The Better Holiday Stress-Eating Guide

Before devouring your 17th Christmas cookie, consider the following.


Sure, there are presents and spiked eggnog and A Christmas Story playing on a continuous 168-hour loop on TV, but outside of that, the whole holiday season is pretty damn stressful. You’re spending money you don’t have and hanging around your family far more than you’d like, and with all of the other stress from the holidays, you’re bound to be stress eating, too. With that in mind, here’s a guide to keeping that holiday stress eating under control, lest you have to spend even more money buying new pants this winter.

Throughout the Season
Between office parties, going out with friends and attending family gatherings, there’s enough shindigs during Christmastime to get you plenty plump, but if you can get your day-to-day eating under control, it will help keep your waistline in check and help to get you disciplined come party time. Nutritionist Sean Salazar of Anywhere Gym suggests that, “You should get on an eating schedule. Whether it’s three times a day or five times a day — whatever it is — if you can have set times that you eat, that would really help to get that stress eating under control. For example, if you eat breakfast at 7:30 and then a snack at 10am, lunch at 12:30pm, the next snack at 3pm and then dinner at 6pm, then you can’t eat outside of those scheduled times.”

By doing this, Salazar explains that not only will it restrict your feeding times, but it will also train your body to get used to eating this way, and cravings to snack should decrease over time. If you start this early enough in the holiday season, you likely won’t overdo it during the parties as you won’t be quite so hungry. Salazar says that even if you do indulge at one party, though, it’s not going to harm you that much because you’ve been so disciplined otherwise. “I like to tell people to remember that it’s Christmas Day, not Christmas month,” he adds.

Before Going to the Party
While it might be tempting to skip a meal before the party so that you can make some extra room for those finger foods you like, Salazar advises eating beforehand on your normal routine — that way you won’t arrive to a party ravenous and overeat before you even realize you’re full. Additionally, Salazar says that whenever you go to a party, bring some food with you. “I never assume they’re going to have what I want to eat at a party. Plus, this lets you bring healthy options for you to snack on.”

As far as what to bring, Salazar says that his standby is the vegetable platter, as it’s always welcome in a party setting and most people are focusing on their signature pie or chicken wings or whatever other unhealthy stuff they’re bringing along. Aside from that, he might bring some fruit, and maybe some kind of lean meat, but that’ll likely be provided with whatever the main course is.

When You Arrive
“The first thing you want to do when you get to a party is drink a big glass of water,” Salazar says. Then, wait 20 minutes before you start eating. This helps to counteract that initial hunger you feel when you arrive to a huge spread. Water is an appetite suppressant — it helps to fill you up before eating, thus making you feel less hungry. So if you can hold off for that first 20 minutes, there will likely be much less overindulging when you do start to eat.

Salazar says that you don’t really have to swear anything off, it’s just about moderation. Also, how well you’ve been eating on other days can factor into the choices you make at the party. If you’ve been cramming down peppermint bark every day after very meal, you don’t want to go nuts at a party, but if you’ve stuck to a schedule and made more healthy choices, a little indulgence is okay.

If you’re a compulsive snacker — which many of us become at a family holiday party — Salazar says to hit up that vegetable platter and stick with that. You can pretty much eat that stuff continuously and be okay, but don’t do any ranch dressing. Got that? Yes, it’s delicious, but just one serving (two tablespoons) comes in at 140 calories, which completely contradicts what you’re doing.

Hummus might be tempting, and there are certainly worse things in the world than this seemingly healthy snack, but Salazar says that it’s not always easy to tell how much oil is in there. Plus, if you’re snacking on it with carby pita chips, you’re not really all that better off than you would be if you were cramming down those nachos. So don’t overdo it with the hummus and stick with veggies as your dipping device.

It also helps to keep that glass of water handy and to keep refilling it. If you’re craving some kind of oral fixation, that may be half the reason why you’re snacking so much. Instead crunching on chips, sip at that drink of water as your prop to get through that annoying conversation with your thankfully distant cousin. Plus, it’ll make you have to pee more, which provides you with the perfect way to duck out of that conversation and find five minutes of sanctuary in the bathroom.

