The coming holidays are a time for parties, religious celebrations, family get-togethers and bulging bellies. Whether you observe Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Eid al-Adha, the weeks are typically marked with celebrations that include food — and lots of it.

For some, the holidays can also mean enjoying too many holiday treats, desserts and drinks, all while putting exercise routines on hold.

The average person gains just over one pound during the holiday season, according to a 2000 study by researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. While this number may seem insignificant in the short term, small weight gains will add up year after year. With a little know-how and vigilance, you can get as much enjoyment out of the approaching holidays without feeling guilty or unhealthy.

There are strategies to help you get through the holidays without having to put your healthy-eating habits on hold.

Snack attack

To prevent overeating during the holidays, do not skip meals and arrive at an event on an empty stomach. This means eating meals at regular times throughout the day, and having a light snack between meals in order to keep blood sugar levels consistent.

This is especially true for holiday parties. To avoid overindulging, eat a light and healthy snack before leaving the house; try a handful of roasted almonds, a low-fat yogurt or a piece of fruit at least two to three hours before your meal.

Liquid calories add up

The calories in alcoholic beverages can quickly add up. While the usual suspects of wine and beer have between 100 and 150 calories per serving, holiday drinks that include ingredients such as eggnog will have twice that amount.

The same goes for seasonal drinks at your local coffee shop. Take a Starbucks grande Gingerbread Latte for example — even with nonfat milk and skipping the whipped cream, you're still looking at 240 calories!

To avoid unnecessary liquid calories, drink plenty of water before going out and alternate every alcoholic drink with a glass of water. If hot beverages are your vice, opt for seasonal herbal teas. They are just as tasty and calorie free.

Quality not quantity

Your favourite calorie-laden holiday foods do not have to be completely off limits this season. Make an effort to enjoy them in smaller portions. The taste is usually enough to satisfy a craving without overindulging.

To help eat smaller portions, choose a salad plate instead of a dinner plate and serve yourself. Researchers at Cornell University found that larger serving bowls resulted in a 31 per cent increase in serving size, while larger serving utensils resulted in a 14.5 per cent increase in serving size.

Food preparation tips

Food preparation can go a long way toward keeping holiday weight off. You can cut calories without sacrificing flavour by:

  • Using broth to sauté instead of butter — 104 calories saved per tablespoon.
  • Using non-fat milk instead of whole milk — 60 calories saved per cup.
  • Using plain, non-fat yogurt instead of cream — 720 calories saved per cup.

Healthy foods first

When serving yourself at a buffet or dinner party, fill up on healthy foods first. That means reaching for the shrimp cocktail, veggies and hummus or smoked salmon instead of the sausage rolls, chips and dip. This is an easy strategy to reduce your intake of rich foods, and by round two you will not be as hungry and will be less likely to reach for the unhealthy fare.

Plan ahead

If you will be attending a get-together where there will be food, offer to bring a low-calorie dish to share. That way you can partake in the event and know there is at least one healthy dish you can enjoy.

Every bit counts

When preparing meals for your own get-togethers, be mindful of what you nibble on while making the food. Calories from mindless nibbling quickly add up. When preparing food, try chewing gum to prevent yourself from unnecessary sampling or have a bowl of raw green veggies near by to snack on while preparing your meal.

Out of sight, out of mind

Whether it's holiday cookies on the kitchen counter or a box of chocolates lying around at the office, the best way to prevent eating treats is to put them out of reach and out of sight. If you have an excess amount of treats at home, freeze them so they are not as accessible. Only bring them out when unexpected guests stop by.

Focus on activity, not on food

Start your own family traditions by planning get-togethers around activities, instead of meals. While a meal is quickly forgotten, a fun event will be remembered for years to come. Tobogganing, skating or a game of hockey as the focus of a get-together will take the emphasis off food and will burn calories.

Choose wisely

The following suggestions will help you enjoy your favourite holiday meals:

For those who celebrate Christmas, choose lean turkey breast, cranberry sauce and plenty of steamed vegetables as the base of your meal. Skip the rich sauces and gravies, instead top up your mashed potatoes with fresh chives and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar or try a squeeze of lemon on your steamed vegetables.

Since many traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil, be sure to enjoy these foods in moderation. Enjoy latkes with applesauce or low fat sour cream. Doughnuts deep-fried in oil can still be enjoyed, but instead of eating the whole thing, share it; so you can enjoy the taste without feeling you have to eat the whole thing.

If you celebrate Kwanzaa, prepare your feast around traditional African dishes that emphasize plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, beans and other traditional legumes. Choose fruits and vegetables that are brightly coloured, as they are rich sources of antioxidants, important disease-fighting compounds.

Many dishes celebrating Eid al-Adha focus on the sacrificial meat, such as goat and sheep. Prepare these special dishes with low-fat sauces to keep the calories at a minimum. Use traditional spices to add extra flavour without adding extra fat.

To avoid disappointment from unrealistic goals this holiday season, focus on weight maintenance instead of weight loss. By allowing yourself small samples of holiday treats you will prevent the over-consumption of calories while still getting a taste of the holidays. By setting yourself realistic goals instead of an all-out ban on holiday indulgences, you are also ready to feel better about the holidays once they have ended.

And don't forget the importance of exercise. Regardless of how you celebrate, healthy eating habits combined with physical activity can help ward off the party pounds and allow you to celebrate the holidays feeling your best.