50 Ways to Have Your Healthiest Holiday Season Ever
Think it’s impossible to stay sane, healthy, and happy during the holidays? Our experts show how to do exactly that—without swearing off eggnog and pumpkin pie.
Say no to one out of every five invitations
The holidays are all about celebrating with loved ones but between office parties, holiday trips, family festivities, and your Elf movie marathon with friends, your schedule fills up fast—and that’s stressful! “Over-booking yourself boosts stress levels and compromises immunity, so give yourself a few nights a week to rest and use your time wisely,” says Frank Lipman, MD, founder of Be Well. “The rule I give my patients is to say no to 20 percent of activities and last-minute invitations to protect your time.” Creating a schedule well in advance will also help, he adds.
Go see Santa at the mall
Strolling around the mall is actually a great way to get some steps in and do a little window shopping, Dr. Lipman says. Don’t feel pressured to buy anything—leave your wallet locked in your glove box to reduce temptation if you must—but the walking is good exercise and can be a fun way to catch up with old friends, especially if it’s too cold to walk outside, he says. For more holiday cheer, check out these 17 letters to Santa that will warm your heart.
Cut off the sugar and alcohol after 7 p.m.
“Eating and drinking later on in the night causes your stomach to work harder, and that can be extremely disruptive to sleep,” Dr. Lipman says. Pick a time to be done eating and drinking—especially sugary and fatty treats and alcohol—and stick to it so your body can rest better at night.
Craft some ornaments
Whether it’s making a door wreath, painting a wintry scene, or crafting small gifts for your friends, doing something creative is the perfect antidote to holiday stress, says Azizi Marshall, founder and CEO of the Center for Creative Arts Therapy, Artful Wellness & Psychology Arts. “Your brain craves an opportunity to create and doing so can improve mood and help you relax,” she says. Plus, it’s just fun! And who cares if they don’t look professional? At the end of the day, you’re just going to hang them on a tree.
Crank up the carols
Whether you’re the type who loves the dedicated holiday radio station every year or rolls your eyes every time “Santa Baby” comes on, there’s real power in listening to music, Marshall says. “Music has been found to reduce pain, alleviate anxiety, increase immune functioning, and increase positive emotions,” she explains. “Music has a direct link to your emotions, so when you are feeling overwhelmed or totally stressed out over the holidays, turn on your favorite song and jam out. Better yet, sing along!” Psst… It doesn’t have to be traditional carols! There are lots of festive songs you can try out ranging from Celtic melodies to heavy-metal head-bangers.
Skip the special holiday-scented lotions
As tempting as it is to try new skincare products from a gift basket or to get new products with holiday scents, stick with your time-tested gentle cleansers and moisturizers, says Erum Ilyas, MD, dermatologist. The scents and other festive ingredients, like glitter, can be really harsh on your skin, causing redness, breakouts, and even rosacea, she says. Need more help? Try these 17 skin care tips dermatologists use themselves.
Keep a bottle of moisturizer right next to your shower
If you have sensitive skin, the holidays can be a landmine of triggers for redness, acne, itchy skin, and eczema. Things like temperature swings, stress, red wine, dry heat, and spicy foods can all cause problems for people who are prone to skin issues. Make sure you know your personal skin triggers and take steps to protect yourself, Dr. Ilyas says. Start by keeping a giant bottle of fragrance-free moisturizer right by the shower and apply it as soon as you step out, she advises.
Sign up for a gym membership now and get a sweet deal
Gyms have a notorious slowdown in December, followed by a huge rush in January. Use this to your physical and financial advantage by signing up for a membership in November or December, says Matt Huey, a certified physical therapist. The gym is likely to cut you a good deal since business is slow this time of year and you can get used to the equipment and classes you like before the rush of New Years starts!
Don’t buy noisy toys as presents for kids
Want a child’s parents to curse your name forever? Give the kiddo a motion-sensitive toy truck that blares sirens in the middle of the night. Avoid gifting any toys that make loud noises—they’re not just terrifying, they’re unhealthy to boot, says Luqman Lawal, MD, director of global health & research for the Starkey Hearing Foundation. “There are many toys sold in stores that produce above 85 decibels noise. This can cause permanent damage to the hearing of not just the kid but the adults as well,” he says.
