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Stay Healthy at Holiday Parties

holiday partyIt’s December, and that means it’s time for holiday parties. With the hors d’oeuvres, the seasonal beverages, and the stress that often comes along with the season; it’s easy to find ourselves falling into unhealthy patterns, only to struggle to claw our way back come January. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make some easy changes and stay healthy at holiday parties this year.

If You’re the Host…

As the host, you have a quite a bit of control over the potential healthfulness of the party. You get to decide what foods and drinks to serve as well as the ingredients that go into them. Here are some tips for hosting a healthier holiday party for you and your loved ones:

  1. Make healthy options available. Whether you are planning a dinner or just appetizers, go heavy on the vegetables and fruit. The more natural color you have on your serving table, the better. For fun ideas beyond the standard vegetable tray, check out this great collection from Food Network
  2. Use healthy substitutions in your recipes. Just about any recipe can be made a little lighter and more nutritious by making a few tweaks. Using low sodium broth, less sugar, whole grains instead of refined, or swapping out oil in favor of fruit puree are all great options. Check out this list for more healthy swaps.  
  3. Plan activities that take the focus off the food. There are many reasons why we eat, and hunger is only one of them. Just having food around is enough to keep us nibbling. After guests have had a chance to eat their fill, move the party away from the food. Play games, dance, or take a stroll through the neighborhood to look at the lights.
  4. Encourage guests to stand or dance rather than sit. By standing, dancing, or moving the body in some other way rather than sitting; we are keeping blood flowing and calories burning at a much higher rate.
  5. Keep food safe. Minimize the risk of foodborne illness by following safe food handling guidelines. Don’t ever thaw meat on the counter. Wash hands frequently when cooking or handling food. Disinfect any utensil or surface that has been in contact with raw meat or eggs before handling ready-to-eat foods. Lastly, be sure to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Food (especially meats, or anything containing eggs or dairy) shouldn’t be kept out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  6. Get rid of leftovers. Send extra food home with your guests, so you can restock your refrigerator with healthy foods right away rather than dragging out unhealthy temptation into the following week.
  7. Try to minimize stress. Planning and hosting parties can be stressful, especially with all of the other things you may have going on this time of year. Stress is often a result of high expectations, so go easy on yourself. Know that things don’t have to be perfect, and it’s ok to ask for help. And even though you may be busy, it’s crucial for your health (and your sanity) that you take time to take care of you!

If You’re a Guest…

As a guest, you might not have much control over the menu or the flow of the party, but there are still strategies you can use to stay healthy.

  1. Eat healthfully throughout the day, and don’t arrive hungry. If your party is in the evening, be sure to eat a healthy breakfast and lunch, and at least a snack beforehand. Focus on fruits, vegetables, and lean protein so you aren’t ravenous later on.
  2. Bring a healthy dish. Not only will your host appreciate the help, but by bringing a dish, you know that there will be at least one healthy item in a menu over which you likely have little to no control.
  3. Use a small plate or napkin for food. It’s easy to overeat at holiday dinners and parties. Studies show the smaller your plate, the less you eat. And it’s pretty much impossible to overload a napkin!
  4. Go for color. I’m not talking about red and green frosting on those Christmas cookies, but natural color from fruits and vegetables. Much of our holiday foods tend to come in shades of brown, white, and tan. While usually tasty, they are often high in calories, fat, sodium, and or sugar and low in overall nutrition. The opposite is generally true for dishes loaded with colorful fruits and veggies.
  5. Pop in some gum or a mint after you are finished eating. Not only will it freshen your breath, but by putting something minty in your mouth, you send a signal to your brain that you are done eating. It is much more difficult to continue snacking when you are chewing gum.
  6. Be smart about beverages. Whether you imbibe in alcoholic drinks or not, most seasonal beverages are loaded with calories. Egg nog, hot cocoa, cocktails, and even apple cider are usually full of sugar. Go easy on the drinks. Try to drink mostly water, tea, or coffee; and keep the others to no more than one or two small glasses. And of course, don’t drink and drive!
  7. Squeeze in some exercise earlier in the day. By staying active and exercising regularly, our bodies are better equipped for balancing out the occasional day of overindulgence. Try to get at least 30-60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. But keep in mind, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. So don’t use your exercise as an excuse to go completely overboard!

The holiday season can be a difficult time for staying on track with our healthy habits, and multiple parties can make it even harder. Whether you have one, two, or ten social gatherings to attend; it is possible to make it through to January with skinny jeans still intact. It all comes down to planning ahead and being intentional about following through on your choice to live a healthy lifestyle. You can do it. I’ll see you in 2018! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Sarah Wood, the author of this article, is available to speak to groups or hold classes on a variety of health-related topics such as nutrition, physical activity, healthy cooking, stress management, and wellness. To schedule an event or get more information, call 816-279-1691 or email woodsarah@missouri.edu.

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About Sarah Wood

Sarah Wood is a registered dietitian with a Master's Degree in Applied Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. When taking time for herself, she runs, travels, and creates art.

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