How to Have a Stress-Free Holiday Eating Experience

I share a variation of this post on how to have a stress-free holiday eating experience almost every year. I figure it’s worth updating and re-sharing because I know it’s something that’s on some of your minds right now, what with the month of December being a whirlwind of holiday parties, dinners, cookie swaps, etc.

So – how do you enjoy the holidays in a way that embraces the deliciousness of the meals/parties but also leaves you feeling good, both physically and mentally? How can the holiday eating experience be joyful, not stressful?

how to have a stress free holiday eating experience

So many websites and magazine articles tell us how to avoid this and deny ourselves that around the holidays, turning situations that should be fun into stressful internal battles of will. I saw a couple blog posts recently recommending things like “weigh yourself every day!” or “wear your tightest clothes so you will be uncomfortable and won’t eat much!” or “avoid anything with cream!” or “only make/bring food you hate!”

Seriously?! This is the advice being given out now? All things that will make people feel extremely guilty, unhappy in their bodies, and like food is the enemy? That makes me really sad. (See also: Why You Should Throw Away Your Scale)

So – to counteract that advice, here are a few of my tips for enjoying what the holiday season has to offer food and drink wise – without stressing yourself out, feeling guilty, or waking up with sugar or alcohol hangovers.

How to Have a Stress-Free Holiday Eating Experience

1) Place nothing off limits.

Yes. I realize this is counter to most of the advice out there.

But for the mindful and intuitive eating approach to work, you have to truly allow yourself to have whatever you want, and without guilt.

When a food is off limits it becomes MUCH more appealing. And if guilt is involved and you DO end up eating that food, the “screw it, I’ve already had a bite and ruined everything so I’m going to eat the entire party and have a thousand cocktails” mentality appears.

Give yourself permission to get pleasure from food. It’s okay! Food is supposed to be fun, not stressful. Remember?

how to not be stressed out at a cookie swap

That said…

2) Don’t ever go to a cocktail party or arrive at a holiday dinner absolutely starving.

I know a lot of people try to “save up” all day before a big holiday meal or cocktail party – eating a super light breakfast and lunch and no snacks to try to cancel out the calories that they’ll be consuming that evening.

Friends: this approach is a terrible idea.

It’s impossible to make sound eating decisions when you’re absolutely ravenous – and potentially even worse, you don’t enjoy the food/drink you’re indulging in because you’re too hungry to eat slowly and pay attention. Going to a holiday party or dinner starved is a sure fire way to end up uncomfortably full.

The day of a holiday party or dinner, I eat normally, but especially focus on high quality foods – lots of veggies, protein, healthy fat, and unprocessed grains. If I know I’m going somewhere where there will be a lot of appetizers but not a full dinner, I make sure to have a little something to eat right beforehand – usually something with veggies and protein to fill me up a little, like a small salad with chicken or beans or some veggies with hummus or guacamole. That way, I can arrive at the party/dinner calm, and then…

3) Assess which indulgences are really worth it and stay checked in while you eat.

When you arrive at a party (or buffet-style dinner), first, do a lap – what’s there? What are your options?

Then, ask yourself whether the food or drink that you’re considering enjoying is something that will be really worth it.

This does not at all mean that guilt should come into the equation or that we should be assessing options based on calories. Rather, are you thinking of eating/drinking whatever it is because you will really enjoy it/it will enhance whatever experience you’re having, or just because it’s there?

Not being completely ravenous per #2 will help a lot with taking time to assess your options and picking only favorites to enjoy.

how to not be stressed out by buffet holiday dinners

Too often we indulge not because we really want to but because we’re on autopilot or feeling awkward and just want something to do with our hands. It’s easy to mindlessly eat and drink at holiday gatherings, and simply stopping and checking in goes a long way. I’ve had clients tell me that when they actually started to pay attention to what they were eating or drinking, they realized they didn’t even like it – or that just a few bites was perfect.

Indulging in food is one of life’s greatest pleasures – but make sure what you’re having is actually something you enjoy, and that you’re not just having it just because you’re bored/distracted/uncomfortable.

And by all means – if you find you don’t love something as much as you thought you would, don’t finish it!

4) Stop when you are satisfied, not overfull.

This is another place where being mindful and really checking in with your body is important. You can’t tell if you are satisfied/don’t need any more if you aren’t paying any attention, or if you are eating too quickly, right?

