Beware the Buffet: Holiday Eating Tips

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

With the holiday season comes good cheer, jolly times and a bevy of buffet options.

Unfortunately, many of the choices are calorie-laden and void of nutrients. With a few strategies, you can stay festive while eating well and not forgoing favorites.


It may seem sensible to skip breakfast and lunch if your plans include a big family meal in the evening, but Julie Mellen, registered dietitian with Upstate Medical University, warns against it.

“Don’t go starving,” she said. “Navigating the party food or buffet is most important. Have a light snack before you go to the gathering.”

It’s far better to eat modest, balanced meals throughout the day with plenty of protein and produce so hunger does not drive poor food choices.

Mellen advises scoping out the buffet and selecting modest portions of favorites to “avoid wasting calories on things you don’t love,” she said.

Fill half the plate with vegetables and some fruit. Whole fruit is always a good choice. However, fruit “salads” with marshmallows or whipped topping pack plenty of sugar.

“Take the time to enjoy your food and conversation,” Mellen said. “Be mindful of your food choices, what and how much you are eating, your hunger and fullness. Slow down.”

Look for lean protein sources: turkey breast, shrimp cocktail, and salmon. Marbled beef, ham and processed meats are less-than-ideal choices. Protein should cover one-quarter of the plate.

Starches should occupy only one-quarter of the plate. Finding whole grain options may be difficult. Brown rice pilaf, whole grain rolls or sweet potatoes are a few examples.

How food is prepared also matters.

“Avoid foods that are deep fried,” Mellen said. “Stick with baked, barbecued and grilled.”

As at any meal, portion size makes a difference in caloric intake. Grabbing a smaller-sized plate from the dessert table can make it easier to control portions. If you’re dining at a restaurant, ask for half your portion to be boxed to take home or order an appetizer and a salad as your meal.


A holiday party or meal without dessert seems rather Grinch-like. Maria Winkworth, registered and certified dietitian and owner at Winkworth Wellness in Syracuse, advises that practicing mindful eating “by slowing down and focusing on the flavor and texture of your food” can help control the portion size of that favorite treat.

Many people unthinkingly drink far more calories than they are aware. Winkworth said that drinking water can both boost hydration and help balance high sodium foods. Alternate drinking water with caloric beverages to reduce the caloric intake.

Alicia Olsen, dietitian with Oswego Health, advises selecting pumpkin as the pie of choice, as it contains fiber, vitamins A and C and pure pumpkin puree is only 30 calories a cup. (Of course, pie has sugar and other ingredients that add to the calorie count.)

“Cookies will all have sugar and probably butter,” Olsen said. “But oatmeal will give you more fiber. Try to have a small serving. Try to avoid saying, ‘This is the last time I’ll have Christmas cookies for the year.’ You’ll probably have other times to have them so don’t feel you won’t have them again. It’s a season, not just one day.”

Many people give food gifts during the season, which can add up to many unwanted calories. But that does not mean you have to eat them all.

“You don’t want to seem ungrateful,” Olsen said. “It may be a more affordable gift option to bake your favorite cookies. Accept the gift. Maybe leave some out and freeze some so the gift lasts several months.”

You could also immediately open the cookies to share at the party or take the peanut brittle to another party, counting that present as a gift of time.

“Food is a big part of the holidays,” Olsen said. “It’s meant to be enjoyed. Take a small amount and move on from there.”