Fighting Holiday Food Temptation? Try These 13 Tips.

I think a lot about habits, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about habits related to holiday eating.

The holidays are supposed to be a festive time, but many people feel anxiety and regret around food and drink—the holiday season is so full of temptation.

I have to say, I enjoy the holidays much more, now that I’ve got a better grip on my habits, than I used to.

Here are some ways to apply the strategies of habit-change to this challenge:

1. Buy food in small containers. Studies show that people give themselves larger portions out of larger boxes, so I don’t buy that economy box of whatever. Buy the little box of gingerbread cookies, not the giant box.

2. Make tempting food inconvenient—put cookies in a hard-to-reach spot, set the freezer to a very cold temperature so it’s hard to spoon out ice cream, store goodies in hard-to-open containers. The Strategy of Inconvenience is simple, but crazily effective.

3. Wear snug-fitting clothes. That’s the Strategy of Monitoring. When we’re aware of what we’re doing, we behave better.

4. Dish food up in the kitchen, and don’t bring serving platters onto the table (except vegetables).

5. Pile your plate with everything you intend to eat, and don’t get seconds once that food is gone.

6. Skip the add-ons: tell the waiter that you don’t want the side of fries. When I do this, I sometimes feel like Sally from When Harry Met Sally as I quibble about how my food should be served, but oh well.

7. After dinner, to signal to yourself that “Eating’s over,” brush your teeth. I’d heard about this habit, so I decided to try it, but I was skeptical. I’ve been amazed by how effective tooth-brushing is. This is the Strategy of First Steps–because that tooth-brushing is the first step toward bedtime.

8. Don’t allow myself to get too hungry or too full. This is the Strategy of Foundation.

9. Realize that, with some things, you might not be able to have just one bite. I sure can’t. In the abstainer/moderator split, I’m a hard-core abstainer. It’s far easier for me to skip cookies and chocolate than it is to have a sensible portion. The Strategy of Abstaining is not a strategy that works for everyone, but for some people, it’s enormously helpful.

10. Never eat hors d’oeuvres. This kind of bright-line rule, which is an application of the Strategy of Clarity, is very helpful.

11. Don’t eat food I don’t like, just because it’s there. No one cares if I have a serving of asparagus or cranberry sauce.

12, Plan an exception. Planned exceptions are a great way to break a good habit in a way that feels limited, controlled, and positive.

13. Watch for loopholes! Some loopholes that are especially popular during the holidays include the “This doesn’t count” loophole, the “Concern for others” loophole, and the “fake self-actualization” loophole. Remember, we’re adults, and we can mindfully make exceptions to our good habits, but everything counts.

Although it may seem festive and carefree to indulge in lots of treats, in the end, we may feel guilty and overstuffed. Which doesn’t make the holiday happier.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: By giving myself limits, I give myself freedom.

Intrigued? Pre-order my book Better Than Before, in which I reveal the secrets about how we can change our habits–really!

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  • Mimi Gregor

    I think that big extended family dinners are one of the major places that one overeats. In a restaurant or at a party, no one is watching you to see if you had a helping of the candied sweet potatoes that they made. Family can sometimes feel miffed if you overlook a food that they brought. I say, that is their little problem. I don’t eat sugar, and I am unapologetic about passing on the candied-anything and on dessert. If they are rude enough to bring it up, I simply state that “I don’t do sugar.” I also tend to take miniscule portions, as one only knows after one takes the first bite whether one will like their version of a dish or not. If I like it, I can always take more later, if I am still hungry. And if I don’t like it, I can hide it under a bit of stuffing and feed it to the dog! And I always pass on the bread. Unless it is homemade or from some fabulous bakery (seldom the case), it is just not worth it.

    With holiday parties, I am usually too busy chatting with people to stuff my face. And I drink only sparkling mineral water (again, if people are rude enough to comment, a simple “I’m not drinking tonight” is sufficient.). I actually find it more entertaining to be one of the only sober people at a party and watch everyone else do foolish things. If it’s a “frenemy”, you can be sure to snap pictures for tormenting them with later. (Kidding!)

  • liveontheedge13

    These are great tips! I’ve tried some of these, but not all. I usually don’t have a problem saying no to food…usually, but I do have my moments. I also usually double my workouts during the holidays. If I’m working out then I’m not eating.

  • I love these tips — they are all simple and relatively easy to apply.

  • David Rickert

    These are great tips. I recently read an article by yoga teacher Kathryn Budig where she discussed how important your attitude is toward food as well. She doesn’t tend to restrict her diet much, and refuses to feel guilty if she indulges. If she has a cookie, she kind of “blesses” to cookie by saying “I’m going to enjoy this cookie! Imagine how great it’s going to be to eat it!” Rather than treating it as something that she’ll have to pay for later.

    I think this is a good attitude to have over the holidays. I love stollen, Pannetone, and gingerbread, and eat more of it than I should. I know that I’ll overindulge during the holidays because that’s part of the experience for me and there’s no point feeling guilty about it. Eventually I get tired of the sweets and get back into my normal eating habits.

    • cruella

      That is exactly how I feel:-) I just blessed a hamburger and a huge plate of crispy fries and I really enjoyed the meal. I only occasionally indulge so that’s ok. And over Christmas there is no point restricting myself. I don’t really do “should” but then again, easy for me to say since I’m rather fit, in good health and don’t easily gain weight…
      Happy holidays with whatever strategies or lack thereof:-)

    • gretchenrubin

      This is where the Abstainer/Moderator split is very important.

      This is a strategy that works for Moderators. For an Abstainer like me, it’s not helpful.

