It can take a ton of willpower to leave a delicious dinner with a takeout box — especially if your meal was so good that you wanted to scarf the whole thing down even after you felt stuffed. Though you might (rightly!) praise yourself for showing self-control, you may want to reconsider how healthy your large portion of leftovers actually is. A recent study from the USC Marshall School of Business shows that saving bigger portions of leftovers might influence you to exercise less or eat more later. Say what?

A plate holds a leftover half of a pizza

According to Dr. Linda Hagen, who helped lead the study, the problem is actually about perception. “Leftovers from a meal can skew people’s idea about how much they ate,” she explains. “It’s difficult to judge how much we have eaten, so we’re often heavily influenced by external cues. For example, the larger portion of leftovers we see on the plate, the less we believe we ate. You might think, ‘After all, if there’s a lot left, I cannot possibly have eaten very much, right?’” She tells us that this becomes problematic in cases where it affects what happens next — like if that perception becomes a reason to eat more later on or an excuse to skip a planned workout because you feel you haven’t eaten very much.

Good news: You can ensure your leftovers become legitimate nourishment that’s good to taste twice. “Though we didn’t specifically test this idea in our experiments,” Dr. Hagen shares, “our findings would predict that it may help to remove leftovers from the meal in advance by asking to have half the portion packed up right away when you order; downsizing portion size will help you eat healthy amounts.” Next, immediately deem the second portion a separate meal — such as tomorrow’s lunch. “If the extra food doesn’t register as ‘leftovers from my portion’ (which our research shows makes people feel good about having exerted self-control and gives them a pass to indulge later on) but is instead framed as ‘the second meal I was served,’ we might reduce some of the problematic and unhealthy effects of leftovers.”

3 Tips for Eating Healthy This Holiday Season

A woman passes a plate of food across the table at a holiday dinner

Holidays are rife with opportunity to overeat and overindulge, which might affect how healthy you feel and how much energy you have. Dr. Hagen provides three tips to help you enjoy all of your favorite foods while sticking with your feel-good wellness routine.

1. Serve yourself when you can. Dr. Hagen schools us on the science behind being served and serving yourself: “We’ve found that when someone else serves food, the recipient pushes responsibility for their eating off to the other person; they experience less guilt for indulging. As a result, the eater becomes more likely to choose unhealthy food instead of skipping it. Even more, they also ask for larger portions!” To avoid this potential pitfall, serve yourself when you can. “You’ll be more accountable for what you eat,” Dr. Hagen promises.

2. Focus on just a few tasty dishes. “I recommend reining in the variety of dishes, because research shows that having more options to choose from typically increases how much a person eats overall. This happens because people end up eating a few bites of multiple things — this adds up faster than we think,” Dr. Hagen shares. “So, whether you’re in charge of the dessert table or the side dishes, fewer options will help you and your guests avoid unintentionally going overboard.” And, as a total bonus, you might save stress prepping fewer dishes!

3. Start with a small portion. You’ve probably heard it before: Moderation is key. While you should never restrict yourself, sticking to a healthy serving size is the best way to enjoy food while treating yourself well. “I always bring it back to portion sizes,” Dr. Hagen agrees. “Consider how much food you put on your plate to begin with; studies show that bigger portions will lead you to eat more, so start with a smaller portion instead.” Still hungry? Remember that you can always go back for seconds or, well, save leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Do you bring home leftovers? Show us the dish you can’t resist on Instagram.

(Photos via Getty)