Shari Bresin knows a thing or two about food.
After all, she’s the Family & Consumer Science agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension Pasco County.
She shares her knowledge about food and nutrition on a regular basis in The Laker/Lutz News, through her column, “What’s Cookin.’”
So, when we asked her to offer some pointers on how to navigate through the family gatherings, restaurant meetups and holiday parties — while keeping a rein on calorie-intake — she happily obliged.
Obviously, holidays can be a hard time to avoid overindulging.
“This time of year, we’re bombarded with food that maybe we’re not normally encountering,” Bresin says. “We’re around a lot of extra food.
“Then, on top of that, a lot of us are going out, or, we’re going to be out of town,” she says.
The challenge to maintain a healthy eating regimen can seem daunting.
It’s not just a question of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s dinners.
There are office parties. Happy hours. Dinner parties. Meetups at restaurants.
The list goes on.
Still, it is possible to indulge in the festivities, without falling into a food trap, Bresin says.
She offers simple strategies, which are helpful during the holidays and can turn into healthy habits that are useful throughout the year.
First things, first: Know what to expect
“What I like to do is, I always check the menu out ahead of time, if I’m going out, or if somebody’s hosting me,” Bresin says.
When she’s invited to someone’s home for dinner, she says: “I will usually ask: ‘What are you making, so I know what to bring.’”
That helps you to plan in advance — making it easier to maintain healthy eating.
She also offers these words of advice to help you avoid sabotaging your best-laid plans for that holiday feast.
“A lot of us like to starve before our Thanksgiving meal, which seems to make sense in our head,” Bresin says.
But that strategy can backfire — making you too hungry, which sets you up to go overboard at the buffet, Bresin says.
Instead, she recommends you begin your day with protein and fiber.
“Something like fruit and nuts, that’s always a really good go-to. Or fruit with a little bit of peanut butter, like apples and peanut butter. You’re getting some fiber. You’re getting some protein.
“The fiber will take some time to pass through your stomach, so we feel like we’re still full.
“The protein also helps with feeling full,” she says.
“Just go slow and steady and keep yourself nourished and hydrated, just prior to the big Thanksgiving feast,” she adds.
Of course, whether it’s at the holidays or any other time, there are additional pointers that can come in handy.
Find ways to give yourself nutritious options
If the host is having a potluck, you can bring something healthy that you will enjoy, she says.
“My eating patterns are probably a little more strict than the average person. Anyone that invites me to their house or to a restaurant, they know that about me,” she adds.
It’s a source of good-natured ribbing.
She volunteers: “‘Oh, I’ll bring the healthy stuff.’ Or, ‘Let me make the salad.’ Then, at the very least, I know I’m getting that healthy salad that I brought over, that I made.”
Before dining out, Bresin says she checks to see what’s on the menu that she would like, then she looks to see if there is a way she can make the calories more nutrient-dense — in other words — make her meal healthier.
“For example, on Saturday, I wanted something that was high in vegetables. I didn’t really want a salad because I eat that at home twice a week anyway, so, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m out, let me have something different.’
“They had a spaghetti dish, but it had no vegetables in it. It was weird, I was at an Italian restaurant.
“So, I asked for pasta primavera, even though it wasn’t on the menu.
“They had no issues. They added the vegetables, which was fine,” she says.
It may feel intimidating at first, to make a special request, but Bresin notes it’s really not a big deal.
“I’ve never seen a restaurant have any issues with it. They want to be accommodating. They want you to have a good dining experience.
“I’ve never encountered anybody who said, ‘That can’t be done.’
The key, she says, is to speak up about your needs or preferences.
It’s also important to think about substitutions to make your meal more nutrient-dense.
“Can you add vegetables to this? Can you add cheese?”
Or maybe you can switch out the fresh bread that’s offered with a helping of veggies with hummus, she says.
The key is having reasonable requests and not trying to rewrite the restaurant’s menu.
“I don’t eat dairy, so I’ve asked to hold any cheese-based sauce,” she says. She’ll ask: “Can this alfredo sauce be tomato sauce? Make really simple requests, and places will do it.
“As you get more comfortable, it’s really, really easy,” Bresin says.
Have fun, but choose carefully because every calorie counts
Whether you’re eating at home or dining out, pay attention to what you are eating, and how much, Bresin says.
Portion sizes in restaurants can be two to three times a normal portion size.
“Drinks add up. Appetizers add up,” she says.
“So, it’s very easy, especially on the day of Thanksgiving, to go over.
“I think I read somewhere that we have something like 3,500 calories on average, for a Thanksgiving meal, and if you only need 1,800 or 2,000 calories a day, you can certainly see how that is way in excess of what we need,” she says.
Studies have been done to track the weight gain that occurs from November to January, Bresin says. As it turns out, holiday weight gain is not as bad as some people imagine.
The challenge is shedding those excess pounds after the holidays, she says.
“Whatever weight we do gain from November through January, we don’t seem to be losing after January. That’s where it can turn into a problem,” Bresin says.
Make healthier choices when dining out
Instead of fried seafood … try broiled, grilled or pan sauteed fish.
Instead of red beans and rice with sausage … try red beans and rice without sausage.
Instead of Egg-drop soup … try Wonton or hot-and-sour soup.
Instead of cream soup … try broth-based soup with lots of vegetables.
Instead of French fries or potatoes with gravy … try baked sweet potato, steamed vegetables, potatoes without gravy or a smaller order of French fries.
Instead of a hot fudge sundae or ice cream … try nonfat yogurt, sherbet or fruit juice. Or, share a dessert with all of the family.
Instead of fried chicken … try grilled chicken.
Instead of quesadillas … try chicken fajitas.
Source: American Heart Association
Small changes can make a big difference
These suggestions from the American Heart Association can help be helpful ways to control caloric intake when dining out:
- To avoid overeating, place half of your food in a to-go container as soon as it is served. Or, order a smaller portion, such as an appetizer-sized serving.
- Choose water or unsweetened tea, to avoid calories in your beverage.
- Ask if a smaller dessert size is available.
- Skip the buffet and order from the menu.
- Eat slowly. Put your utensils down, in between bites, to help prevent overeating.
Source: American Heart Association