nuts
  • Hard-boiled egg and a piece of low-fat string cheese
  • Slice of wheat toast topped with nut butter

Have a Drink…of Water

Yes, water helps keep you feeling full, but it also hydrates you. Between heated rooms, dry air and alcoholic beverages, lots of folks are dehydrated during the winter and don’t realize it. So before you head to the party, drink a full glass of water. At the party, if you’re going to drink alcohol, go for drinks that are mixed with soda water or seltzer—it will dilute the alcohol’s effects and cut calories at the same time. Rather have the holiday punch? Alternate each alcoholic drink with a glass of water or seltzer (toss a wedge of lime or other suitable garnish into your glass to make it more festive).

Survey The Scene

Take a quick walk around the buffet table and peruse the offerings. Your goal is to choose a pleasing selection of special foods that are also on the healthful side of the holiday eating equation. Piling a “little bit of everything” on your plate as you make your way through the line is not a sensible strategy, though you might hope that it counts as “portion control.” It doesn’t, and often leads to an overfilled plate and an overstuffed you. Also figure out a nice place away from the buffet table where you’ll hang out and chat with people, or better yet, mingle and move around.

Make a Plan

Choosing foods that you don’t normally get any other time of year is smart. Do you really need more chips and onion dip in your life? Why choose a sugar cookie when you could have a homemade truffle, or one of Aunt Jan’s rum balls? You get the idea—save your calories for those things that are special, ones that you wait all year to have (or have always wanted to try). It’s a matter of planning to make each calorie count, and getting the most satisfaction out of your choices.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Instead of cheese and crackers, choose marinated boconcchini/basil cocktail skewer
  • Instead of spinach and artichoke dip with bread, choose a piece of smoked salmon on a mini pumpernickel  crisp bread
  • Instead of homemade seasoned snack mix, choose homemade spiced nuts
  • Instead of cocktail sausage, choose a homemade meatball
  • Instead of a chocolate chip cookie, choose a gingerbread or other “holidays-only” cookie
  • Instead of beer, choose champagne or hot, spiked cider

Downsize The Dinnerware

Research shows that eating from smaller plates and bowls does help us eat less food overall. Here are a few ways to keep portions in control:

  • Ditch the dinner plate and reach for an appetizer or dessert plate instead
  • Choose a straight-sided glass if you have a choice. A recent study showed that participants who drank from glasses with straight sides consumed their alcoholic beverages 60% slower than those drinking from curved-side glasses. Also, taller, narrower glasses give the illusion of having a bigger drink—so opt for the highball over the old-fashioned glass.
  • Dessert forks, toothpicks, small spreader knives and other diminutive serving and eating utensils make it easier to take smaller portions from the platters (and seeing the empty toothpicks on your plate are a visual reminder of just how many meatballs you’ve already sampled.)

Ample holiday party buffets are the stuff of nightmares for many people who are working hard to stick to a healthful eating plan, but they don’t need to be. Just keep these simple tricks in mind and you’ll be heading the right direction to cruise through the holidays without feeling like you’ve overindulged or deprived yourself at the festivities.