8 Ways to Incorporate Healthy Ingredients into Holiday Meals

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The holiday season is quickly approaching, so healthy ingredients may be the furthest thing from your mind. With the “most magical time of the year” comes family baking, hearty dinners, and recipes laden with cheat day staples. There are a few things to keep in mind, though:

  • Unfortunately, enjoying these delectable spreads can often take a toll on your health and wellness. 
  • The average Thanksgiving dinner alone can add up to a whopping 3,000 calories, many of which are not the nutrient-packed fuel your body needs.
  • You don’t have to let stress about increased intake weigh you down, though. 
  • With careful planning and strategic swaps in your recipes, holiday meals can be delicious, filled with everything you need (think vitamins, protein, nutrients, fiber, whole grains, antioxidants, whole foods, and more), and be kind to your body.

Here’s a guide to making your favorite holiday meals a little less unhealthy — and some tips for what to do when a nutritious swap just isn’t an option. 

The Science of Swapping

Trading out ingredients for equivalent alternatives isn’t just useful for when you’ve forgotten an item at the store. Swapping some of a recipe’s less-healthy ingredients for nutritious neighbors can have a large impact on your health and diet, without drastically changing the taste. This can also be a great way to experiment with new ingredients or make recipes more accommodating for relatives with dietary restrictions.

Consider incorporating these healthy ingredients that can be swapped into your holiday favorites: 

  1. Flip flour to black beans.
Healthy Ingredients

On the surface, this trade can seem hard to swallow, but trust us — once you’ve transformed these fiber- and protein-filled beans into delicious chocolate bakes, you’ll have no trouble gobbling them down. Replacing flour with black beans in popular desserts like brownies, chocolate cake, or cookies will introduce omega-3s, vitamins, and other nutrients into the treats without altering their taste or appearance. This is also a quick and easy way to make classic dessert recipes gluten-free, too, which is helpful for those who might suffer from celiac disease or have difficulty processing grain-based foods. 

  1. Ditch festive cocktails for mocktails. 

Drinks can be deceptive around the holiday season, but they are a popular staple in many party environments. It’s hard to remember that a fun, small drink can be packed with one part festivities and one part empty calories or sugar. Cutting the alcohol from these beverages can be an easy fix for reducing calories, but it can also reduce fun. Layering diverse fruit juices, adding actual fruits, using flavored seltzer waters, and incorporating natural herbs can help to kick up a “kiddie” cocktail. Zero-calorie sweeteners can also mitigate the effects of traditionally sugary sips. Also consider a glass of red wine in place of a cocktail, as studies have shown even one glass can be good for heart health.

  1. Switch out sugar.

Sugar is as much a fixture of the holidays as light displays or holiday markets. While it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to eliminate it completely, certain dishes can help disguise some healthier alternatives. Unsweetened applesauce and honey can replicate the caramel-like texture of cooked sugar, for example, plus provide the kick of sweetness your holiday spirit craves — with less burden on your diet. 

  1. Go Greek for sour cream.

Has plain Greek yogurt ever struck you as too sour for smoothies? The somewhat bitter taste makes it the perfect substitute for milk-based sour cream in savory dishes, and may be easier on the stomachs of those who have trouble with traditional dairy products. It delivers a shockingly similar flavor while lowering a recipe’s fat content, too, and is known for increasing protein and offering plenty of antioxidants and probiotics to help with digestion. Plain, non-fat varieties can also take the place of oil in many ingredients lists. 

  1. Switch to olive oil.
olive oil

On the topic of oil, swap olive oil for your typical vegetable or peanut oil for healthier cooking, and consider offering a dish of it with fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme in place of butter for breads. Olive oil offers a healthy fat that may have benefits like heart-boosting antioxidants and low saturated fat content compared to other oils, both of which may help prevent heart disease. It tastes great when used to cook chicken, pasta, salmon and fish, meat, beef, vegetables, tomatoes, quinoa, and other recipes, and can be flavored with herbs and spices (like garlic) to be used as a dressing.

It’s important to remember that not all swaps of these healthy ingredients are done with a one-to-one ratio. Be sure to research the proper kitchen substitution strategies before transforming the classics. 

Pile These Staples on Your Plate This Year

Don’t worry — not all holiday treats are out to get you! In fact, many of your favorite dishes contain plenty of health benefits. Being cognizant of the content of your meals can help you make informed decisions when returning for seconds.

Keep an eye out for these festive treats: 

  1. Green Bean Casserole
Green bean casserole

Traditionally made with canned or fresh green beans and mushrooms, this savory dish is a great way to easily get your recommended servings of vegetables. If your family recipe uses fresh ingredients, the benefits only increase. Most recipes have only around 100 calories per serving, while still providing the indulgent fun of fried onions. 

  1. Fruit Salad

This holiday spread staple may come as no surprise, as both words in the title are typically associated with health. Many include fresh or canned fruits, nuts, dried toppings, yogurt, and other nutrient-rich ingredients. Of course, many holiday fruit salad recipes include guest stars like pudding and marshmallows. Still, this sweet favorite is an easy way to enjoy some natural sugars and nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, and folic acid. Just try to avoid too much fluff on your third scoop!

  1. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potato dish

Sweet potatoes’ orange color is not just festive for fall. The hue is also an indication of the many valuable vitamins and minerals the root vegetable is packed with. Unfortunately, the popular sweet potato casseroles we all know and love are frequently loaded with brown sugar and unhealthy fats in the form of toppings. An easy solution is to establish a sweet potato “bar,” allowing each dinner guest to personalize their own spud. Just a small sprinkle of sugar or a thin layer of butter can transform a “tater” into a fiber-filled treat. 

Remember When to Just Enjoy Your Food 

roasting chestnuts

There can be a lot of counting involved during the holiday season. We count down the days until our favorite celebration and the seconds until the New Year, but we might also get lost in trying to keep track of every bite we consume.

Here are a few things to keep in mind during this fun time:

  • While maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important, don’t let calorie-counting dominate your festivities.
  • Cheat days go hand-in-hand with holiday cheer, after all, some recipes are just too delicious and classic to change.
  • Candy canes, cookies, and chestnuts (roasting on an open fire) can be the perfect way to relax and relieve stress.
  • They can also create and bring back precious memories.
  • The joy that comes with enjoying a special holiday treat can bring emotional wellness, often outweighing a few extra calories. 

No one sweet will make or break your body, and swapping in whole grains or brown rice for your typical white flour or rice won’t ruin a dish. Health and wellness are established through long-term habits and gradual changes in how you approach your kitchen, so there is no reason to dread the holiday season. This can be a perfect time to practice mindfulness and self-control when surrounded by plenty of tempting options, though.

Even if you slip up, New Year’s resolutions for better practices are just around the corner! 

Are You Ready to Start a Healthier Chapter?

A healthy lifestyle is the greatest gift you can give yourself. As we transition into the holiday season and New Year, prioritizing your wellness will set you on the right track. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be a huge change! With the proper recipes and eating habits, doing good for your body can be delicious. Contact Dr. Karen Threlkel to have any questions about healthy ingredients answered by an expert today.

About The Author:

Picture of Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Threlkel received her degree of Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine from The National College for Naturopathic Medicine (now called The National University of Natural Medicine) in Portland, Oregon. She also holds a Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology from The University of Maryland. She is licensed in Naturopathic Medicine by the Government of the District of Columbia Department of Health. Dr. Threlkel is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, past president & current member of the Washington DC Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

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