nutrition coaching

Holiday Nutrition Triage

A survival guide

How do you stick to good nutrition during the holidays? Especially when you are traveling to stay with family and you have little to no control over what food is available?


What do I mean by Triage

Triage (v): the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success

In short,  it means doing your best in the given circumstances.

Perfect nutrition doesn't exist, unless you live in a vacuum. Most of us have to interact with real-world circumstances. Even if we have become adept at navigating the "real-time" ups and downs of our everyday lives, things like holiday travel and the food-based events contained therein can throw a serious wrench in our gears. The key is to limit the disruption, while still taking part in the traditions. 

There are three steps in the Nutritional Triage process:

  1. Know your personal nutrition principles (PNPs)
  2. Assess the available options
  3. Choose the best option, given the circumstances, to keep you in alignment with your commitment to your goal. 


PNPs will be based on your goal(s) and what works for you. For example, my goal is to maintain my weight, and maximize my energy. My PNPs are:

  • Palm sized portion of Protein with every meal
  • Green leafy vegetables at least 2x/day
  • Limit sugar & refined carbohydrates 
  • Eat mostly whole unprocessed foods
  • No gluten (not because I believe being gluten free makes you holy, but because it destroys my insides. If it doesn't destroy your insides, eat up! No moral judgements from me.)

As you can see, I'm already a fairly moderate nutritionista. That's because I've found that too much rigidity actually works against me. I get real mad if there are too many rules and end up overeating the wrong stuff just to prove that rules aren't the boss of me. Which is not the championship. So, I moderate. 

You might do better with strict guidelines, and that's cool too. Studies have shown that people are either moderators OR abstainers -- for more on that (including a quiz to help you figure out which camp you belong to) check out Gretchin Rubin's work. She's smart and funny and has done a TON of research on knowing yourself, habit formation and increasing happiness through practical actions. 

SO: Whatever your PNPs, you can still follow the triage thought process to help you navigate eating well during the holidaze. 




As much as you can, plan ahead. I always bring snacks with me when I travel, and if I'm going to be away for 5+ days with uncertain access to grocery stores and little to no control over where the family goes out to eat, I like to cover a few bases with some non-perishables. 

  • Protein powder (In a zip lock bag so it takes up very little space)
  • Raw, unsalted nuts (I prefer pecans, walnuts, or almonds--in that order) - not pictured
  • Whole-food bars e.g. RX Bars, Epic bars, or Perfect Bars
  • Supplements (I take fish oil and vitamin B12 daily)
  • Digestive enzymes (the chewables from Trader Joe's are great! Though not pictured) 
  • Water bottle

All of this takes up less space than a pair of shoes, and will help me stick to my principles, keep my digestion on track, avoid hangry tantrums, etc. But most importantly, it will help me hold onto a consistent habit, a key factor in long-term health outcomes (BOOM. <---Science.).

Flying is super dehydrating--this is part of the reason many of us have trouble staying regular with our elimination when we travel. (Yes, I'm talking about poop.) Bring a water bottle and fill it up once you get through security--many airports have nice water bottle refilling stations with filtered water. Then all that's left to do is drink up! I aim to finish my 40oz klean kanteen by the time I land. Then I can fill it up on the other and and keep sipping on the ride from the airport ;) 

In general, you want to aim to drink at least half your bodyweight in ounces per day. More active folks need even more! 

Triage for Dining Out

Take a deep breath. Eating out is not an automatic sign to switch into Eat-Like-A-Kid mode. You know what I'm talking about.

First, take your time reading the menu. See what most appeals to you, and also scan for things that fit within your current nutrition principles. Ideally there will be some overlap, but sometimes that's not the case. In those instances, I try to strike a balance of getting what I need, and allowing some extra fun stuff that will please my palate. 'Cause food should taste good, goddamnit!

Also, ask for adjustments. Most American-style restaurants will make quick swaps of sides (i.e. steamed broccoli on place of mashed potatoes, side salad for fries). As a gluten intolerant person, I've learned you can even ask for sandwiches on a bed of lettuce instead of bread--most places will oblige you (even if they do so with a raised eyebrow). 

When you can, use Yelp or a Google search of restaurants in your area to find spots that will have good options for you and be proactive about suggesting a place that will accommodate your nutritional needs. In my experience, large family gatherings give in to inertia. No one wants to be the one to choose for the whole group, for fear that people won't like their suggestion but will go along with it anyway. This leads to just following historical precedent, and eating at "that place we went last year." What I've found? People are more than glad to follow someone else's direction, as it saves them from being the decision-maker. So step up, and choose well!

Triage for Dining In

This may be the hardest place to stay in alignment with your personal nutrition principles. You're at a relative's house, and there's tons of social pressure to partake in the meal they spent time preparing for you and the other guests. Especially around holiday time, there can be an added layer of guilt-tripping: "we only make this once a year" ( you better enjoy it 'cause we're going to, and if YOU don't then WE might feel guilty). 

Holy minefield, batman. 

In order to tread carefully in these situations, I tend to take a small helping of the prized dish, and enjoy it slowly and mindfully, aiming to stop eating it once it no longer tastes as AMAZING as the very first bite. Read more about the brilliant "First Bite Rule" on Neghar Fonooni's blog. This way I am able to be part of the group activity, honor my host, and also limit my deviation from my PNPs. Not to mention I get to deeply enjoy a delicious treat! 

Let the guilt go. 

The holidays can be stressful enough with family dynamics, travel logistics, and lack of routine. There's no need to add stress to the system by piling on guilt. Trust your triage, enjoy your splurges mindfully...the End.

In the end, sometimes the best therapy is in realizing that the struggle is real, and that there are other people fighting similar battles.  Like me!

If you want to follow along, I'll be posting examples of my own personal holiday nutrition triage on our Instagram feed (follow us @thefitnessalchemists).

Want some specific advice on your choices? Post your own holiday triage efforts and I'll comment with tips and suggestions! Be sure to tag us @thefitnessalchemists and use the hashtag #holidaynutritiontriage so that we can find your posts. 

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If you are following a gluten-free, low-carb, or Paleo diet, or if you are just trying to eat more real food and less processed food, the Taco Bowl is your ticket to feeling full and satisfied.

Here’s my formula...  

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