How to Build a Healthy Plate at Holiday Parties

The thought of maintaining a healthy diet during the holiday season can seem daunting, even to the most seasoned nutrition experts. But one way to ensure you stay on track and eat a well-balanced dinner at your holiday dinners this year is to focus on one main goal: getting a good mix of different foods.   

In order to help you balance your plate at upcoming gatherings, I challenged myself to follow the MyPlate guide to building healthy meals at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner this year.

From the experience, I learned that controlling portion sizes and getting the right mix of healthy foods at a holiday party is do-able, and it can even include a sweet treat or two.  Thanksgiving just so happened to be my birthday this year, so I made sure to treat myself to a few bites of cheesecake. 

Overall, I was able to enjoy a well-balanced dinner without missing out on any of my favorite seasonal dishes. With a little planning and meal mindfulness along the way, you can too! Below is a step-by-step guide to building your own guilt-free, healthy plate this holiday season.   

Familiarize Yourself With MyPlate.

This colorful dinner plate shows how to build a healthy meal with each of the 5 food groups (protein, vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy). MyPlate visually helps you to select appropriate portion sizes, so you won’t need to worry about counting calories or measuring out foods.  

Pile On The Protein.

When hitting the holiday buffet table, start by filling one-quarter of a 9-inch plate with a source of lean protein. Traditional sources of protein that you may encounter include roasted beef, poultry, brisket, ham, or fish. Starting your meal off with lean protein can promote early satiety and longer-lasting fullness. 

Move On To The Veggies.

After adding protein to your plate, aim to fill another quarter of the plate with non-starchy vegetables. Look for green options among the buffet staples, like romaine, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts, and green beans. Carrots and mushrooms are also tasty examples of non-starchy vegetables, which are typically high in fiber but low in calories.

Find The Fruit.

While the table is likely laden with juicy meats and hearty sides, fruit may be harder to come by. If possible, load up the next quarter of your plate with a fruit of choice. If your host’s dinner menu does not typically feature a healthy fruit, bring your own by preparing a side dish! Unsweetened apple sauce, low-sugar cranberry sauce, or seasonal fruit salads are delicious and simple options.  

Go For The Grains.

At this point, one final quarter of the plate should remain empty.  Fill this section with whole-grains or starches such as rolls, brown rice, whole or enriched-refined grain noodles. Holiday favorites like mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, or stuffing also have the carbohydrates you need to fuel you through post-dinner festivities. If you are worried about missing out on any of your favorite dishes, try adding small portions of each food until the quarter space is filled.

Delve Onto The Dairy.

Now that your plate is filled, you can add an optional ½-1 cup serving of dairy. At your holiday party, this may include choices like low-fat milk, cheeses, pudding, or ice cream. If you would rather skip the dairy for this special occasion, you can use this as an opportunity to add a small portion of dessert.

Treat Yourself.

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and celebration, which can include enjoying a few must-have sweets! The trick is to follow the MyPlate guide to build the rest of your meal while enjoying your desserts mindfully. It’s all about getting a healthy mix of different foods in the right portions. Happy holidays! 

This blog was written by Alison Webster, a dietetic intern at Virginia Tech.