Strategies for staying healthy, mindful as high-calorie holiday season approaches

With Halloween officially behind us and Thanksgiving on its way, now might be a good time to start strategizing for the long, temptation-laden holiday season ahead.

Because nothing can derail a well-meaning dieter quite like Thanksgiving, which each year leads the average American to consume more than 4,500 calories in one meal, according to the Calorie Control Council and registered dietician Rachel Levy. Food for thought: That’s more than twice the suggested daily calorie allotment recommended by health professionals.

“If you’re on a long-term diet, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure by trying to continue on the path of weight loss over the holidays,” says Levy, who also supervises the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s WIC program.

Instead, Levy recommends aiming for weight maintenance, not loss, from now to New Year’s. Here, the healthy-eating expert shares her tips for navigating the holiday season with common sense — and a few sensible indulgences along the way.

On Thanksgiving, while the big meal hasn’t yet hit the table, try rounding up the family for a pre-dinner walk.

“That’s a great way to enjoy some good conversation with family, but also that exercise helps to burn calories before taking in that Thanksgiving dinner,” Levy says. One additional benefit of aerobic exercise before eating is its ability to curb appetite, she adds.

You can further apply this strategy by keeping healthy hors d’oeuvres on hand while the turkey’s still roasting. Levy suggests the always-classic shrimp cocktail, fruit skewers or crudité platters with low-fat dips — try swapping out mayonnaise and sour cream for Greek yogurt, which is lower in calories and higher in protein than its fattier alternatives, helping to fill you up before the main event, she says.

Those 4,500 calories mentioned before, Levy stresses, aren’t just from the high-calorie desserts we often associate with holiday meals. “It’s also from people taking second and third helpings of foods they think are healthy,” she says. (We’re looking at you, green bean casserole.)

There’s no crime in enjoying yourself, but try to exercise a little mindfulness when it comes to filling up on extra servings.

First, opt for a smaller plate, if you can, before loading it with Thanksgiving goodness. Then, “Once you finish all the food on your plate … make sure to wait at least 10 minutes before you grab that second plateful,” Levy advises.

Desserts, of course, can be a huge source of temptation for those looking to watch their waistlines during the holidays. A lot of families will be serving up pumpkin cheesecakes and similarly high-fat, high-calorie treats for their festive dinners, Levy recognizes.

A healthier option that you might already have in mind is the classic pumpkin pie, which, compared with its holiday-favorite cousin the pecan pie, is lower in calories and chock-full of good-for-you fiber and beta carotene.

Levy’s mother, she recalls, would bake an even healthier alternative each year, doing away with the crust completely and using the recipe on the pumpkin filling’s can as a guide, adding evaporated milk for sweetness and half the suggested amount of sugar.

Levy calls the creation “pumpkin pudding,” which she says can easily be recreated by baking the dish at the same temperature “as if you were making a pie” and then adding a dollop of light whipped topping once cooled and ready to eat.

You can also lighten up desserts by substituting some of the margarine or butter involved with apple sauce or pureed fruit, she suggests. Start with a small portion of substitute at first, she says, before gradually increasing, if needed, to taste.

Above all, be smart and try to enjoy the holidays, Levy says. After all, they’re only here once a year.

“One thing I’d like to add, too, is that it’s OK to have your favorite food over the holidays if there’s a particular food that you’re craving,” Levy says. “You can have that, but make sure to have it in a healthy portion.”

If you’ve made a special Christmastime treat like a Buche de Noel, for instance, try freezing leftovers in single-serving portions. That way, Levy says, “you’re not tempted to go eat the whole thing.”

Because, even if Yule-log cakes are a once-a-year deal, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy an occasional slice while you’re waiting for next Christmas.