Eat some protein one hour before a big holiday meal
Eating more to eat less may sound counterintuitive but loading up on healthy protein—think eggs, lean meats, or a protein shake—an hour before a decadent feast can help keep your appetite in check, says Olivia Rose, a naturopath and nutritionist for Vitarock. “It’s all about finding the middle ground and eating just enough so that you’re not famished at dinner and then you can practice better portion control,” she explains.
Take a sip of water between each bite
Afraid of overindulging this season? Drinking a small sip of water between each bite will help you pace yourself, allow you to focus on enjoying the flavors of each delicious food, stay hydrated, and help you eat less overall, Rose says. “Mindful eating has been shown in studies to reduce emotional eating and help manage weight,” she adds. Find out other ways to avoid holiday weight gain.
Take off your headphones
Listening to holiday carols or podcasts can be a great way to get through your to-do list this time of year but if you’ve constantly got earbuds in or headphones on you could be doing serious damage to your hearing, Lawal says. “Having the source of the sound in your ear canal can increase the volume by 6 to 9 decibels, which can cause eardrum damage,” he says. And the same goes for playing music from speakers: If the music sounds too loud then it is too loud; turn the volume down, he recommends. Plus this will give you the opportunity to talk and bond with loved ones.
Don’t apologize for passing up treats
Guilt can be just as powerful as cravings when it comes to eating too many treats during the holidays. After all, it can be hard to turn down homemade treats that your mom has been making all day or that a coworker has made especially for you. Make a list of foods you don’t want to eat, whether they are triggers for bingeing or because you just don’t really love them, and then stick to it regardless of pressure, says Samantha Markovitz, a board-certified health and wellness coach. “Be gentle and kind but there’s no need to apologize for prioritizing your well-being in a social setting,” she says.
Volunteer to bring a dish to help out
Offering to make a dish for the family feast or office potluck allows you to be helpful and ensures there is at least one healthy and tasty dish you’ll feel comfortable eating and that will help you stick to your health goals, Markovitz says. Have a few tried-and-true healthy recipes you love and keep the ingredients on hand.
Keep an ongoing gratitude list on your phone
Grocery lists, gift lists, party guest lists—’tis the season for list-making! But while those will keep you on track, there’s one list that will help you truly enjoy and cherish the season: A gratitude list. “Taking time each day to refocus your attention on things and people you are thankful for brings a fresh perspective and helps you remember the true meaning of the holidays,” Markovitz says. Keeping your list on your phone makes it easy to add new items and read over old ones. Need ideas? Check out these 30 big and little things to be grateful for right now.
Forget traditions that cause more stress than satisfaction
Many family traditions equal big expectations. Lavish parties! Piles of presents! 12-course meals! None of these things are bad on their own but trying to keep up with overly complicated traditions can be super stressful and suck the fun right out of the holidays. Instead of some storybook fantasy, focus on creating fun and functional holidays that make your family happy and create lasting memories, without an extreme amount of work or money, says Mary Fristad, PhD, professor of psychiatry, psychology, and nutrition at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This may mean ordering Chinese food on Christmas Eve or skipping the office gift exchange.
Know the signs of seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated as SAD) affects tens of thousands of Americans every year yet many sufferers don’t realize that their depression is tied to the season nor do they realize there are things they can do about it, says Valerie Cordero, co-Executive Director of Families for Depression Awareness. Be aware of the symptoms—including these 8 silent signs of SAD—and talk to your doctor if you feel like you’re struggling. In the meantime, get plenty of sunshine and consider a vitamin D supplement if where you live doesn’t get a lot of light, she adds.
Make a memory book of a deceased loved one
The holidays can be incredibly painful for people who have lost a loved one, sometimes impacting their ability to connect with others and enjoy the season, Cordero says. Help make your deceased loved one a part of the holiday by putting together a memory book featuring photos of the person, she says. Use the book to talk about favorite memories with family and friends throughout the holiday season.
