Holiday Leftovers: Smart Tips to Control Overeating

UT MD Anderson experts share advice on how to avoid holiday weight gain

MD Anderson News Release 12/6/11

Holiday weight gain doesn’t result from overeating one or two meals. It’s usually from feasting on leftovers for days or even weeks, which can pack on hundreds of extra calories. Adults can avoid holiday weight gain by following advice shared by experts from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“Unfortunately, most people don’t shed extra holiday weight and just keep adding pounds year after year,” said Mary Ellen Herndon, wellness dietitian at MD Anderson. “And, unhealthy weight gain can put you at greater risk for diseases like cancer.”

Herndon offers these suggestions.

Make a game plan for leftovers

“Right after a holiday meal, divide all leftovers into one-half cup servings,” Herndon said. “Refrigerate enough for a day or two and freeze the rest.”

Leftovers aren’t just for reheating. Turn holiday leftovers into new healthy dishes by reusing the following foods:

White turkey meat

  • Whip up your favorite chili recipe, but use turkey instead of ground beef.
  • Wrap turkey, spinach leaves and two tablespoons of cranberry sauce in a whole wheat tortilla.

Mashed potatoes

  • Mix in a healthy helping of cooked vegetables for a new twist on this side. Try cauliflower, broccoli, green beans and/or carrots.

Sweet potatoes

  • Make a protein-packed sandwich spread or veggie dip by pureeing one-half cup sweet potatoes with one-half cup chickpeas. Eat only one or two tablespoons at a time.

Keep servings small

Whether eating a holiday meal, snacking on appetizers at a party or indulging in leftovers, keeping off the extra pounds starts with portion control. To figure out what a healthy portion is, visualize a similar size item. For instance:

  • Gravy or cranberry sauce: golf ball (one-fourth cup)
  • Turkey (white meat): deck of cards (3 ounces)
  • Stuffing: ice cream scoop (one-half cup)
  • Pie: light bulb (one-eighth of a 9-inch pie)

Women should try to keep each meal to around 500 calories; men should strive for 700. Find the calorie counts and serving sizes for favorite holiday foods by using MD Anderson’s Serving Size Cheat Sheet or the USDA’s MyFood-a-Pedia.

Share the bounty

One way to avoid overindulging is to get leftovers out of sight. Here’s how:

  • Give guests “doggie bags.” Have containers ready to speed up the process.
  • Give leftovers to relatives or friends who don’t cook or join the festivities.
  • Donate canned or boxed foods, as well as unopened store-bought baked goods to a food bank or homeless shelter.

Pick and choose foods carefully

“At every meal, choose one dish from each category of food,” Herndon said.

For example, eat one side item, one main dish and one dessert. Keep each serving to around one-half cup, and make fruits and vegetables the biggest part of your meal.

“You’ll thank yourself for the gift of trimmer holiday meals in January — and quite possibly for years to come,” Herndon said.

For additional healthy holiday tips, visit