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Simple tweaks for a healthier holiday spread

People cooking for the holidays

Follow these nine smart tips to make your sauces, sides and sweets extra healthy and delicious this season.

The holidays wouldn’t be the same without your family’s traditional foods. Maybe that includes all your favorite sides and pies.

But what if you’re also trying to cut calories or lose weight?

Making small, healthy tweaks to your favorite dishes can help your health and your waistline. “Our progress is the sum of all of our choices and habits,” says Jacki Howard, RD. She’s a health coach for RVO Health, part of Optum, in Madison, Wisconsin. “Little tweaks can definitely add up over the course of the holidays.” And you’ll still get to enjoy the same great flavors.

If you’re looking to lighten up that sauce, side or dessert without sacrificing flavor, read on. Here are nine smart tips to make your holiday table healthier and just as delicious.

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1. Swap in Greek yogurt for sour cream

Sour cream can be a staple for holiday dishes like mashed potatoes. Trading it for plain low-fat Greek yogurt can help you limit saturated fat and calories.1 And the rich, creamy texture and tangy flavor will still satisfy you, says Lauren Spradling, RD. She’s a health coach for RVO Health in Chicago.

Greek yogurt can also be a healthy substitute in mayonnaise-based dishes. Howard likes to use it for potato salad dressing, for instance.

2. Try oil instead of butter

Replacing saturated fats, like butter, with unsaturated fats, like oils, may help keep your heart healthy.1 Oils can often stand in for butter while still delivering on taste. Try olive oil for roasting or sautéing vegetables.

You can also bake with oil instead of butter.2 Pick an oil that is lightly flavored, such as canola oil. For every tablespoon of butter that a recipe calls for, use 3/4 tablespoon of oil instead.3

3. Add in crunch with nuts

Some casseroles beg for a crisp topping. Nuts offer a similar crunch factor as fried onions or buttery breadcrumbs. But they also come packed with fiber to help you stay fuller longer, Spradling says. And nuts contain fats that are good for your heart too.4

Here are some other delicious ideas:

  • Crushed or finely chopped walnuts are a good breadcrumb substitute. Try them on top of creamed spinach or in place of a breadcrumb coating.
  • Sliced almonds make a tasty topper for green bean casserole.

Spradling also suggests another alternative: topping a casserole with a mixture of nuts and breadcrumbs.

One caution: if you have young kids in the house, be mindful that nuts can be a choking hazard.

4. Reach for whole grains

Another way to get more fiber in your holiday meal: Choose whole grains instead of refined ones.5 (Refined grains have gone through a process that removes parts of them.) Refined grains lose vital nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals during processing.

Spradling notes that you can replace regular noodles with whole wheat noodles in dishes like macaroni and cheese. Opt for whole grain bread or rolls instead of white. Or think about using whole wheat flour instead of some of the white flour in baked good recipes. For most recipes, you can do a one-to-one swap.6

5. Throw in some extra veggies

Vegetables add fiber and nutrients to any dish without driving up the calories.7 Spradling suggests including them wherever you can. Here are some ideas:

  • Add sautéed spinach or zucchini to lasagna.
  • Fold chopped steamed broccoli into mac and cheese or quiche.
  • Stir some steamed, pureed cauliflower into cream sauce.

The choices are practically limitless, so have fun!

6. Choose low-fat cheese

When a dish calls for cheese, choose a low-fat version. This simple switch trims saturated fat and calories from casseroles, sauces and other dishes.

Try these ideas:2

  • Low-fat feta crumbles in veggie salads or sides.
  • Part-skim mozzarella in baked pasta dishes like lasagna.

7. See how sweets taste with less sugar

Your pumpkin pie or ginger cookies may taste just as good with a fraction of the sugar. “You can usually get away with adding less sugar than most recipes call for,” Howard says. Generally, you can cut sugar by around 25% without noticing much of a difference in flavor.6

Another sweet tip from Howard: Replace some of the sugar with a low- or no-calorie sweetener such as stevia, allulose or monk fruit sweeteners. Follow the package label for directions on how to do this.

8. Mix in fruit for sweetness

Another way to make baked goods sweet with less refined sugar? Mix fruit-based ingredients that have natural sugar into your recipe, notes Howard. These could include:

  • Applesauce
  • Mashed bananas
  • Pureed dates

You’ll be able to cut down on the granulated sugar in the recipe. Plus, fruit adds some extra fiber and nutrients.5 Start with a small amount. Too much fruit might change the texture.8

Wanting to use fruit with less overall sugar? Howard also suggests pairing berries with a rich dessert. You’ll be serving up an extra helping of fiber and nutrients to make that cake slice or cookie plate a little more wholesome.

9. Enjoy small portions of the real thing

You don’t have to change up every holiday recipe. It’s OK to stick with the classics when that’s what you really want. “A few treats won’t have a huge impact if you are eating them as part of an overall balanced diet,” Howard says.

The key is moderation, she adds. Enjoy a small scoop of mashed potatoes and a slice of pot roast. Then fill the other half of your plate with veggies like salad or sautéed green beans.9 Have a sugar cookie or a thin wedge of apple pie — and savor every bite.5

When you’re done with that last pie crumb, don’t lose track of everything else you learned above. You’ll feel your best when you stick with your healthy habits, which may be the best holiday gift of all.

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  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. December 2020. Accessed October 13, 2023.
  2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 25 Heart-Healthy Eating Tips. Last reviewed February 18, 2022. Accessed September 28, 2023.
  3. American Heart Association. Healthy Cooking Oils. Smart Substitutions to Eat Healthy.  Accessed September 28, 2023.
  4. American Heart Association. Go Nuts (But Just A Little!). Accessed September 28, 2023.
  5. National Institutes of Health. Rough Up Your Diet. Accessed September 28, 2023.
  6. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Healthy Baking Alternatives. Last reviewed March 19, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.
  7. MyPlate.gov. Vegetables. Accessed September 28, 2023.
  8. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 25 Heart-Healthy Eating Tips. Last reviewed February 18, 2022. Accessed September 28, 2023.
  9. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Healthy Baking Alternatives. Last reviewed March 19, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.

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