Don’t dose your kids with meds to make them sleep
It’s a popular online parenting hack: Give your kid over-the-counter sleep medicines or antihistamines and enjoy a stress-free holiday flight or drive. Don’t do it! While this may work short-term, this can actually backfire and cause irritability and other bad behavior afterward, says Jen Trachtenberg, MD, a pediatrician and author. “Instead, in the days leading up to traveling, maintain their regular daily and bedtime routine as much as possible then travel late at night, when kids can sleep through it and be well rested upon arrival,” she says.
Practice good posture
That image of Bob Cratchit slumped wearily over his desk on Christmas Eve is sad for many reasons—ah, Tiny Tim!—but his posture definitely isn’t helping things. The stress of the holidays can make you hunch your shoulders, drop your head and lean forward, a posture which can cause backaches and tension headaches. Instead, make a conscious effort to sit up straight, keep your workstation at eye level, and take a few deep breaths to let your shoulders relax, says Chris Tomshack, DO, founder and CEO of HealthSource Chiropractic. Don’t miss these other ways to relieve holiday stress.
Give the gift of hydration
Instead of bringing a bottle of wine as a hostess or holiday party gift, try giving a different type of bottle: A water bottle. For the cost of a nice vino, you can find high-quality bottles in fun seasonal designs that they’ll be able to use long after the holidays are over, says Sara Davis, a former professional cheerleader and fitness expert at CycleBar. Plus, it can help with those New Year’s resolutions right around the corner!
Buy (and use!) a digital meat thermometer
Here’s a not-so-fun fact: The week after Thanksgiving has the highest rates of food poisoning all year, says Candess Zona-Mendola, a food safety expert and editor of MakeFoodSafe.com. To avoid sending your loved ones home with an infectious “gift,” make sure you’re cooking and storing food safely. “My most treasured kitchen possession is my meat thermometer,” she explains. “A meat thermometer can help you make sure you are cooking your meats to their correct cooking temperatures, to kill off harmful bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter.”
Put out some festive hand soaps
‘Tis the season to get… germs? All that friend and family togetherness can have an unfortunate side effect during cold and flu season and the best way to protect yourself against germs is to make sure you and your guests are washing their hands regularly, Zona-Mendola says. Make it fun by buying peppermint, pine, or cinnamon-scented soaps (go natural if you’re worried about allergies!) in festive bottles. And watch out for the 10 ways you’re washing your hands wrong.
Let go of an old grudge
Nothing ruins the holidays like having a festering fight boil over into what’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year. The good news is that you don’t need them to give you permission to forgive them, you can do it all on your own! You can’t control anyone else, so instead look instead at changing your attitude to be more forgiving and less triggered by the old family upsets, says Judith Belmont, a licensed professional counselor and author. “See them as human beings with faults rather than seeing them critically and judgmentally,” she says. “Make this the holiday season where you focus on being grateful for the good things your loved ones can give you rather than lamenting they can’t.” Don’t forget to forgive yourself too—it’s one of the 22 ways to show yourself that you are worthy.
Remember: Alcohol is a depressant
The holidays can trigger depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. People often use alcohol to numb the pain of difficult feelings, like loneliness or isolation, or of losses that are highlighted during the holidays, such as having lost loved ones. This strategy will only make things worse, Belmont says. “Alcohol is a depressant, and the more you drink the more depressed you get overall so even though the short-term effects of alcohol might be viewed as pleasantly numbing, avoid binge drinking and misuse of other chemical substances,” she says.
Set reasonable expectations and boundaries
Perhaps one the of most important things you can do during the holidays is to adjust your expectations, set boundaries in advance, and then stay firm about what you will and will not do. “Don’t expect family tensions or major feuds to be solved during a holiday dinner,” Belmont says. Instead, focus on doing what you need to do to keep yourself safe and sane while still being kind to your loved ones. Find out the 7 other reasons the holidays give you anxiety.
Hire a snow removal service
Shoveling your own driveway can be great exercise if you’re young and healthy, but for those at risk it can be a recipe for a heart attack, says Richard Honaker, MD, of Your Doctors Online. “Be careful with shoveling snow if you have cardiac risk factors: over age 50, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, history of heart disease, family history of heart disease before age 60,” he explains. “The isometric exertion puts a strain on the heart as does the cold temperature.” If you’re at high risk, consider paying a neighbor or hiring a snow removal service.
