20 Best (and Worst) Bets on the Holiday Buffet

Plus: Our top tips for handling stress and temptation

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

The opportunities to eat around the holidays seem endless. Couple the abundance of in-your-face tempting food with the stress of a to-do list that's out of control, and it's no wonder that we often pack on the holiday pounds.

But this year, it's going to be different, right?

Having a plan for handling all the things you need to do, in a short period of time, will help keep you sane. A few ideas to help ease the stress: shop by catalog, send out the same holiday newsletter to everyone on your list, and limit your social calendar to allow some down time. And remember, your fitness routine is a priority, even when you don't think you have time. Exercise helps you cope with stress while it burns calories and keeps muscles strong.

The 80/20 Rule

Once you gain control of your to-do list, the next (and probably the biggest) hurdle is figuring out how to enjoy the bounty of food without triggering a six-week eating frenzy.

I'm a big believer in striving for "social weight maintenance" over the holidays. That means allowing some flexibility in your eating plan so that you can enjoy your favorite holiday foods. One of the reasons the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic works is that we don't ask you to give up your favorite foods -- foods that are available in great quantity at this time of year.

To maintain during the holidays, not gain, follow the "80/20 rule": 80% of the time, you follow your eating plan to the letter, but 20% of the time, you may indulge in small portions of those once-a-year favorites. And 100% of the time, do at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity.

Best Bets on the Buffet

Making smart choices allows you to eat plenty of food, and not feel deprived. Here are my picks for the best and worst holiday food choices:

Best Bets Worst Bets
Crudities with salsa or low-fat dressing Chips, creamy dips, anything fried
Pretzels, popcorn, baked chips Cheese straws
Handful of plain nuts Handful of candy or candied nuts
Fresh fruits Fried veggies, wings
Shrimp cocktail, clams, oysters, smoked salmon Fried seafood
Low-fat cheeses on water crackers or Melba toast High-fat cheeses and crackers
Vegetable or broth-based soup Cream soups or bisques
Baked sweet potatoes Sweet potato casserole
Cranberry relish or gelatin salad Cranberry sauce
Mashed potatoes with a dab of gravy, or a baked potato Lots of gravy with your mashed potatoes
White-meat turkey without skin Dark-meat turkey with skin
Lean meats without visible fat Processed meats, sausages, fatty meats
Simply prepared veggies Veggies in cream sauces or casseroles
Cornbread-, oyster- or fruit-based stuffing Stuffing with sausage
Whole-wheat dinner rolls Croissants
Pumpkin or mincemeat pie Pecan pie with whipped cream
Fruit sorbet, sherbet, or frozen yogurt Cake or ice cream
Apple cider, mimosa, or bloody Mary Eggnog
Chocolate-dipped strawberries Fruitcake or fudge

My Personal Party Strategies

My goal is to be at a good weight before the holidays commence. Halloween is my official start date. If my weight is not satisfactory, I exercise more and swear off wine with dinner as well as all sweets and treats. All the extra Halloween candy is given away, and I keep temptations around the house few and far between.

Over the years I have subscribed to a few basic rules whenever I go to a buffet or party:

  • Always wear a snug-fitting outfit that does not easily expand. Carry a clutch bag that keeps one hand occupied.
  • Eat a small but filling meal before leaving home, so I can resist the hors d'oeuvres.
  • If I don't love it, I don't eat it. This is my golden rule at all times. I hate wasting food, but I hate extra pounds more.
  • No lingering around the buffet table, bar, or appetizer or dessert display.
  • Limit cocktails to two, with sparkling water and lime rounding out the evening.
  • Engage in mindful eating: make a plate of food, sit down, and enjoy. This helps me recognize when I'm full and means I'm less likely to mindlessly eat the rest of the evening.
  • Follow the 80/20 rule and indulge -- but just a little, and no second helpings.

I Can't Believe I Ate That!

The best-laid plans sometimes fail. If you go overboard, don't beat yourself up. Just brush it off, learn from it, and try not to let it happen again.

Establish your own personal ground rules and do your best to stick to them. Keep up your journal, exercise daily -- and relax, the holidays are supposed to be fun! Enjoy.

Originally published Nov. 18, 2004.
Updated December 2006.


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