eating healthy holidays

9 tips from Pittsburgh nutritionists for healthy (and delicious) eating at the holidays

Photo above by Toa Heftiba via Unsplash.

Like last year, Light Up Night arrived even before Thanksgiving this year. The holiday season seems to be growing, but that doesn’t mean that our serving sizes and our waistbands need to expand, as well. There are festive — and healthy — ways that we all can celebrate, enjoying our traditional cookies, pies and dips while also taking good care of ourselves and our families.

We’ve entered a season of delicious foods, and that’s a wonderful thing.

“It’s holiday time, and people aren’t gifting carrots,” says Leslie Bonci, Pittsburgh dietitian and nutritionist.

The key during December, Bonci says, is to “control what we can – in some cases it’s in our home – which doesn’t mean making a police state.”

Laura Cordero, a pediatric dietician and nutritionist for the Allegheny Health Network, says the holidays provide plenty of palate-broadening opportunities for the entire family: “Being in a social setting is a great experience for letting kids try new foods,” Cordero says.

Here are some tips for enjoying all the holiday foods, while keeping celebrations happy and healthy:

• Involve kids in kitchen activities like letting them mix ingredients or melt caramels for sliced apples, Bonci says. Teens can host their own “potluck” where everyone in their group of friends contributes taco fixings or other types of “bowl” components. It’s engaging, and they are selecting what they want to eat.

• Be mindful of kids’ portions versus adult portion sizes. Offer children one delicious cookie with an orange or a (protein-filled) glass of milk (like Santa), instead of serving them five or six cookies and ultimately spoiling dinner. Talk to kids about how their holiday snacking is going to fit into the day’s menu, Bonci suggests.

• Don’t arrive at a party hungry, because that hunger may cause you to eat even more of the high-calorie foods and desserts on a buffet table. Another reason to eat before a party: Sometimes the meal served at a holiday party isn’t something kids like, Bonci says. So have a small, healthy meal beforehand. Or, Cordero says, eat some fruit and yogurt (for protein and fiber) earlier on party day.

• Brighten up charcuterie boards – conventionally heavy on meat and cheese – with sliced peppers, fruit, yogurt-based dips and hummus. These items look great and are good for you.

• Pause before going back for seconds. “It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to trigger your mind that you are full,” Cordero says. Then go for those extra veggies, following up with a dollop of mashed potatoes.

• Traveling to visit family? Pack a cooler with your own non-perishable protein foods like cheese or turkey cubes and less messy dip options like hummus. A thermos of soup will fill everyone so there isn’t a beeline to the cookie table upon arrival at grandma’s, Bonci suggests.

• Focus on exposing toddlers to the season’s flavors – everything from cinnamon to savory, Cordero suggests. “They may not like green beans at home, but they might enjoy that green bean casserole,” she says.

• For safety, be aware of where smaller items like grapes, nuts and other choking hazards are located on tables and within a room at a gathering to ensure they are out of reach of smaller children. Also, let your host or hostess know about any food allergies. And if allergies are an issue, don’t hesitate to bring some of your own food. For example: “If there is an egg allergy, you might not want to do baked goods,” Cordero says.

• Get up and move as a family. All holiday activity doesn’t need to be centered around the kitchen. On December evenings, gather the family for a crisp neighborhood walk before dessert, Bonci suggests. Or make time for ice skating or chopping down your Christmas tree this year.

“Enjoy it!” Bonci says. “The gift of family time, whether it’s around the table or out in nature, it’s still family time.”

Also: Share the love. If you receive chocolates or cakes or other food treats as gifts, or have a lot of these items around your house, gift some of them to a food pantry instead of letting them sit around until Valentine’s Day.