What To Do
“Get yourself out of the kitchen,” Salazar urges, explaining that the more you’re around that food, the more you’re going to want to eat it. Find other ways to occupy yourself: If there’s a game of cornhole going on outside, join a round; if you’ve got nieces and nephews, play with them for a while — anything really. If all you do is stand around the food table, all you’re going to do is eat or think about eating, so get yourself something else to do!

When it Comes to Mealtime…
Spoiler alert: You’re really, really not going to like any of the advice that follows, but hey, it’s about as good as you’re gonna get when trying to do something as ridiculous as making Christmas dinner less unhealthy. To start with, the lean meats are probably going to be your best bet — especially turkey — so if you’re going to have a little extra of something, grab some of that (skip the skin though, sorry). Ham is generally the other option available, but while pork can be lean in something like a porkchop, holiday hams are generally fatty spiral hams which are smothered in some kind of sugary glaze, which is also cooked into the meat. Salazar says that not eating the skin of the ham will help, but there’s still plenty of that sugary flavoring throughout.

Similarly, when it comes to the side dishes, if you’re going for green beans, steamed green beans are obviously preferable to that ridiculous green bean casserole your aunt cooked up. If that’s your only option for greens, it does help a little to only grab what’s underneath. By skipping the fatty white stuff on top — whatever that is — you’ll cut down on the calories. Same goes for skipping those crunchy fried onion straws. 

Ordinarily super-healthy sweet potatoes, too, have likely been ruined by some old-timey, lets-clog-our-arteries recipe, so if you still want some, scooping out the stuff below the marshmallows will help. Mind you, this is just a minor difference, as there’s still plenty of brown sugar likely in there. You’re much better off going for simpler sweet potatoes — you know, where you can still see the potato — or roasted potatoes, which do have oil, but are generally not quite as bad.

When it comes to stuffing, that kind of stuff is rarely made with complex carbs, so it’s likely simple carbs you’re taking in, which become fat much more quickly. There’s really no common substitute for this kind of thing — which is why it’s only made once or twice a year — so if you want it, just go for one serving. Speaking of carbs, stick to just one roll and don’t go nuts with the butter. If you’re a wipe-the-gravy with your bread kind of guy, don’t get a roll until the end of your meal, almost like a finisher.

Oh, right, gravy. Gravy sucks. Sorry. It’s just fatty bad stuff, so skip it or use very little. Did we mention you weren’t going to like this section?

What We’ve All Been Waiting For: Dessert
Pretty sure you know what to expect here. It’s hard to find healthy options when it comes to desserts, so hopefully you’re confining your indulgence to this part of the party. Salazar says that pies are terrible for you: “They’re just about the worst holiday food. Even cake is better.” The problem is the crust, which is made with shortening, which gives it plenty of fat. It’s especially bad with something like apple pie that’s got crust around it and on top, so it’s a double whammy. If you must have pie (and you must!) go for one without another layer of crust on top and get yourself a small slice.

If you’ve got a sweet tooth and are still fighting cravings after that one piece of pie, go for fruit instead. Yeah, it’s lots of sugar, but there are a whole load of healthy vitamins and fiber in there too. Seriously, fruit vs pie in a healthiness face-off? Not even close.

Keep Some Boundaries with Your Booze
You’re stressed, so it’s cool if you take a drink or two to keep the edge off, but if you overdo it and end up needing a ride home from your big-mouthed cousin, you’ll be hearing about it for at least the next five Christmases, so try to moderate. If you feel pressured to drink, Salazar says that some club soda and lime plays the part of booze very well, so if you want to stop but don’t want to get ragged on by your hard-drinkin’ kin, go for that.

Remember also to get yourself a glass of water between each alcoholic drink, that way you’ll stay hydrated and slow yourself down. The goal here is to try to keep enough of a buzz to get through the night tolerably, but without passing out in a puddle of your own vomit in a snowbank outside. Like Santa wobbling across your icy roof, it’s a delicate balancing act.