  • These are awesome. I know it’s important for me not to go for the sweets when what I really need is real/nutritious food… if I do, the sweet treat will act as a trigger and I won’t have a reasonable portion! All of the *less-than-good-for-me* items are highly more attractive when I am super hungry or super drained … I won’t necessarily say “you can’t have the french fries” but I will try to eat several bites of nutritious food before hitting the fries, chips, etc…

  • LJ

    The Strategy of Extreme Inconvenience:

  • Becky Adams

    I love these tips — especially #4. I’ve tried it and it works!

  • Jeanne

    I find I’m really having trouble with the no seconds idea. I realize that it takes a little while for the stomach to tell the brain that it’s full, but as long as I don’t feel full when there is still food in the pot, I have a hard time not going in for seconds. I’m really intending in the new year to say, “I’ll wait 15 or 20 minutes, and if I’m still hungry, I’ll have some more.” I almost always regret the second helping, and it almost always makes me too stuffed, but I’m like an addict and can’t seem to stop even when I’m telling myself that I’m not denying, just postponing. Maybe I’m just too good a cook for my own good. After all, I make everything just the way I like it :o) I may try eating slower so that my brain can catch up to my tummy.

    • Felicity

      I have trouble with that too. I find the thing that works best for me (not that I always do it) is to set the microwave timer for 15 minutes or even 10 minutes and then walk away and get busy with something else. When the timer goes off I find I’ve forgotten all about seconds and don’t want them. Hmm. I should really do that more often.

  • Noelia Aanulds

    This you for this nice post. These tips are so true, the challenge
    is to follow them. Your
    Life Begins at The End of Your Comfort Zone !!!

  • Felicity

    Hey, I read the book Gretchen recommended as a tale of an Obliger, Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open’ and I really recommend it. It’s very entertaining and if you’re an Obliger too, it’ll really strike a chord. Agassi had a tendency to sit around and eat too much fast food but he was smart enough to surround himself with coaches (who were also dear friends) to guide his eating/exercise/everything, thus providing himself with ye olde external accountability – he didn’t want to let his friends down 🙂

  • Those of you who are abstainers, how do you deal with the feeling that you are depriving yourself of something you really enjoy? I’m pretty sure that I am better suited to being an abstainer than a moderator when it comes to unhealthy food, but each time I try abstaining, after a month or so of feeling happier and healthier than usual, I start craving my favourite unhealthy foods, telling myself that it’s silly and unnecessary to miss out on something that I really like. I start having an occasional small treat, which leads me down a slippery slope and pretty soon I’m eating unhealthy quantities of refined sugar most days.

    Lisia Grocott | Learning Life

    • gretchenrubin
      • Thank you, Gillian and Gretchen! I’ve been invoking loophole 9, “I should enjoy myself,” which sounds entirely reasonable until I acknowledge that enjoying myself in one moment is compromizing my enjoyment of later moments. Gillian’s comment and Gretchen’s post on that loophole, and the sometimes hilarious comments after it, have given me a number of ideas to try. It hasn’t worked for me to plan regular exceptions – once a week or once a month or once a day. My next experiment will be occasionally to plan in advance a one-off exception while maintaining a blanket ban on spur-of-the-moment exceptions.

        Lisia Grocott | Learning Life

    • Gillian

      I’m somewhere between a moderator and an abstainer. I find that planned exceptions often work for me – e.g. I can have a Scotch on Saturday or Sunday afternoon but not during the week or I can have dessert when I go out for dinner (which isn’t often) or on special occasions but not otherwise. It’s easier to pass something up when you know you can have it in a few days. I think that saying Never, unless you are a 100% abstainer with a lot of willpower, can lead to a sense of deprivation which eventually leads to falling off the wagon.

      • gretchenrubin

        Terrific – you found the way that suits your temperament.

        I think it’s helpful to think about what works for US. For you, this system works great.
        I worry though about blanket statements, when people say “if people do this X approach, they’re more likely to fail.”
        It just depends. Your way works for you; for me, my way – 100% abstaining — is EASIER.
        I think that sometimes, people don’t try a strategy because everyone tells them, “If you do X, you can’t succeed.” Well, maybe they can.
        For years, people told me to be moderate. It’s right for some people, and it sure sounds right. But a different approach is right for me.
        Self-knowledge! It always comes down to self-knowledge.

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  • Ann

    These are some awesome tips! In addition to #7, I heard that eating salads at the end of your meal instead of the start is another good way to signal end dinner. I was told that eating sweets like desserts will only make you hungrier after a meal and was a bad idea.


  • Jennifer Lynne

    Hi Gretchen,

    I have to respectfully disagree with many of these tips. Particularly, tip 3, 5, and 9. As a psychotherapist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and eating disorder recovery coach who specializes in helping people to make peace with food and their bodies, I know that having a “good” and “bad” mentality towards food sets people up for an unhealthy relationship with food and disordered eating. Trying to invoke body-shame (trust me there’s plenty of that already to go around in our culture) by telling people to wear too-tight clothes is unhelpful and could be harmful to many. Additionally, if you are struggling with having as you say “reasonable portions” and instead binge eat on certain foods-this is likely a reaction to your restriction of them (which can be either emotional or physical). Emotional restriction is when you allow yourself to eat a certain food but feel guilt or shame while doing so. This can backfire and lead to a “last supper mentality” and subsequent binge or overeating when you do “allow” yourself to eat the food. By connecting with our bodies innate wisdom and neutralizing all foods, we don’t need these “monitoring” (ie diet) or “control” strategies. Our bodies are highly smart and the more we can tune into them, accept our natural size, and drown out the diet noise-the healthier and happier we can be.


    Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW