Navigating Nutrition Through the Holidays

by Stephanie Small, MS, LD, RDN

Nutrition Through The Holidays

Ah, the holiday season is upon us. The time of year of festivities, parties, family, and food galore! As we are entering the peak holiday season, you may be approaching that sense of trying to hold onto all the positive nutrition habits you have made over the past few months, with guilt following suit every time you have a sweet treat or you have thrown in the towel to restart again at the new year.

Due to the abundance of food and the change in environment, it is expected to eat a little differently. Overeating a bit over the holidays is a normal response and not something to feel guilty about. You should also not throw in the towel and forget about nutrition altogether. So how do we balance enjoying the festive foods and being purposeful with nutrition?

I prefer the approach that is neither extreme nor strict but approaches a balance that fits into your life! Here are my biggest tips for navigating nutrition this holiday season to help you maintain healthy nutrition habits, enjoy food, and come out guilt-free.

1. Enter the holidays without restriction but rather purpose.

Research has repeatedly shown that restriction of foods leads to overeating of that restricted food when exposed to it1,2. So rather than going to the holiday parties and festivities with the mindset that you won’t have any sweets or other enjoyable food, you are more likely to overindulge in that food item when presented with it.

Instead of riddling with guilt and anxiety over the food, enjoy foods with a purpose. Practice enjoying the foods you want to eat with purpose and not a restriction to minimize the chance of overeating. This may be easier said than done, but I encourage you to start to dismiss any restrictive food thoughts that may come about this year.

2. Stay ahead of your hunger.

DO NOT…I repeat…DO NOT purposely skip meals. The hungrier you get from skipping meals or going hours without eating (even if you aren’t hungry, which could be masked by caffeine, work, or other items) then, your ability to make a conscious decision about your food will go down and your reward center will more than likely pick the meal. That typically leads to overindulging in higher-fat and sugary food items.

To prevent making decisions out of hunger, I encourage you to keep snacks on hand, prepare as needed, or have go-to take-out options that you know are nutritious. This way, you can go to parties satisfied rather than ravenously hungry.

3. Eat both nutritious foods and still enjoy the foods you enjoy. 

Eating both nutritious and enjoyable foods can co-exist. It does not have to be one or the other. You can use the Canadian Food Guide3 as a guideline where you fill a quarter of your plate with protein, a third to half the plate with vegetables, and a third to a quarter of your plate with carbohydrates.

During the holiday season, this could look like your choice of protein, one to two sides of vegetable-based dishes, and a piece of pie representing a carbohydrate.

4.  Minimize mindless eating

With all the festivities and socializing, it can be easy to grab endless handfuls of chips or to keep reaching for the cookies without realizing how much you have consumed.

Instead, I encourage you to eat the food that you physically place on a plate for yourself. This allows you to portion out how much you want to eat rather than mindlessly reaching for food without awareness of how much you have consumed.

You can go back for seconds if you want, but the goal is to do so with purpose and plating the amount of food you want.

5.  Enjoy the holiday season and cut yourself some slack

The reality of life is that we can’t eat perfectly 100% of the time or even eat with purpose 100% of the time. But being purposeful and mindful in your eating habits some of the time is better than throwing in the towel. Think of your nutrition as a spectrum rather than things you do and don’t do (e.g., good or bad). It is better to eat with purpose when you can, rather than stress out overindulging throughout the holiday season.

Getting through the holiday season can be stressful enough for many; don’t let food add to your stress unless there is a medical reason or other reasoning (e.g., dieting for a bodybuilding competition); enjoying the holiday season will not derail you from your nutrition and health goals!

Happy holidays!


  1. Avena NM, Murray S, Gold MS. Comparing the effects of food restriction and overeating on brain reward systems. Exp Gerontol. 2013 Oct;48(10):1062-7. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2013.03.006. Epub 2013 Mar 25. PMID: 23535488; PMCID: PMC4013785.
  2. Zhang X, Wang S, Liu Y, Chen H. More restriction, more overeating: conflict monitoring ability is impaired by food-thought suppression among restrained eaters. Brain Imaging Behav. 2021 Aug;15(4):2069-2080. doi: 10.1007/s11682-020-00401-8. Epub 2020 Oct 8. PMID: 33033984.

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