The key here is to eat slowwwwwly. As you are eating (or drinking), take frequent pauses. To help with this, physically set down your silverware, plate, or drink and take a deep breath. Check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Do you want more? Are you just having more because it’s there? Is your stomach starting to get full? Are you thirsty for water vs. another cocktail?

Give your body time to catch up by taking these pauses and checking in with yourself.

If you’re eating something really delicious, it’s even more important to slow down, so that you are fully experiencing it! If you really want more of anything, you can always go back for more, but sit and wait it out to give your body a chance to catch up.

Making sure you have some veggies/salad on your plate will help with feeling satisfied before you are stuffed, too. :)

how to not be stressed out at holiday dinners

Finally, if you do overindulge – forgive yourself.

There’s no point beating yourself up for something that has already happened. Learn from the experience, and take that knowledge as a reminder to be more mindful next time. You’ve got this!

What are your best tips for a positive and stress-free holiday eating experience?

p.s. If you enjoyed this post, you might also find these helpful:


  1. 1

    LOVE this post! It really makes me crazy hearing people talk about how they are going to eat for the holidays- it’s a celebration people not a restriction party! I preach mindful eating with my clients as well and definitely reiterate tip #2 all the time for any type of party. Have a great Thanksgiving in the Burgh :)

  2. 3

    Anne, amazing post!! I agree with you whole-heartily, Thanksgiving is one day, and should be treated as such. I find it SO disheartening when I hear “nutrition pros” with these restrictive guidelines for a holiday meal, food is meant to be enjoyed… I hope more dietitians will start spreading your values to their clients and the media so we can talk about food from a place of enjoyment and fun, and not restriction and decreased self-value if you eat “bad” foods or over-indulge one day.

  3. 5

    Agree with this post! I wrote a similar one last week about Healthy Holiday Tips. I look forward to the holidays where I can enjoy some tasty treats I don’t otherwise make. It’s a time for celebration!

  4. 7

    Ann, this is great! Too often I see articles talking about how to “diet” over the holidays. Boooo. Eating is part of the spirit of the season. I eat what I want, try not to over indulge, and don’t worry about it. Everything will even out in the new year. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

  5. 9

    Excellent post….preach it, sister! :o) My husband and I will be keeping these facts in mind over the holidays, and I will pass it on to clients as well. Your blog is one of my go-to’s for inspiring and factual information for healthy lifestyle. (We took your suggestion for a running route in D.C. over the summer…such a beautiful area to run.) Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. 11

    My biggest tip is to load up my plate with roasted or steamed veggies! That way I can still have some room for the delicious not-so-healthy stuff but not an empty plate. It also helps me make sure that I’m still getting plenty of nutrients during the holidays. Ive noticed that a lot of holiday food isn’t the most nutritious, calories aside.

    On a side note, I was wondering if you get asked about those “natural supplements” as part of your RD service. I’m not interested on buying any but they keep popping up on my social media accounts. I have googled them to find their ingredient list and can only find sponsored posts.

    • 12

      I’m not sure which natural supplements you’re referring to, but I’m not a supplement fan in general. Unless you have a medical condition necessitating supplementation, we can get all the nutrients we need through food!

      • 13

        The one that keeps popping up is Plexus. My friend has lost quite a bit of weight, very rapidly and I grew a little concerned but when I googled it, I was unable to find a non-biased, non-sponsored review.

        I’m not a big fan of supplements so I was wondering if you would happen to know anything about it!

  7. 15

    I refuse to do any more holiday eating tips that involve ingredient substitution and foods to avoid. Recently I rejected the healthy holiday eating topic and instead focused in on the pumpkin flavor boom aka sugar bombs with cinnamon flavors.

  8. 16

    I am so glad you covered this topic! I hate hearing people say “I can’t eat Thanksgiving dinner because I’m on a diet”…are you really going to punish yourself and NOT eat the most delicious meal of the year because of some restrictive diet?? I love the idea that things are okay in moderation. Thanksgiving is one day a year so indulge away :)

  9. 18

    I like to keep it all in moderation and if I have something on my plate that I don’t like once I try it, I just leave it and don’t force myself to eat it. I also like to add in some additional exercise to help offset the food!

  10. 20

    From one RD to another, I LOVE this post! One of the saddest things to me is when people are made to feel bad about enjoying their favorite foods or participating in holiday/family traditions. Thank you for posting this!

  11. 22

    Love this post!

