You’ve been there: chatting with an office pal by the buffet table, mindlessly eating chip after breaded shrimp after fried zucchini stick. By the end of the evening, you have a sinking feeling you’ve just busted your calorie goals for the entire month.

But don’t erase your social calendar—and don’t resign yourself to eating only celery sticks. “While you don’t want to completely sabotage your good eating habits, munching on raw vegetables isn’t exactly most people’s idea of a fun holiday party,” says Rachel Begun, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Staying on track during the holidays, she says, “is about finding a happy medium so that you enjoy and feel satisfied by your food choices.” Hit the party circuit with these festive and calorie-saving tactics.

Strategy #1: Don’t skip lunch.

“People rationalize that by skipping meals earlier in the day they have more calories to spend at the party, but that can backfire,” saysBegun. When you bank calories, your metabolism slows down and burns fewer of them; also, you arrive at the party so hungry you’ll eat anything and everything.

Instead, eat small, regular meals on party day. An hour or two before festivities begin, eat a moderate snack with fiber, protein, and good fats, such as apple slices with almond butter, says Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD, coauthor of Coach Yourself Thin (Rodale, 2012). And drink a big glass of water just before or when you arrive.

Strategy #2: Scope the options.

“Rather than loading up your plate at the first buffet table you see, take a lap around the party to survey all the foods available,” Begun says. Fill your first plate with fruit and healthy vegetable-based dishes, advises Hottinger. (And, he adds, if it’s a potluck, bring a fruit or vegetable dish yourself.)

Love to dip? Pass on ranch and look for nutrient-dense dips. The lean protein, heart-healthy fats, and fiber in bean dips, hummus, or guacamole, for example, help you feel full so you consume fewer calories overall, says Begun. Instead of chips, crackers, or breads, pair dips with carrots, jicama, radishes, bell peppers, and other fresh options, which contain water and fiber to fill you up faster with fewer calories and more nutrients.

Strategy #3: Drink responsibly.

It’s easy to overdo calories in liquid form, but beware: The brain doesn’t register fullness from liquids the same way it does for solid foods, so you’ll still want to eat. Add to that alcohol’s inhibition-loosening effect, says Begun, and you’re likely to eat more and choose unhealthy options.

For low-cal cocktails, ask for seltzer or club soda mixed with a splash of fruit juice rather than a blended drink like a margarita or daiquiri. Sparkling wine or champagne also pack fewer calories than gin- or rum-based cocktails. Want something sweet? Eggnog is one of the holiday season’s worst calorie offenders, saturated with heavy cream, sugar, and rum. Hot chocolate, typically made with antioxidant-rich cocoa powder, contains fat only from the milk (decline the whipped-cream topping); spiced apple cider is completely fat-free.

Strategy #4: Splurge.You read that right. “If you go to a party and don’t allow yourself any indulgence, it’s going to backfire because you’ll walk away not satisfied and then go home and raid the refrigerator,” says Begun. So choose something decadent—and make it count. “Have something special for you, a comfort food for that time of year; that’s where you should be spending your calories,” she says. “Why waste calories on foods you really aren’t crazy about or that are easily accessible throughout the year?”

Indulge intelligently, too. “Calorie for calorie, pumpkin pie is a great choice,” says Begun, because it’s made with vitamin-rich squash and less sugar than most other pies. Other suggestions: Choose pies without a top crust, skip those with a crisp or streusel topping, and forgo the ice cream or whipped cream. “All of the add-ons add up,” she says.

Smarter Party Foods

Instead of Choose Save
Ranch dip (145 calories) Hummus (50 calories) 95 calories 
Eggnog (224 calories) Spiced cider (114 calories) 110 calories 
Pecan pie (541 calories) Pumpkin pie (323 calories) 218 calories 
Roasted mixed nuts (172 calories) Olives (35 calories) 137 calories