Tips for Healthier Holiday Foods


The holiday season often means parties, celebrations, and festive foods — not to mention extra calories, sugar, and fats.

But with a few smart substitutions, cooking methods, and new ingredients, it’s possible to enjoy your holiday fare without the guilt. Registered dietitians, cookbook authors, and food bloggers offer their top tips.

Healthier Appetizers

Grazing board. Instead of heavy dips or charcuterie boards with bread, meat, and cheese as your premeal nibbles or party food, try these nutritious hors d’oeuvres. Erika Schlick, food blogger and the cookbook author of Wandering Palate, says to go for a grazing board filled with veggies like cucumbers, nuts, smoked salmon, fruits, and dips made of whipped tahini or tapenade.

Better cocktail sauce. Shrimp cocktail is a great protein-packed holiday appetizer, says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, at Street Smart Nutrition. But store-bought cocktail sauces can be high in sodium or added sugars. Mix your own version with ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and chili pepper spice to bring in heat.

Soup shooters. They’re soup served in small ramekins or shot glasses. “This is a creative way to present a familiar recipe, and works especially well with veggie-forward blended soups such as roasted red pepper and tomato or butternut squash bisque,” Harbstreet says. Garnish each shooter with fresh herbs, a slice of apple or pear, a dollop of plain Greek yogurt, or a mini bite of bacon to add interest, aroma, and flavor.

Nonalcoholic beverages. Serve sparkling water or spritzes made with seltzer and splashes of different flavors such as pomegranate, cranberry, lime, or lemon. Adding sprigs of fresh herbs or stir sticks skewered with seasonal fruit can elevate your mocktails.

Lighter Side Dishes

During the holidays, dishes that accompany the main course tend to be rich, creamy, heavy, or calorie-laden. Instead, lighten your sides up with a few swaps.

Instead of green bean casserole, saute Brussels sprouts. They’re lower in sugar and don’t contain any preservatives from canned beans. Plus, sprouts still provide that colorful green component that the dinner table needs to complement turkey, roast beef, or ham.

Instead of the candied yams or sweet potato casserole (one serving: a giant 235 calories), simply boil and mash sweet potatoes with a little nutmeg, pumpkin spice, or cinnamon.

Roast your vegetables. This is the easiest and most nutritious way to serve cauliflower, beets, butternut or kabocha squash, and other hearty vegetables. “Roasting veggies add a nice depth of flavor and are a super simple method of cooking that even the most beginner of chefs can do,” says Edith Yang, RD, CSR, CLT, a dietitian at Healthy Mission Dietitian, Inc. Drizzle vegetables with olive oil and add seasonings and spices like garlic, rosemary, thyme, or tarragon, then roast in the oven at 375 F for 15-30 minutes.

Leaner Main Dishes

These may help save room for dessert.

Swap a leg of lamb for ham. Kim Grabinski, food blogger and founder of the online recipe site 730 Sage Street, calls it “one of my healthy hacks for this year’s holiday.” Lamb is leaner than pork and also is lower in sugar and sodium-based preservatives.

Go vegetarian. Even omnivores may not miss their animal proteins with a hearty and satisfying vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie. Instead of minced meat, make it with tempeh or tofu. Harbstreet says it can be vegan-friendly, too. Replace vegetable broth for beef broth and skip butter and cheese or try vegan replacements. Customize with favorite veggies like mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, and peas.

Try Indian. Tandoori chicken is an easy-to-make guest favorite full of flavor. Chicken legs and thighs are sliced to the bone then marinated in a mix of cooling yogurt, lemon juice, and spices to bring depth to the already-moist pieces of chicken. Grill with the lid down over hot coals until slightly charred. Served with Indian flatbread and yellow rice for a light yet hearty fare.


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