Autumn concept with seasonal fruits and vegetables

Autumn harvest concept. Seasonal fruits and vegetables on a wooden table, top view

Eating healthfully during the holidays can be a struggle for many reasons. Whether traveling, planning social gatherings or managing the busyness of the holidays, eating healthy can easily be put on the back burner. The demands of the holidays can be overwhelming, which makes it even more important to make nutritious food choices.

Before arriving at a family gathering, assess your hunger level. According to the 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article, “5 Healthy Eating Tips for the Holidays,” it is important to follow a regular meal schedule rather than skipping meals. Do not plan to skip meals to prepare for a feast, as it may lead to extreme hunger, making one more likely to choose high-fat food options and overindulge. Consider eating a snack before the event if a meal will not be served at your routine time.

If hosting a holiday party or cooking a meal, be sure to incorporate various fruit and vegetable options for guests. When attending a gathering, take the lead in making healthful food choices and offer to bring a dish. Prepare a vegetable platter for an appetizer, cook a delicious vegetable for the dinner table or prepare a fruit salad for dessert. A healthful dish does not have to sacrifice flavor.

MyPlate, the USDA’s food guidance system, is based on the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and offers simplified and easy-to-understand advice for building a healthy plate. This holiday season, make half of your plate consist of fruits and vegetables. Vegetables are a vital source of potassium, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin A and vitamin C. Nearly all vegetables are naturally low in fat and calories, and they all help maintain the body's health and reduce blood cholesterol levels. Fruits are also sources of essential nutrients that many do not get enough of, including potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C and folate. Be sure to incorporate fruit into your holiday meals and desserts. It may be helpful to start by filling up your plate with plenty of fruits and vegetables before incorporating other higher-calorie sides or protein foods.

According to MyPlate, protein foods and grains should make up the other half of your plate. Skinless turkey and chicken are sources of lean protein that you may see this holiday season. Try incorporating plant-based proteins as well, including beans, peas and lentils, for a variety of nutritious offerings. All these protein foods function as building blocks for healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa or farro make a great side dish to create a balanced meal. Try a brown rice stuffing or a stuffing prepared with whole-grain bread. Consuming whole grains as part of a healthy diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and support healthy digestion.

MyPlate recommendations include limiting added sodium. Avoid adding excess gravy to keep your meals low in sodium and heart-healthy. Instead of seasoning dishes with salt, use herbs and spices such as garlic powder, black pepper, paprika, basil or red pepper flakes. There are endless options for creating a flavorful, low-sodium meal.

Beware of dishes that appear to be healthier options, but potentially hide saturated fat, such as green bean casserole and mashed potatoes prepared with butter and cream, or those with added sugars, such as candied sweet potatoes. Another source of unnecessary calories is beverages. When eating a calorie-dense meal, avoiding high-calorie additions, such as sugary drinks, is best. Consider replacing these choices with water.

Aside from eating a well-balanced meal, portion control is another important factor for feeling good through the holiday season. Choose a smaller plate if given the option, to avoid over-filling a large plate. Aim to make vegetables, fruit, and whole grains the focus of the meal with small portions of higher-calorie dinner and dessert options. It takes the body approximately 20 minutes after eating to realize it is full, according to the CDC article. To combat this, eat slowly and appreciate every bite of food. Notice the different flavors and aromas while enjoying the company around you.

Although it is important to eat healthy, you should not deprive yourself of your favorite holiday foods. Do not feel guilty about enjoying a small piece of a special holiday dessert. You may consider that pumpkin pie is the healthier choice over cheesecake, which is richer in sugar and fat. Although it is tempting, do not stuff yourself simply because there is a lot of food on the table. Listen to your hunger and fullness cues, and eat accordingly.

Holiday gatherings are often centered around the meal; however, avoid putting too much emphasis on the food. Focus on connecting with the people you care about to direct the attention away from the food and prevent overindulging. Spending time with loved ones is what is most important.

Blair Bower is an intern with Penn State Extension summer intern.

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