Partying on a Diet? How to Eat (and Drink) Smart

By Jay Williams, Ph.D.

The standard answer given to the age-old question of how to eat sensibly at parties is, “Eat before you go.” Really? Has that ever worked for anyone? Whenever I do it, I end up eating twice: once before I go and again after I get there. If we ate at parties only because we were hungry or the food was good, the tip might work -- but the majority of party calories are emotional or social (or both).

After years of trying, I've finally mastered the science of eating healthily at parties. Here are three levels of party-food mastery you can call upon at your next gathering. (Thanksgiving doesn’t count -- that’s your one Get Out of Jail Free card.)

Good: Scan The Buffet Before Getting In Line

Choose your top three picks and get through the buffet as quickly as possible. Pausing can easily add 500 to 1,000 calories to your plate. Line-cutting is allowed. Sit-down dinners are harder, especially with the hostess wondering why you didn't indulge in the deep-fried cheese balls. Solution: Leave the empty calories on your plate and claim lactose intolerance, or say you're highly allergic. Both of those white lies have worked for me in a pinch.

Better: Ask Before You Eat

If the server comes around with a tray of delicious-looking but unrecognizable appetizers, make sure to ask what they are before popping one into your mouth.

Best: Plan (Way) Ahead

The month before: If we're talking holiday party (Thanksgiving through New Year's), get down to your fighting weight so gaining one or two pounds won’t be a disaster and you'll still be able to zip up that sexy New Year's Eve dress. (By the way, this same tactic will work for a wedding, graduation or family reunion during the year.) If it takes you four weeks to look your best, you probably won't want to undo all that work in a single weekend.

The week before: Announce that you're bringing your favorite dish. Don't ask, “What can I bring?” The answer to that question is always “Nothing” or “A bottle of wine.” Bring a healthy dish you love, and put that on your plate first.

The night before: Get enough sleep. This will help you make better food choices the day of the party. Why? Because sleepiness affects our hormone levels -- including the hormones that control appetite. If you're tired, your body may start craving the sugary foods that will trigger an immediate release of serotonin and dopamine. And that will make the dessert table at the party very hard to ignore.

The day of the party: Decide in advance what you're going to drink. Consider not drinking alcohol at all -- it’s just empty calories, and you can have plenty of fun without it. (I do it all the time.) If you do want a cocktail, order a lower-calorie one. (Jack and Diet Coke, anyone?)

The hour before the party: Make a pact with your partner or friend that neither of you will overindulge. That way, you can hold each other accountable and avoid making bad choices together. Knocking a chicken wing out of a friend’s hand is absolutely acceptable, and he or she will thank you for it later.

And here are a few final words of wisdom...

Do Not:

  1. Skip breakfast thinking you will “save the calories.” Research has shown when you skip breakfast, you're likely to gorge at dinner.
  2. Tell yourself (or the person standing next to you), “I only eat this way at parties.” Your body has no idea that this is a special food for a special occasion -- it only knows that it's fattening and will derail your diet.


  1. Call your best friend for an immediate food intervention if you have to. Leave a message if you get voice mail. Remember, it's your body -- not your host's -- and you’re not going to be smiling tomorrow if you overeat or drink tonight to make them happy.
  2. Bring gum. It'll give you something to chew on instead of empty calories, and there will be nowhere to put the chewed gum when the appetizer tray comes around. (Your mouth will be in a bind!) Plus, you'll have minty-fresh breath for up-close conversations. Icing on the proverbial cake!

So enjoy! Socialize! After all, that’s what parties are really about. Focus on your friends, not the food.