Put Uber on speed dial
Drinking and driving is one of the most common health hazards of the holidays, Dr. Honaker says. It’s also one of the most preventable. If you are planning on drinking, make arrangements pre-party to help you get safely home and always have a friend or a ride service programmed into your phone that you can call if necessary.
Be careful mixing meds and booze
This is true year-round, but there are some particular risks this time of year. For example, guys, if you’re taking erectile dysfunction drugs, they don’t mix with holiday alcoholic beverages like eggnog, hard cider, or hot toddies. “They can cause dangerously low blood pressure and fainting,” Dr. Honaker says.
Get a flu vaccine
The holidays are prime time for influenza, a disease that can be incapacitating and even deadly. Protect yourself and any vulnerable loved ones around you by getting a flu shot, says Amesh Adalja, Infectious Disease Specialist and spokesperson for Theraflu.
Practice good germ etiquette
Coughing into your elbow, covering your sneeze, avoiding shaking hands or kissing people when you’re feeling under the weather, and staying home from work and social events when you’re actively sick are polite precautions everyone should be taking this time of year, Adalja says.
Be wary of buffets
Buffets aren’t just bad for your waistline, they may make you ill if you’re not careful with food safety, Adalja says. Avoid any food that’s been sitting out, unrefrigerated or unheated, for hours at a time. And if you’re the host, make sure you have the proper equipment to keeps things safe for your guests.
Stick to your gym schedule
With all the busyness of the season it’s all too easy to ditch your workouts but getting a little exercise every day will help you stay healthy, both mentally and physically, through this fun-but-stressful time, says Raj Gupta, DC, founder of Soul Focus. “Resist the common urge to put off exercising and start again in the new year,” he says. You’re worth the time and the effort!
Focus on friends not food
If holiday parties are threatening to derail your healthy eating goals, try going into it with a different mindset, Gupta says. “Make the event about catching up with friends and family instead of eating,” he says. “Focusing on the people can help you stay committed to your wellness goals and resist temptation.” Find out the perfect day of eating before you go to a holiday party.
Give yourself some quiet time every day
Doing a daily meditation or taking a walk outdoors can help you de-stress and maintain a positive attitude, Gupta says. The key is in learning to quiet your mind so try and forgo using your phone or other devices during your quiet time and simply enjoy the silence. Here are 10 easy ways to sneak meditation into your busy days.
Plan what treats you must have and those you can do without
Marie C Fields/Shutterstock
When it comes to treats, all goodies are not created equal and your health will benefit if you can decide which ones you love and which ones are just filler, Gupta says. For instance, your grandma’s homemade chocolate caramel shortbread cookies or your signature turkey gravy from scratch are worth the yearly splurge; stale popcorn in a metal bucket is not. Planning your splurges in advance will make sure you don’t feel deprived without going overboard.
Embrace your new three favorite words
Learning to say “no thank you” is a vital skill any time of year but the holidays present a lot of unique opportunities to use it, Gupta says. Between social invitations, food, donation requests, and extra projects, it’s worth it to practice turning people down politely but firmly. Remember, saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to everything else during that time so make sure you’re using your “yes” wisely.
Sign up for a turkey trot or a Santa run
Signing up for a holiday fun run—and there are many to choose from this time of year—can help you have fun with loved ones in a festive setting while staying healthy, says Nancy Woodbury, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “On Thanksgiving Day, I run a half marathon race in the morning, which is not only a healthy way to start the day but also allows me to enjoy a guilt-free holiday meal with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie,” she says. Not a runner? No problem; most races have a division for walking. The important part is to move and have fun.
Don’t skip meals
If you know you’re going to a feast later in the day it can be tempting to skip eating beforehand but this can actually sabotage your healthy eating goals, Woodbury says. If you show up starving, you’ll inhale whatever is closest and chances are that’s not going to be spinach. Keep your earlier meals light and healthy and you’ll feel much more in control at the banquet. Don’t miss these holiday desserts that are diet friendly.
Scope out the dinner menu or buffet ahead of time
Decide ahead of time everything you want to eat, from appetizers to dessert, so when you arrive at the event you won’t be tempted to try everything, Woodbury says. This means checking out the menu online or doing a walkthrough of the buffet before picking up a plate. This is especially helpful for folks trying to count calories.
