Navigate your way through any holiday buffet with the "good, better, and best" mindset. There are no bad foods, only foods that you should eat in moderation. Whether you're maintaining a clean-eating streak, or just trying to find balance amidst the whirlwind of cider and shortbread, knowing which foods are best for healthy eating will make holiday buffet choices easier. 
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Clean, healthy eating comes down to small, everyday choices.

Those choices just happen to be more difficult and come up more frequently during the holiday season when cookie platters and punch bowls abound. Handle the indulgent holiday buffet well by knowing which foods are good, better, and best for healthy eating. 

Holiday buffets are for snacking, so the foods that are "best" are those that can be eaten in larger amounts throughout the night without the risk of over-eating, or are less likely to be over-eaten. For this purpose, calories are a useful measure in determining which foods to grab more so than others.

Credit: Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Good, Better, Best: Drinks

Let's start with drinks. Beer, wine, cocktails, and water are the most common beverage options. Keep from drinking excess calories by knowing what's in your cup. 

Cocktails make a good option, especially if you drink includes one standard drink of liquor (1.5 ounces or 14 grams of alcohol), club soda, and/or fresh fruit juice and herbs. One standard drink or shot of 80-proof vodka, gin, rum, or whiskey, is about 96 calories. Anything else added to the cocktail adds calories. Be weary of concentrated sources of sugar, like cider, fruit juice cocktail, and simple syrups. For reference, 8 ounces of cranberry juice cocktail is 110 calories and 28 grams of sugar. 

Wine and beer are better because there is less variability in nutritional content. If you drink a standard drink, which is 5 ounces of wine, it's about 125 calories. A standard beer is 12 ounces; 146 calories for regular and 103 calories for light beer. Choose whichever your prefer, just know that each drink is over 100 calories.    

As suspected, water is the best option for clean eating. If you don't make water your only beverage for the night (and you can't be blamed for that), sip water in between your other drinks. Water will keep you hydrated when consuming alcohol and provide the ultimate placeholder after you finish eating. Having something in your hand throughout the party is comforting and will prevent mindless eating.

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Good, Better, Best: Appetizers 

The most common appetizer is dip. Dip, in general, is a good option for an appetizer. Dips tend to have large amounts of cheese or cream, making them high in calories. Just know that the serving size for rich, hearty dips will be small. Examples of good options dips include our Date, Walnut, and Blue Cheese Ball that is 78 calories for 2 tablespoons, or our Creamy-Feta Spinach Dip that is 78 calories for 1/4 cup.

Dips that aren't cream based make better options, like hummus or pesto. Our Beet Hummus with Blue Cheese and Walnuts is 87 calories for 3 tablespoons. Our Green Pea Pesto and Red Pepper Pesto (111 calories for 3 1/2 tablespoons) are creative examples of how to make pesto a holiday appetizer.

The best kind of appetizer are those with a more easily-controlled portion size or those that incorporate whole foods. Brown Sugar-Spiced Nut Mix makes a crunchy, perfectly spicy-sweet app for 146 calories for 2 tablespoons, while our Spinach-Artichoke Bites and Phyllo- Wrapped Asparagus with Prosciutto serve green veggies and savory dough for less than 100 calories. 

The food that is eaten in the highest volume during cocktail hour is the vehicle that holds the dip: crackers. Common dip crackers such as Ritz crackers or Club crackers are a good choice for dips. Their crispy texture and buttery taste are additively good, and they're the perfect size. Ritz clock in with 16 calories per cracker, or 79 calories for five, and Club crackers have 18 calories in one cracker, 88 for five. Carr's Entertaining Crackers are better because they are larger, thinner, and without butter. They are 15 calories each; 75 calories for five. Triscuits are 20 calories per cracker, but are hearty with 3 grams of fiber per serving. Stacy's Plain Pita Chips make a better chip; they are only 13 calories per chip and they tend to be larger than the good cracker varieties. Opt for the whole-wheat version. Overall, most crackers or chips are nutritionally comparable; just know that they are about 70-100 calories for five. The best kind of cracker isn't a cracker at all. Aim for dips that go well with fruit or vegetables. Fruits and veggies are more filling and more suitable for sitting around and snacking. Consider those snacks your holiday "free" foods.

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Good, Better, Best: Desserts

Pie and cake make good dessert options, you just have to be mindful of how much you eat. Generally, a slice of one of our pecan pies comes in around 300 calories, but some pecan pies have as much as 500 calories. Our Maple-Pecan Pie is 256 calories for a smaller slice. An in-store bakery chocolate cake with chocolate icing is 249 calories, while our Dark Chocolate Souffle cake is 206 calories per slice. Even if it is prepared with health in mind, cake is cake, and it should be handled like the treat that it is.

Cookies make better desserts because it is easier to control portion size. Grab one of your favorites from the buffet and enjoy each bite. Some examples of better dessert cookie recipes are our Cinnamon Cookies that are 45 calories each, or our Macadamia and Ginger Cookies that are 51 calories each.

The best desserts are those might have sugar or fat, but they aren't the main ingredient. Aim for a dessert such as Chocolate-Bouron Fondue. Six strawberries dipped in the chocolate sauce equals 219 calories. Make fruit the featured dessert item with our Broiled Grapefruit with Ginger and Maple Cream that is just 163 calories per serving. You could even have a glass of dessert wine, instead. 

The Bottom Line: Remember, no foods are bad. Some holiday foods have higher amounts of fat or sugar, so you should eat those in moderation. Now that you know a little bit more about the buffet, you'll know how to best fix your holiday party plate.