Overeating is like overdrinking—lots of us use food as a source of pleasure and escape. As a certified weight-loss coach, I’m often asked how to avoid overeating during the holidays.

Is it possible to not gain weight or actually lose weight over the holidays? It is, and I’m going to tell you how.

Decisions Ahead of Time.

Just like planning how many drinks you’ll have is the secret to not overdrinking, planning what you’ll eat ahead of time is the way to stop overeating over the holidays, and after.

Use this strategy, along with deciding how many drinks you’ll have, everyday. Especially on days when you expect challenges, such as big family meals.

The key is to commit to planning what you will eat 24 hours in advance. It’s the same tool we use to avoid overdrinking.

I’m not talking weighing portions or bringing meals everywhere you go. This is not about counting calories or macros.

Every night after you brush your teeth, take a couple of minutes to write down what you’ll eat the next day. Do it on your phone, in a notebook, or on a post-it, but do it.

Christmas dinner at your mom’s? You have an idea what will be served.

Reservations at a fancy restaurant? They’ll have some sort of protein and vegetables.

Lunch out on work days? Virtually every place you go to eat has salad with grilled chicken, veggies and fatty dressing.

Consider where, what and how you’ll be eating the next day, along with whether and how much you will drink, and then decide to stick to your plan for 24 hours.

What about Aunt Sally’s famous chocolate pecan pie? Fine. Put that and how much you will eat on your plan.

What if you’re presented with something very delicious you didn’t expect? No problem. Wrap it up, take it home and tonight put it on your plan for tomorrow. Or put it on tomorrow’s plan and come back the next day.

This takes the act of deciding what to eat away from your primitive brain, which has evolved over millions of years to see food and urge you to eat as much as possible immediately in case there’s a famine.

If you try to make a decision in the moment about what to eat, your primitive brain will instruct you to consume now. This is how we evolved. We are designed to store bodyfat. See food, eat food, store fat. Your primitive brain uses dopamine to reinforce this process. In the moment, the decision feels critical for survival.

Unlearn this conditioned dopamine response, and you’ll decrease desire for food.

Instead of making the decision of what and how much to eat in the moment, decide ahead and you’ll be making decisions from your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that allows rational thinking and long-term goals.

Using your higher brain 24 hours ahead of time, and not your primitive brain in the moment, you’ll be able to make a choice consistent with your goals.

Good news—as lawyers, professionals, business owners, we use our prefrontal cortex constantly. It’s a skill we’ve honed. We don’t yell at the judge when they’ve made a mistake. We don’t punch our client when they disregard our advice for the tenth time. You definitely have the ability to make decisions from your prefrontal cortex instead of your primitive brain.

Start right now. Decide what you will eat and drink today and tomorrow. Write it down. Repeat every night.

Sometimes you will fail.

You are not allowed to beat yourself up. Period.

You’re learning to apply a skill you already know to a new situation. We don’t yell at a second grader when they’re struggling to learn to read. We help them practice, practice, practice. They say the wrong word, they sound it out incorrectly or it doesn’t follow the rule, we help them understand and encourage them to try again. We expect them to make mistakes. They are learning something new. So are you.

Begin to apply this skill to your food choices, along with planning your drinking, and you’ll begin to not overeat and not overdrink with less effort. You’ve totally got this.

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit www.julieernst.com to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.