    I feel like I’ve seen way too many articles as of late about how many minutes you’d need to exercise to burn off something you ate.

    This is very refreshing and a realistic approach to the holidays!

  12. 23

    Glad I read this post yesterday, because after I did I got an update from another fitness blog I follow that framed the next six weeks of the holiday season as some kind of epic battle against weight gain and carbs.

    If eating mashed potatoes and stuffing on Thanksgiving is wrong, then I don’t wanna be right! Also, if you’re eating normally and non-restrictively throughout the entire year, Thanksgiving doesn’t feel like your one chance eat something fun for a change. For me, it’s just a meal that has traditional components. I don’t stuff myself ’til bursting anymore, because I can have leftovers tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day if I want.

    And I often go for a run or something in the morning because it’s fun, the dog needs a workout, and I’ll likely be pretty sedentary for the rest of the day; not because I need to burn off calories to compensate for dinner later.

  13. 25

    Awesome tips – just what I like to read and tell people. Sharing now! Happy Thanksgiving!

  14. 26

    Thank you for sharing!

  15. 27

    Anne, could you have more sensible/amazing advice? :) I absolutely love your “before the holidays” posts like these. I’ll be keeping these tips in mind tomorrow! Thanks for the great post.

  16. 29

    Thanks for the tips. I feel we should enjoy the foods we love but in moderation so you don’t deprive yourself, especially at parties. Enjoy the holiday season and have fun!

  17. 30

    Very sensible, thoughtful, wise post, Anne. Thanks!

  18. 31

    What a great post! I’m always talking to my clients about the same things. Another tip I really like is to try and not think of the meal as “just once a year.” I think when we have this mindset, we glamorize and place too much emphasis on the meal itself, which creates a feeling that we HAVE to indulge and sometimes overindulge! It is very likely that we WILL get to enjoy Thanksgiving again and probably even similar foods at Christmas time. I also think it’s important to realize we CAN create and make this food at ANY time throughout the year. So, it doesn’t have to be “just once a year.”

  19. 33

    great minds think alike! i literally made a packet of information for an event at work next week for hospital employees to leave with, and it has all the same information you just shared :)
    hope you have a great holiday, anne!

  20. 35

    This is an awesome post!! I can recall many many years ago thinking of not eating much throughout the day so that I could really enjoy the dinner. To say I was stuffed is an understatement. I felt so ill! It’s taken me quite a long time to learn how to enjoy this and other holidays, but last year I felt wonderful about it. I no longer placed so much emphasis on the meal, and it turned out wonderful. I appreciate this mindset so much, and as an RD, I vow to spread the message. I’m so grateful for you, Kylie, Kath, and others who are a voice of reason. It is just one day. It won’t make or break anything, it’s still just dinner, so live and enjoy. Life is too short not to!

  21. 36

    I used to get anxiety about Thanksgiving and the limited number of healthy options because my family tends to stick to the same, heavy dishes. Now, I am just planning to bring a healthy apple and cabbage slaw of my own and fill my plate with small servings of each of my favs! Balance for the win :)

  22. 38

    I like to go in knowing ahead of time what I’m excited about and what I’ll pass on. For example, I discovered I really only love a limited list of wine varieties. If the wine they’re serving isn’t one I like, I’ll ask for water or club soda (no more warm chardonnay!). I’ll also always make time for homemade baked goods, but if it came mass produced from a grocery store, I’ll pass. Certain parties have certain specialties every year, I find, so I like to focus on what’s special about what they’re serving and not eat or drink anything just for the sake of it.

  23. 40

    Placing nothing off limits is the key. It’s so hard to have forbidden foods – I learned the hard way. I never used to like cakes and cookies but after dieting a few years ago, I’m obsessed with them.

  24. 41

    It is so difficult but so important. Unfortunately I am always busy and I am living in hurry. Someday I will start day in correct way :)

  25. 42

    Love, love, love! There are too many delicious things to eat at this time of year to put a big old serving of guilt on your plate! I’m so glad I am going into Christmas this year with a mindful eating/intuitive eating mindset so that I can truly enjoy my eating experience without the shame hangover the next day! Thanks for the wonderful holiday advice Anne. I’ll be sharing this post with everyone I know!

  26. 44

    What a great post. I’m a mental health therapist who works with folks with ED and disordered eating, and every year, I am more and more frustrated when I notice how many magazines and blogs have nonsense (read: diet-culture based) approaches to “handling” the holidays. So triggering and rooted in shame. No wonder it’s so hard to recover. It brings me so much joy to see other professionals discussing approaches like IE that WORK and make sense, and come from a place of self-compassion.

