Healthy Substitutes for Traditional Holiday Meals

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Written by: Heather Gerrish, RD

The tradition. The memories. The FOOD! The Holidays are filled with wonderful opportunities to gather and be around friends and family, but the Holidays can also be full of tempting foods that only come around once a year. However this year is different, you have set goals in mind and you are not afraid to show it! Right?.. Right!

Tradition and food go hand in hand, but so does turkey, stuffing, and well... feeling stuffed. It’s not about depriving yourself of the dishes you crave all year long, instead creating healthy substitutions to make sure that you can not only enjoy them, but also feel good about eating them. Continuing from the Happy, Healthy Holidays Blog from Thanksgiving, here are some more considerations to include as we continue on with the Holiday Season.


Things to Think of:

  1. What are your staple dishes? Are you preparing the main course? Sides? Desserts?

  2. Do you have a healthy option available in an S.O.S. situation (think of your choices if you were hungry enough to eat an entire ham by the time you sit down for dinner).

  3. What are ways that automatically would modify your dish to be a little healthier? Would reducing the amount of added fats be possible? Could you swap a main ingredient for a filling vegetable? Could you reduce some of the sugar called for in your recipe? (The short answer is YES!).

Here are some common swaps that can help to alleviate some of the stress when thinking about how to make a Holiday meal a little healthier, one ingredient at at a time:

  • Substitute sugar in baked goods with applesauce (this works well for breads/muffins and other sweet treats. Applesauce contains sweetness naturally from the sugars found in the fruit itself, but also you are getting in more fiber and nutrients by creating this sweet alternative. Try substituting half sugar/half applesauce at first and modify for taste.

  • Swap out heavy cream for ½ low fat milk, ½ heavy cream. This will ensure that the flavor is still present in the dish, but also reduce the total calories and fat by a substantial amount!

  • Throw in vegetables at every opportunity available. This is no joke. Adding a double serving of green beans to your green bean casserole not only allow you to enjoy more for less (you end up eating more green beans vs. crunchy onions and cream of mushroom soup) but also you still get the flavor of a single serving. Focusing on fruits and vegetables is still an important trick even when enjoying savory dishes.

  • Cut the Crust. This can be a little difficult, but having only one section of pie crust with your apple crumble is much better that indulging in the entire serving of flakey goodness. Don’t be fooled - the crust is where the majority of added fat (that is what makes the crust so flakey and delicious!) is located. Limit this and you will have cut your caloric intake down by at least a few hundred calories.

  • Don’t be a sorry snacker. This means that don’t allow yourself to graze the entire day. This can lead to mindless eating and is not as satisfying as sitting down to a delicious plate of food. Also, visualizing your food before eating it in one sitting can help to focus on one meal versus an entire day of snacking. If snacking is more of a trend in your home, try to limit yourself to one plate, just as if you were to dish up a plate. This will provide the same visual guidance to ensure that you are still in control of your choices and are mindful of the foods you select for the coveted spot on your Holiday Plate.

An example Holiday meal might include:

3 oz baked ham (1 portion of protein)

½ cup of mashed sweet potatoes with 1 tbsp of butter (limit butter if already in mashed potatoes)

¾ cup spinach cranberry salad with glazed walnuts + 2 tbsp cranberry vinaigrette

⅔ cup Apple Pie Parfait  - or try baked apples with low fat vanilla yogurt

Notice how portion sizes are controlled and the emphasis on still having a source of vegetables in the meal is apparent. Also, notice that my dessert is a modified version of the classic Apple Pie. I chose to substitute with a low fat vanilla yogurt but still focus on the same flavor profile as the traditional version. You could even sprinkle the walnuts from the salad (~1 tbsp) for some extra crunch. This meal in no way deprives myself from enjoying classic Holiday dishes, but also provides me with adequate variety and reasonable portions so I am left feeling satisfied - not stuffed.

Practice some of these tips at your next Holiday party and this Season - New Year’s is right around the corner and what better way to kick off the New Year than sticking to your goals and continuing to move towards a healthy, happy you!

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Danielle Gray