To indulge or not to indulge? That’s the million-calorie holiday-soirée question. With canapé trays to the left, cheese trays to the right and champagne cocktails sparkling in every corner, navigating through the dozens of temptation-filled parties this season can be as tricky as admitting that you think Zac Efron is kind of hot. But you don’t need to rely solely on Spanx and an iron will this winter. ELLE reveals the healthiest choices on the buffet table and behind the bar so that you can balance your packed party schedule with staying healthy and still fitting into your favourite Balenciaga cocktail dress.
Planning starts before you even leave the house. Eat protein-rich foods that are low in fat at regular intervals throughout the day, and have a light snack-like almonds or low-fat cheese (such as mozzarella or goat) before heading out the door. “You’ll arrive comfortable and prepped to make better food decisions,” says Derek Johnson, a dietitian and nutritionist in Los Angeles.
And remember, overindulging on sugary, high-calorie cocktails can quickly catch up with you on the scales. “Here’s the evil trick about alcohol,” says Johnson. “You can ingest 500 to 700 calories’ worth of drinks and still be hungry.”
Aim to load up half of your plate with veggies (such as baby tomatoes, red pepper strips, carrots and celery), which you can eat with a healthy dip like hummus (moderate in protein), salsa (low in calories) or chicken liver pâté (both low in fat and high in iron). Divide the other half of your plate into a mix of carbs and protein, which will give you good energy, not the empty kind you get from sugar and processed carbs.
On the canapé front, flag down waiters bearing trays of sushi, cold cuts and shrimp cocktails – all low-fat, high-protein options. Miniature beef or chicken burgers get the okay from Johnson as well because they’re packed with protein, which will keep you feeling full longer. To lessen the carb impact, eat only half the bun, which you can dip into an olive or hummus spread for added protein – a key building block for healthy cells and muscles. Smoked salmon is another great hors d’oeuvre option. “It’s full of healthy fats like omega-3s, which assist with healthy brain function – something we all need more of during the stress of the holidays,” Julie Daniluk, a nutritionist in Toronto.
When faced with the dessert table, martyrdom isn’t necessary, says Johnson. “Eat the fruit from the tart, but leave the pastry crust behind,” she says. “Eat the flan, not the cheesecake – it’s the worst.”
If you’re having a tipple, white-wine spritzers will help stay hydrated. “The calories in the alcohol are diluted,” says Jessica Begg, a registered dietitian in Vancouver. Gin, rum and whisky are low in sugar, but watch what they’re mixed with: Many fruit juices are packed with fructose and added sugars.
Or, make like 007 and order a martini: Traditional martinis with olives, as well as vodka with soda water and a splash of cranberry juice, have zero fat, says Begg. Bloody Marys have a manageable 120 calories and no fat.
READ MORE: Another reason to quit drinking diet pop right now
Snacking during the cocktail hour? Reach for almonds and walnuts: They’re higher in fat but the monounsaturated kind, which can help reduce your risk of heart disease, says Jessica Begg, a registered dietitian in Vancouver. They’re also an excellent source of magnesium, protein, potassium, calcium and vitamin E.
When it comes to the traditional roast dinner, go easy on gravy and mashed potatoes, which are usually laden with cream or butter. Instead, load up your plate with veggies, such as peas, sweet potatoes and spinach (which are packed with nutrients), and turkey. “Turkey is a great low-fat protein,” says Begg, who recommends choosing the lower-fat white meat over brown.
Stick to small portions when you’re debating over the ubiquitous cheese plate, advises Begg. She recommends choosing a few pieces of the protein- and calcium-rich treat and moving swiftly to another part of the room. “It’s easy to overeat when it comes to cheese,” she admits. Still, you don’t need to abscond completely. “Soft cheeses are lower in fat than hard cheeses, so choose goat or mozzarella over cheddar.”
Red wine is high in polyphenol-a potent antioxidant – but, like champagne, it falls higher on the sugar-content list. If you need a glass of something bubbly, try Sparkling Brut from Wolf Blass, which contains considerably less sugar than other sparkling-wine varieties. A cup of hot chocolate made with low-fat milk and 70 percent chocolate is a reasonable way to indulge and up your antioxidant intake for the day.
Canapés are mini in size but not always mini in calories. Begg advises passing on anything pastry-based, especially mini-quiches or sausage rolls. “Pastry crust is made with lard or butter and has very little nutritional value,” she says. One mini-quiche clocks in at 100 calories and a whopping 10 grams of fat. (Health Canada recommends 45 to 75 grams of fat a day for the average woman.)
READ MORE: 6 steps to getting a better sleep
“It’s best to avoid any rich or creamy sauces, which are high in fat and calories,” says Daniluk. Try tomato-based sauces instead. During dessert, skip profiteroles, cream-filled pies and heavily iced cakes, which are loaded with fat and sugar.
“Eggnog is the ultimate disaster,” says Daniluk. “With 350 calories and 20 grams of fat, it’s the caloric equivalent of a small meal.” Margaritas are also bad news. They contain more than 300 calories and 26 grams of sugar. Bottom line? “The key to surviving is moderation,” says Johnson. “Saying no for one night doesn’t mean forever.”
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.