    That was a super wordy post! Mostly I just wanted to say that you’re killing the game and I appreciate your presence on the internet. Happy Holidays!

    • 45

      Thank you so much, Caitlin! And I appreciate you, too, and thank you for your work with ED and disordered eating patients – so important!

  27. 46

    Yes! Spread this message! You have a great way with words to communicate this message!
    I haaaaate the nutrition tips like subbing out sugar for Splenda.

    • 47

      Aw thank you! And yeah, ugh – I’ve gotten SO MANY email pitches from PR firms with titles like “how to diet this holiday season!” etc etc. Depressing!

  28. 48

    Such good tips, & this is totally how I approach the holidays (or any dinner party for that matter). It has taken me a loooong time to get here, though (to a healthy intuitive eating mindset). The reason it (finally!) works for me is because I have come to realize that 1 indulgence (even a big pig-out at a party) is not going to translate to a weight gain as long as I eat healthy & exercise the rest of the time. I also enjoy the indulgence a lot more know b/c I don’t feel guilty or beat myself up about it. In fact, my body is at its best when I do indulge from time to time… I don’t crave it during the week now – in fact I “crave” the healthy stuff 99% of the time b/c it makes me feel good. Thank God I’ve finally gotten here – it was a long painful journey. Have a great Thxgiving Anne!

  29. 50

    I am trying to be more intuitive while eating.

    I want to also journal what i eat.However any apps that i have come across has calorie counting.Do you know of any app/journal which doesn’t force you to calorie count.

    • 51

      Yes, I would check out the app “Rise Up and Recover” – it’s meant for eating disorder recovery, but it’s great for anyone because it prompts you to log your emotions along with your meals. With intuitive eating, what’s going on around the meal emotionally and in terms of distractions, hunger, and fullness levels, is even more important than what you are actually eating. :)

  30. 52

    I loved this last year and am sharing again on my Facebook page. I hope more people spread these messages and ultimately squash those horrible so-called recommendations!

  31. 54

    I like to cradle a fancy glass of water as I socialize.. that way I feel like something I can put in my mouth while others are snacking, but don’t feel too weighted down afterwards!

  32. 55

    Love this advice! I think one thing for me that really helps, too, is remembering that you don’t have to eat at every party, especially if they are back to back. At one time, we used to have 3 dinners to go to in a day, and the feeling was always to eating SOMETHING so you didn’t offend the host or the cook. I have come to believe that fellowship is more important that whether or not I eat at the meal, especially if I’m stuffed from the last one. A simple, “No thank you, I’m already stuffed. But I’ll take a drink/water if you have it,” should suffice. I think most people can relate to having to go to multiple occasions and are probably more understanding than we give them credit for.

  33. 57

    Wonderful, common sense, thoughtful advice, Anne, thanks!

  34. 58

    Great approach! The holidays should not be a miserable guilt trip. I tend to start the cocktail hour at parties with sparkling water with a slice of lime or lemon because it looks festive and gives me something in my hand so people aren’t always offering to get me a drink. Also, I have rosacea so I tend to look like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in photos if I have alcohol. That’s not to say I don’t have a glass of wine with dinner – by then I figure the cameras are put away. ;-)
    I hope we can all enjoy the holidays as a time of fellowship, fun and sharing good food with family and friends!

  35. 60

    This is spot on & so well-written! I can’t believe those things are recommended. So sad. Give me a fun, comfortable outfit & food that I enjoy. Life is precious & does not need guilt with food.

  36. 62
    Janae Baron says

    This post is everything. Sharing it tomorrow. You do so much good.

  37. 64

    I loved this post! I meant to send you this article before Thanksgiving (saw it in the NYT then) but forgot to until now. Anyway – it made me think of you and the work you do when I read it. Hope you have a happy holiday and thanks for the reminder that holiday food is meant to be enjoyable, not stressful. Here’s the NYT article (called “Go Ahead. Eat Your Holiday Feelings.” in case the link doesn’t work and you want to find it.

    • 65

      Ah, I love that article – thanks for sharing! The author, Christy Harrison, is awesome and does amazing work in the Intuitive Eating space. Check out her podcast, Food Psych, if you haven’t yet! She’s a fellow dietitian.


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