Get some sunshine every day (and through a window doesn’t count)
As temps drop so does your motivation to get outside but it’s important for your mental and physical health to get a little sunshine on your face every day, says Roy Raymann, PhD, Vice President of Sleep Science and Scientific Affairs at SleepScore Labs. The sun’s rays have been proven to boost mood, lessen depression, and improve your immune system. He recommends taking a short walk outside after lunch—it will get you your daily dose of sunshine, help you get your steps in, and clear your mind. Check out 23 healthy reasons you need to get a little sunshine this time of year.
Pay the extra money to fly during normal daytime hours
Redeye flights may save you some cash, but you’ll be paying for them in other ways—particularly with your health, Raymann says. “Try to travel during a time slot when you are habitually awake so you won’t disrupt your natural circadian rhythms,” he says. Studies show that missing just one night of sleep can make you eat more, feel more depressed and anxious, and have more bouts of insomnia. Check out more holiday travel tips to keep your sanity.
Keep your normal bedtime schedule as much as possible
One of the hardest parts of the holiday season is how much it can throw your regular routine off and since our bodies thrive on healthy routines, this can wreak havoc with everything from your sleep to your diet to your tendency to snap at your mother-in-law. “Keeping up with the small daily rituals during the holidays will help you in keeping your preferred sleep window and ensuring a quality night’s rest,” Raymann says.
Make lunch your feast instead of dinner
One small change that can have big benefits is to move up the time of your holiday dinners. Eating in the afternoon, instead of the evening, will give you time to digest your food and move around before bedtime, Raymann says. “It is better for your health to finish dinner at least a couple of hours before bedtime,” he explains. “Eating too late or too heavy will keep your body busy digesting food and your sleep can, in turn, be disrupted.”
Wait 20 minutes before going in for seconds
Head off food comas (also known as the post-meal blood sugar crash that makes you want to nap) by spacing out your servings, says Inna Lukyanovsky, pharmacist and functional medicine practitioner. “If you wait for at least 20 minutes before going back for seconds, you most likely will not feel hungry anymore and you will definitely have more control over your cravings,” she explains. Set a timer on your phone if you have to!
Load up your own plate
Whenever possible, put the food on your plate yourself. People who dish up their own plates naturally serve themselves a little less than their doting host, Lukyanovsky says. This will not only save you on calories but you can also hopefully avoid the onion dish that always gives you terrible gas.
Eat your greens first
Loading up on green vegetables before a decadent meal has two great benefits: It ensures you are getting those nutrients in and the fiber will fill you up so you’ll be less hungry for the less-healthy fare, Lukyanovsky says. It doesn’t take much—think a small salad, a plate of crudites, or a bowl of broth-based vegetable soup. Find out the meal tricks every diabetic should follow to survive holiday dinners.
Don’t hang out by the food table
Wait, how did that bowl of M&Ms get empty? We’ve all been there, picking mindlessly at whatever is in front of us. Fortunately out of sight, out of mind works for food too, so after you’re done eating, relocate to another part of the room, far away from the food table, Lukyanovsky says. Playing games, watching a show, or catching up with friends will keep you distracted from going back for seconds and by keeping it out of arm’s reach you won’t fall victim to mindless eating.
Play a festive song on the piano
Playing a musical instrument is a lovely way to enjoy the holidays; it also decreases stress and boosts your feelings of happiness, creativity, and bonding, says Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and musician in partnership with Fender. Haven’t played anything since your grade-school recorder concert? Join a neighborhood group for some caroling or just sing along with the holiday radio station; music in all its forms has great physical, mental, and social benefits, he adds.
Follow the two-bite rule
“Our taste buds are saturated after the first two bites of a food, yet most of us feel so guilty for eating something ‘bad’ that we don’t even taste these, and then we keep going back for more, turning eating into a vicious cycle,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, integrative specialist and author. Instead, he recommends taking a very small portion of your favorite dessert and then walking away from the serving dish. Savor every bite without guilt, taking time to appreciate the smell, taste, and texture. Then decide if you still want more. Next, find out the 9 tricky holiday etiquette scenarios and tips for getting through the holidays.