The Good, the Bad, and the Not Worth It: Navigating the Holiday Dessert Table

Group having Thanksgiving dinnerHow can I manage the onslaught of sweets during the holidays?

For health-conscious people with a sweet tooth, the holidays can be hard. Work break rooms are cookie-filled minefields, family parties have entire rooms devoted to desserts, and every corner coffee shop is filled with sugar-laden caramel-frappa-peppermint-mocha concoctions. Sweets are everywhere you turn, and if you’re not careful, the occasional indulgence can turn into a daily sugar-bomb habit.

Instead of fearing the holiday-party dessert table, learn to navigate them mindfully. Yes, it is possible for the holidays to be a time to enjoy your favorite treats without feeling totally out of control. Try these simple mindset shifts to shake the healthy diet-busting anxiety and instead intentionally enjoy the holidays’ festive flavors.

  1. Lose the all-or-nothing approach to sweets. If you find that having one gingerbread cookie leads to eating the entire plate, it may be wise to explore your all-or-nothing approach to sweets. Complete avoidance of holiday desserts is not only challenging, it can be a harmful mindset that will set you up for overeating if (or, more like when) you do succumb to cravings. Instead, try hard to remember that each cookie, piece of pie, and mug of hot cocoa is not the last time you will ever eat a sweet again. Realizing that you have ample opportunities to enjoy treats in the future can help to keep your cravings in check when you’re hovering over a plate of Aunt Barb’s pudding pie.
  2. Be prepared for holiday health-bombs. If you know your holiday work dinner will involve indulgent drinks and desserts, plan for for healthier meals in the days leading up to and after the event. Planning ahead to stay on track with your health habits is key during the holiday season and can also allow you wiggle room to delight in desserts without feeling like you’ve gone off track.
  3. Decide what’s worth it — and what’s not. Not all sweets are created equal, and it’s important to know which are worth the holiday indulgence, and which you can have at any time, or just leave, if they don’t do it for you! Consider which will be more satisfying: that chocolate croissant you can also order in July or the pecan pie your beloved grandmother only makes once a year. And get real with yourself about whether you’re eating something you don’t even really like just because it’s there — yes, fruitcake, we’re looking at you.
  4. Savor the flavors with all of your senses. When you do indulge, take the time to enjoy the treat without distractions. Enjoy the appearance, smell, taste, and texture of that piece of pie and do so slowly. You will likely find that you need a smaller piece to satisfy your craving than if you scarfed it down in two seconds in your car or at your desk.
  5. Pay attention to how you feel after eating a sweet treat. One small piece of pie or a cookie is unlikely to affect you, but how do you feel after eating an entire box of chocolates? Not so great, right? Remembering those feelings in all their unpleasant detail can help keep your dessert choices in check.
  6. Indulge with no regrets. When you do decide to savor those powdered sugar cookies or dig in to your favorite box of holiday chocolates, do so mindfully but without hesitation. The holidays are a once-a-year time to enjoy your favorite treats, so allow yourself the indulgence and leave the worry behind. Guilt and shame only lead to future binges or throwing in the towel on all health efforts.

It is possible to savor holiday sweets and still stay on track with your healthy eating habits. Take the fear out of the festivities and instead enjoy a satisfying, yet healthy, holiday.


At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].