A holiday meal with fruit, meat, olives, and wine.

For all the joy—and delicious food—that the holidays can bring, the time can also be somewhat stressful if you’re watching your weight or managing a health concern, such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure.

You don’t want to make food the enemy, but it’s good to play a little dietary defense. These are the tips I give to others and use myself to keep on track.

1. Stock the fridge. It’s true that the holiday season and tempting treats go hand in hand, but you probably won’t be faced with them every day. If you have plenty of healthy ingredients—vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit—you’ll have an easier time making your meals extra-healthy. That will help offset those gingerbread cookies or that slice of pumpkin pie.


2. Have a food gift strategy. You don’t have to immediately eat all the cookies, breads, and chocolates that friends and neighbors deliver during the holiday season. Many goodies freeze well, so you can enjoy them over the next few months rather than the next few days. If possible, divide the treats into individual portions so that you only defrost as many servings as you need.

3. Don’t skip breakfast. It’s a common practice to skip early meals on a big day of eating, fasting in advance of the dinner ahead. But this approach has a high probability of backfiring; people often end up overeating later. Instead, opt for a sensible morning meal—say, oatmeal, yogurt, and a piece of fruit—and if your celebration is in the evening, eat a light lunch midday. The last thing you want is to show up to dinner starving.

4. Start with a drink ... of water, that is. Your brain sometimes has trouble distinguishing thirst from hunger, so at parties and holiday dinners, sip a glass of water before you have a cocktail or eat anything. And if you do drink alcohol, stick to one or two, sipping a glass of seltzer between each one. That will keep you hydrated and slow your intake. Or try a spritzer: Mix half red or white wine and half seltzer or club soda in a glass. Add a slice of lime and you have a festive drink with half the calories and alcohol.

5. Be smart about appetizers. At cocktail parties, stick to three or so items (or six if the appetizers are doubling as dinner) to keep calories in check. Skip the fried foods and go for items like shrimp cocktail, vegetable-stuffed mushrooms, or hummus and veggies. Before holiday meals, go easy on the munchies. Do you really need to eat 5 ounces of cheese and then sit down to dinner? If you’re the host, you have more control over what’s being served, so try putting out something small and healthy—such as nuts, olives, or a crudités platter—for people to nibble on with drinks.

Go to Consumer Reports' 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.

6. Survey the buffet. Many holiday meals are served buffet style, with a variety of dishes on offer. The typical advice is to have a little taste of everything, but there’s some research that shows this can leave you feeling less satisfied. When you’re exposed to too many different flavors in a meal, you don’t feel as full as quickly, and you eat more. My tactic is to choose two or three favorite foods, especially those I don’t get to enjoy year-round. Food is so much a part of the season; this way the meal feels special and I don’t feel as though I’m missing out.

7. Eat your veggies first at your meal. You’ll fill up on foods that are packed with vitamins and minerals and lower in calories, leaving less room for less unhealthy stuff. It doesn’t need to be boring, though. For instance, if dinner is at your house, try making the first course a festive seasonal salad, with goodies like pomegranate seeds, clementines, toasted nuts, and candied citrus peels mixed in with the leafy greens.

8. Make some simple swaps. There are all sorts of ways to insert healthier ingredients into your meal without sacrificing much by way of flavor. For example, use balsamic vinegar and olive oil instead of store-bought dressing, which is often high in sodium. Yogurt can replace sour cream in creamy dips or on baked potatoes. Blend cauliflower into your mashed potatoes. Have stuffing or a roll and butter—but not both.

9. Take a walk between dinner and dessert. For some families (mine included), this is a holiday tradition. It’s a nice way to bond with relatives and helps you sneak in some activity. But it also does more. It takes some time for the brain to recognize how much you’ve eaten. If you go straight from the meal to dessert, you may not realize how full you actually are—and you’ll probably enjoy dessert more if you aren’t completely stuffed.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health