By MARIE GILBERT
6:10 PM EST, November 30, 2012
Whether it's a formal family dinner or an office party with co-workers, food has always been the centerpiece of holiday get-togethers.
But it's becoming harder and harder these days for people to break bread together.
Appetites are stratified by an ever-widening array of restrictions: gluten free, sugar free, vegan, vegetarian, low fat, low sodium, no carb, no dairy, macrobiotic and probiotic.
What's a host to do?
Before you throw the cheese ball under the bus, consider some advice from Jennifer Ruby, registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, with Summit Endocrinology in Chambersburg, Pa., an affiliate of Summit Health.
It can be very overwhelming to have guests or family members coming to your holiday table with rigid food requirements, Ruby agreed. But with a little planning and some cross-referencing of diets, you can alleviate a lot of stress and ensure that, at any given meal, everyone can eat something.
First, Ruby said, it's crucial that the host and the eater with dietary restrictions understand what the expectations are for the meal.
"It's very important to ask a lot of questions," she said. "The host should determine whether the individual is expecting you to make every dish to their specifications or if other dishes can be used, even if it is not permitted in the individual's diet. The host also can encourage the person to bring a dish to the holiday party that would suit their specific dietary needs.
"Secondly, if the host offers to accommodate the guest's dietary needs, it is very important to do research and find out what ingredients need to be avoided," Ruby said.
It is much easier to control the ingredients when the food is made from scratch, she said. But if the host plans on using pre-made items or processed ingredients, "it is vital to read the food labels very carefully before the food is purchased."
Another tip, Ruby said, is to keep the different foods separated.
"There are several ways to present the food," she said. "You can set up buffet-style or family-style so that guests can serve themselves what they want. Or you can add decorative food labels to identify the various foods on the table."
The United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition, suggests putting some foods on the side, rather than incorporating them into the meal. For example, serve bread on its own plate but don't include it in items such as casseroles or desserts. Likewise, if you have a guest on a low-sodium diet, season food lightly and encourage guests to add their own salt and pepper table side.
In addition to food preferences and restrictions, Ruby said it's important to make healthful food choices all the time, but even more so during the holidays, when dietary restrictions are sometimes ignored and eaters tend to overindulge.
"Holidays can be very joyous times," she said. "But they can be very difficult occasions for many people, especially when large quantities of food and tempting desserts are available."
Parties and dinners can be especially hard for diabetics, said the USDA, and the best course of action is to not stray far from the recommended eating pattern.
Be sure to practice portion control and if you're not sure what ingredients are in a particular dish or drink, leave it alone.
Individuals with food allergies also face serious consequences if they make poor food choices, says the USDA. The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Before RSVPing a party or dinner, be sure to make your host aware of any allergies.
Ruby offered the following tips, which, she said, "can be utilized so that individuals can enjoy the holidays without feeling guilty."
Eat a healthful snack before you go to a holiday party or dinner. Never go hungry. Some healthful snack ideas include 1/4 cup of almonds, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on celery sticks or half of an apple; or one string cheese with two cups of air-popped popcorn. These snacks will help to prevent overeating or lessen the appeal of the fat and sugary temptations that are available.
As the guest, you can bring a food item with you as a contribution, which will make you feel more confident that there will be a dish that you are able to enjoy guilt-free.
Once you arrive, stay away from the food table. It's easy to overeat when you are positioned close to food temptations.
Beverages can also contribute additional calories during holiday festivities. Try to drink low-calorie beverages such as water, diet soda, juice mixed with club soda or water or iced tea with a sugar substitute.
Use smaller plates. This tip can really help to reduce a food portion, which then limits the amount of calories you are consuming. If foods that are high in calories are available and you want to eat them, just make sure it is a small portion. It is true that if you continuously deprive yourself of a treat, you tend to eat more when you finally get the chance to enjoy it.
Try to stay aware of your hunger/fullness meter. Ask yourself if you are eating the food because you are hungry or just because it is there. If you truly are hungry, then it is important to eat. But if not, put down the food and move away from the food table.
During the holidays, Ruby said it's important to slow down and enjoy the time with friends and family.
Food is a large part of many holiday festivities, she added, which makes it difficult to stay on track with healthy eating.
"It is important to remember to eat slowly and enjoy the food," Ruby said. "Take the time between bites to share stories with friends and family members."
Also, consider eating healthful foods first, such as fruits or vegetables. These foods contain fiber, which will help to fill your stomach.
"It is hard to overeat with additional portions or desserts if you are not hungry," she noted.
Ruby also suggested the importance of being assertive.
"Don't let someone talk you into eating something that you should not or do not want to consume. Politely decline the food. Remember, you should never be forced to eat or drink something you don't want," she said.
Finally, in addition to eating healthy, don't forget about exercising, Ruby said.
"Exercise can help to maintain weight or help prevent weight gain during the holidays," she said. "Consider increasing your physical activity several days before the holiday or go for a walk after the meal to burn off some of those extra calories that were consumed."
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