10 Healthy Holiday Party Tips

Your guide to a guilt-free winter bash.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I know that not everyone feels this way, but I personally love to attend and throw holiday parties. The holiday music twinkling in the background, those festive fashions, and time to visit with people you don't see often -- what's not to love?

Some might also think that a holiday party is not the place to highlight health. I beg to differ. What makes a party special is the people, the conversation, and the dancing (if you're lucky) -- not the high-cal desserts or greasy finger foods. It is possible to throw a healthy holiday party that will please most of your guests. (I say "most" because there are always a few people who are impossible to please, no matter what!)

That said, here are my top 10 tips for throwing a healthy holiday party. Adopt as many as you like -- the more the merrier!

1. Offer no- and lower-calorie drinks galore so your guests have lots of healthy options. Here are a few to try:

  • Holiday tea
  • Diet soda
  • Mineral water
  • Coffee
  • Light beer and wine spritzers made with club soda
  • Holiday punch made with diet soda (like ginger ale or lemon-lime soda) and/or light cranberry juice

2. Serve fruit and vegetable trays. For appetizers and dinner, I use the 50% rule: I try to cover 50% of the food table with fruit and vegetable dishes. Here are some winter options for your fruit and veggie arrays:

  • For fruit trays or fruit salads, try apple slices (spray with lemon juice to prevent browning), orange slices or wedges, melon cubes, grapes, canned pineapple, and cherry or grape tomatoes.
  • For raw veggie trays, try jicama, baby carrots, celery sticks, sugar snap peas, broccoli, and cauliflower florets.

3. Keep dips and spreads as light as possible by substituting nonfat sour cream, light cream cheese, light or low-fat mayonnaise, and low-fat yogurt for the more caloric versions.

4. Look for ways to add beans to your dishes to beef up the fiber and plant protein, which will help your guests feel fuller faster. It's easy to use beans in salads, casseroles, and appetizers. One of my favorites is a light 7-layer dip that features canned, nonfat refried beans.

5. Serve whole grains or whole-grain blends. You can use half whole-wheat flour in nut breads, muffins, and even cookie recipes. You can use whole-wheat blend pastas, whole grain crackers, and whole wheat (or whole wheat blend) dinner rolls. Check the ingredient list and the fiber grams on the nutrition information label for the rolls and crackers to make sure you are getting a product with at least half whole wheat and more fiber.

6. Serve lean meats and fish. There are lots of festive meat options that are lower in fat (and saturated fat) and high in protein. Try cooked shrimp served with cocktail sauce, roasted sliced turkey breast, lean ham, and sliced lean roast beef. Grilled or broiled salmon filet makes a great appetizer when served with whole-grain crackers.

7. Dish up lighter (or littler) desserts. Let's be honest: it wouldn't be a holiday party without holiday desserts. So make it easy for your guests. Serve light desserts when possible, and offer dessert trays with bite-size samples. When serving up desserts, think about portions that are two to four bites -- just enough to taste and enjoy. Your guests can always have more! You can use cupcake papers to hold bite-sized portions (small-sized cookies and even cake or pie can be cut into petite portions). You can also use mini cupcake pans to make bite-sized cupcakes, cakes, brownies, and cheesecake. Also, keep dessert embellishments light when possible (try light vanilla ice cream, fat-free or lite Cool Whip, etc).

8. Encourage physical activity (G-rated, of course!) at the party. It depends on the type of party you're having, but possibilities include:

  • Dancing.
  • Holiday caroling or a moonlight, candlelight, or flashlight walk around your neighborhood (weather permitting).
  • Pingpong, billiards, foosball, or other games that involve some action.

9. Offer light condiments on the buffet. Try spicy mustard, light or low-fat mayo, barbecue sauce, cranberry sauce, fruit chutney, relishes, and so on.

10. Have an appetizer and dessert party or a dinner/buffet party instead of serving appetizers AND dinner AND dessert). When faced with too many food options, most people will eat too much. And while we're at it, go ahead and banish candy dishes from the party. As long as you have other food on hand, you won't need them. People can have candy any time of year.

BONUS TIP: Have small plates out at your buffet or dessert/appetizer table to encourage people to serve themselves smaller portions. But I'm warning you, some people will still pile every possible morsel onto their small plate. I've seen people at a holiday reception stack dozens of cookies onto their small plates, creating a Christmas tree of cookies.