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Guilt-free holiday eating in 7 easy steps

Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News' health editor, says these tips are easy to master and allow you to indulge smartly, no matter what situation you’re in.
Image: Turkey Dinner
Thanksgiving Roast Turkey DinnerLauriPatterson / Getty Images

Like most people, when I think about the holidays, one of my top thoughts is about food. There are so many favorites packed into just a few weeks! They remind me of my childhood, family traditions and happy times.

But unlike many people, I no longer feel guilty about all the treats, indulgences and “fun foods” during the holiday season. And I’m encouraging everyone to replace the words “I shouldn’t be eating this because …” with “I’m allowing myself to enjoy this.”

My motto is “no bad foods, just bad portions.” The key is planning ahead, and these seven easy steps can really help. They are easy to master and allow you to indulge smartly, no matter what situation you’re in.

Give yourself permission.

While structured eating is a good idea, rigid eating is not – and only leads to deprivation and overeating. Acknowledge to yourself that this is a happy season for lots of things – including eating – and it’s OK to allow yourself to enjoy (smartly) all the treats of the season. Forget the idea that this is just like every other time of year, no exceptions, as that’s a sure recipe for guilt when temptation calls. When you’ve already given yourself permission to indulge – under your own control – it’s a big step towards maintaining that control throughout the season.

NBC News Health editor Madelyn Fernstrom, left, talks to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.
NBC News Health editor Madelyn Fernstrom, left, talks to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.Miller Hawkins

Think before you eat.

This doesn’t mean don’t eat, it means make a better choice. Be mindful before you reach for food, and think about the act of choosing your food, and eating (and enjoying) it. That short pause gives you the time to figure out what you’re really looking for. And, sometimes you might actually be thirsty, not hungry – a very common source of confusion.

Learn to barter.

Adapt the thinking that you’re not going to choose every treat at the same time. First, prioritize your food choices to what you’d really enjoy the most. Next, figure out some good swaps that work for you and keep you content and satisfied. For example, decide whether you’d rather have an extra roll, or a glass of wine. Stick with a clear soup if you’re planning on an indulgent dessert.

Pre-plan your eating.

This starts with NOT skipping meals. The idea that skipping a meal (or starving all day) in order to have a guilt-free eating evening never works. It always leads to being over-hungry, eating much more than you intended and even more guilt.

When you pre-plan your eating day, you’ll be prepared for what foods mean the most to you. And remember to eat about 100 calories before going to a party or event. While you might think “why waste those calories?” it’s the perfect way to take the edge off hunger, and allow you to think before you eat, and start bartering! This also means mental preparation. Have the thought in mind that you’re not going to have seconds of indulgent foods, but you’ll allow yourself to choose and enjoy a small portion and limit second helpings to lower calorie options.

Be a taster.

The first bite or two is always the most satisfying, and we have learned to eat a serving “because it’s there.” Nothing is better for downsizing portions that using a smaller spoon. Especially at buffets, swap out the ladle or giant spoon for a tablespoon. You’ll get enough for a taste or two and will savor and enjoy it. This works with everything from salad dressing to potatoes to mac and cheese or a chocolate soufflé.

Eat what YOU want – not what others want you to.

While many people believe that food is love, show your affection in other ways. Stick to your own favorite foods – you’re not eating for two people’s favorites. Have a few lines down pat to say no. This takes practice, but you can learn to do this. There’s no guilt in refusing food – and don’t let it become that. To avoid potential hurt feelings, you might say that you already tasted it, and it’s delicious, or that you’ll take some home for later because you’re so stuffed (and never take it home). You can always take a teaspoon for a taste to make a very special someone (like your grandma!) happy. Bottom line: you’re not obligated to eat because someone asked you to.

Take a walk

While it’s not a good idea to count on exercise to burn off your extra holiday eating, it’s smart to use small bouts of activity as a built in “escape valve” when you’ve had a little too much indulging! You can offset some of those calories with small bouts of activity, like taking a 20 minute walk and burn about 100 calories. Watch a favorite show and walking (not power walking or running) on a treadmill or strolling outside with a friend can burn off about 300 calories.

Enjoy the holiday eating season. It’s a time of year when food tastes especially good, because you’re enjoying them with friends and family. It’s important to maintain those happy food memories and traditions alive. You really can enjoy it all and not feel guilty!

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.