How to stick with tradition and still make healthier holiday meals

Holiday cookies

Source: Pond5

Guest post by Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD courtesy of the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

First off, nobody wants to mess with treasured holiday recipes. There are good reasons we treasure them. If they are perfect as is, why change them and risk disappointing all those tradition-loving eaters? I would never suggest fussing around with Grandma’s cherished holiday cookie recipe, so you can breathe easy.

However … not everything you serve at holiday time falls into that “most-loved” category. There are lots of things that are just served traditionally that don’t necessarily have a place in your culinary heart. Those are the items where you could probably make changes in the name of health and not really worry about how your guests will receive them.

In fact, making some healthy tweaks in those dishes might make the whole meal much more healthful. It will also let you feel better about serving all those big dinners and bountiful breakfasts. So, with all that in mind, let’s get started with a few ideas.

Which dishes would be easiest to“healthify?”

Not everything you make will take well to alterations. It makes sense to examine your menu or holiday recipe collection first and then make your plan. In general, recipes for baked goods are not the easiest to modify. Baking is like a chemistry experiment. Texture, leavening, flakiness, moisture level and more can all be tricky to maintain when you begin to juggle around ingredients and proportions.

A beef stew, a casserole, or grain or potato-based side dishes — these are all much easier to modify with good results. In fact, keeping the main dish as is while lightening everything around it is a pretty good dinner strategy. Another place to trim some holiday fat and calories with ease: beverages.

Decide which attributes to modify

Maybe you just want to cut down the calories. Maybe your uncle Bob is following a low-sodium diet. Maybe adding more fiber is your goal? It’s easier to change one (or two) things instead of trying to do everything at once and hoping the resulting dish will taste as good as always.

How to start?

  • Send in the swap: One easy way to make your food more healthful is just to swap out some of the less healthful ingredients. There are lots of resources for finding decent switches. Here are a couple that I like:
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look for another, more healthful recipe that is similar to your traditional one. A quick internet search will yield thousands (no kidding) of healthy versions of sweet potato casserole. choose the one that is most like what Grandma always made and you’re golden.
  • Bulk up the dish with more fruits and veggies. Adding more bulk to a recipe gives the same eating satisfaction, while “stretching out” the calories and fat—in other words, you’ve created a less energy-dense dish (not to mention adding more nutrients and fiber). Here are some ideas for adding more produce to your life—most are easy to incorporate into what you’re already planning to cook!
  • Consider just cutting the portion size. This seems obvious, but it’s something that many people overlook. Many things can be made their usual way, but just served in small amounts.
    • A mini muffin pan works great for scaling down regular muffin-sized recipes
    • A regular muffin pan is handy for portioning everything from cheesecakes, brownies and tarts, to quiches and stuffing (check out these decadent but petite muffin tin recipes).
    • Using individual serving dishes instead of serving things family-style is another way to keep portions in check.
    • Divvy up the recipe in the kitchen into fancy, stemmed dessert bowls or onto smaller individual plates.
    • Use an ice-cream scoop to keep portion-size uniform.
    • Use the tools you have on hand to tame portions and you may not have to alter the recipe at all.

If you’re trying something new and you’re not sure it will work, by all means, practice the recipe ahead of time. Nobody wants a flop on that special day … in front of guests or extended family. Here are some healthy holiday dishes for inspiration when developing your menus this season:

Stuffing ideas

A variety of holiday desserts

Side dishes

Appetizers

Enjoy cooking and enjoy the holidays!

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.