Rich, delicious food is inevitable at most gatherings this time of year, but overeating at every meal doesn’t have to be. You heard that right. You can—and should!—enjoy that slice of pie, glass of eggnog, or whatever it is you look forward to. But enjoying your favorites doesn’t mean that you have to gain the 1.3 pounds that the average American piles on between Thanksgiving and the new year.
The key is not overdoing it. Which, believe it or not, is easier than you think. Next time you’re gearing up for a holiday gathering, put these simple tricks to work. They’ll help you focus on eating the right amount for you instead of rolling home with a way-too-full belly.
1. Sneak in a workout before the party.
Yes, you’ll offset some of the extra calories you’re about to eat in the form of butter and starch. But there’s more to it than that. Though it seems counterintuitive, exercise might actually help to make people less hungry. When researchers had subjects sweat it out for a 15-minute interval workout and then told them they could eat as much pizza as they wanted, they ate about 100 calories less compared to subjects who spent the pre-meal period just resting.
There’s a psychological element at play too. “More than likely, if you’re exercising, you have a goal in mind,” says Sarah Pflugradt, RD. As a result, you might be more motivated to make healthier choices to avoid undoing that hard work.
2. Guzzle a big glass of water.
It takes up space in your stomach, so there’s literally less room for food. And it really works: When subjects in one British study drank 16 ounces of water 30 minutes before mealtime, they reported feeling fuller than those who skipped the H2O. (They lost more weight over the course of the 12-week study too.) Bonus: Staying hydrated will help combat the dreaded holiday bloat that can come from loading up on sugary, salty fare.
3. Promise yourself a reward.
This is one instance when mind games can really pay off. Decide on a healthy eating goal ahead of time—like having either mashed potatoes or stuffing or trying just one dessert. Then promise yourself a non-food reward if you stick with it. Spa, anyone?
It sounds deceptively easy, but it’s effective. Subjects who were promised money before a meal if they didn’t overeat were strongly motivated to choose a half-portion plate instead of a full portion one, found one University of Chicago study. And—here’s the clincher—they still didn’t overeat later on after getting their money.
4. Think small plates and big forks.
If you have the option to serve yourself on a salad plate instead of a dinner plate, do it. Less space means you’ll automatically pile on less food—as much as 45 percent less, according to some findings. And less food means less of a chance to come away from your meal feeling stuffed.
While you’re at it, grab a big fork or spoon. Weirdly, using a larger utensil can actually help you keep your portions in check, found one University of Utah study. Psychologically, small utensils don’t seem to do as good a job at satisfying hunger while we eat, so you might be tempted to go back for more.
5. Hold off on alcohol until after you eat.
Ever chowed down on pizza or cake after you had too much to drink? Us too. Alcohol lowers your inhibition (ooh, I’ll have two peppermint cupcakes!), especially when you drink on an empty stomach. What’s more, emerging research suggests that it also blocks chemical signals in the brain that regulate fullness—making it hard to know when you’ve had enough. So it’s no surprise that booze-fueled junk food binges are a thing.
To avoid Drunk Overeating Syndrome (not actually a real medical thing, but it sure feels like it), just wait to have a drink until you’ve had something to eat. Food will slow the absorption of alcohol, so you’ll be able to think clearer and remind yourself that, no, having an entire plate of cheese is not a good idea.
6. Sit next to the health nut.
You’ve probably heard about the studies that show people are more likely to go all out on junk if those around them are indulging. (Everyone’s getting fries—I might as well get them too!) But the opposite can be just as true. Research shows that our eating choices are strongly affected by those around us—for better or for worse.
So take advantage of your ability to be easily influenced and find someone who will steer you toward healthier choices. Get in the buffet line next to your veggie-loving cousin or sit next to that aunt who always leaves a few bites on her plate. Chances are, you’ll mirror their behavior without even realizing it.
7. Have a pause-before-seconds rule.
No one says you can’t fill up your plate a second time if you really want to. But instead of doing it right away, wait at least 20 minutes. It takes about that long for partially digested food to reach the small intestine and trigger the release of hormones that signal feelings of fullness, experts say. If you still want more after taking a break, go ahead and help yourself. But by that time, you just might find that you’re satisfied after all.
8. Stop food pushers with positivity.
Even if you’ve managed to make smart food choices, it’s tough to avoid those well-meaning folks who want you to keep eating more, and more, and more. So next time Grandma insists that you take a third scoop of creamed spinach, turn her down by telling her how great you feel right now.
“If you say ‘I can’t’ or ‘Gosh, I’m so fat,’ you’re bound to get pushback,” says Georgie Fear, RD. But if you tell them that you’re at the perfect level of fullness and are feeling really good? “That’s hard to argue with. What can they say—no, I want you to feel worse?”
Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to enjoy your food this holiday season, but keep these small, simple tips in mind because they can really add up to big differences in the long run (i.e., come January 1 when you want to start your resolutions on the right foot).