10 Holiday Dinner Health Hacks

10 Holiday Dinner Health Hacks

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If you’re anything like me, Bubby Rose’s cream cheese mashed potatoes at Chanukah and Uncle Henry’s double-crust apple pie with a slice of Wisconsin Cheddar at Christmas dance in your dreams year-round. So what’s a health-conscious, activity-tracking, kettle-bell slinger to do? Read on for tips on balancing indulging in what you love most, skipping the dishes you don't truly want, and reimagining the rest.

It’s important to enjoy special holiday meals without feeling deprived, but it’s easy to go overboard during this time of year and enter the new year feeling less than ideal. Here are a few ways to handle all the holiday shindigs, from the office potluck to your neighborhood New Year’s buffet, without the guilt or weight gain.

Appetizers and Cocktails

Full-Fat Dips vs. Low-Calorie Options

Packing in the fat upfront is a rookie mistake. If you’re a guest, bring a healthy dip to share that will take the edge off your hunger without a ton of calories. Substitute plain Greek yogurt or lower fat sour cream for regular, and people will still ladle it up (with fiber-rich veggies subbed in for nutrient-deficient packaged crackers). Healthier yet, skip the creamy dips altogether, and opt for fiber-rich homemade hummus, white bean dip, or fresh salsa.

 

Wine vs. Spritzers

Pace yourself, or you could end up imbibing for a few hours straight. No one’s saying you have to teetotal; it’s simply about portion control. Swap out a few ounces of wine, for sparkling water to make a festive holiday spritzer. While a five-ounce glass of wine has around 150 calories, subbing in two ounces of fizzy water will save you 60. Half the fun of an alcoholic drink is holding it in your hand and joining in the social aspects of a party. Feel free to indulge, but do so in a smart way.

 

Eggnog vs. Cider

Thinking of eggnog as a cocktail is akin to calling a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino a latte. Let’s not lie to ourselves… they’re both full-on desserts. But if a mug of nog is what jingles your bells, by all means, have one. On the other hand, if you’re only imbibing because it seems celebratory, we have a fix for that—reach for a steaming mug of spicy mulled cider with cinnamon sticks instead. To put it in perspective: A cup of eggnog can pack more than 250 calories, while spiced cider falls in the 100-calorie range, is nonfat, and contains potassium and vitamin C.

Holiday Mains

Pro tips on the turkey? Don’t go to the dark side, and skip the skin. The drumstick of your bird boasts about twice the fat and around 40 percent more calories than the breast meat. When it comes to poultry, white is light. Not only will it save you calories, you’ll dodge saturated fat, which according to the American Heart Association “can raise ‘bad cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.”

Even better for your health, skip the meat altogether, and opt for a vegetarian main dish. Some great options include Stuffed Acorn Squash, Lentil Loaf, or a Veggie Tart, all of which provide healthy and filling veggies, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.

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Sides

Store-bought vs. Homemade Stuffing

Stuffing is the most exciting part of a holiday meal for many, trouncing even turkey. But who says it has to be made with overly salty cubes of desiccated white bread from a box? Healthify turkey’s BFF by sautéing onions and celery, mixing that with cubed whole wheat bread, and moistening it with low-sodium stock. Just add fresh herbs and bake. Amp up the flavor with healthy extras such as walnuts, fresh garlic, carrots, raisins, or cranberries, and you won’t miss the boxed stuff.

 

Candied Yams vs. Roasted Sweet Potatoes 

What’s the best thing about candied yams at the holiday table? The aroma! Sweeten your meal without the added sugar by serving roasted sweet potatoes instead. Traditional candied yams tip the scale at about 400 calories per cup, while their pared-down cousin, the roasted sweet potato brushed with olive oil, comes in at a modest 125 calories per cup. Sprinkle on some cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to enhance the fragrance. Your senses will be satisfied, and you can save the splurge for a sliver of pumpkin pie.

 

Latkes with Sour Cream vs. Applesauce

This is one is self-explanatory—Just go for the fruit. Fried latkes are already rich from the oil they’re fried in. Indulge in this yearly miracle of taste, but don’t gild the lily.

Desserts

Pecan Pie vs. Pumpkin Pie

When it comes to winter feasts, many of us would happily skip the meal and head straight for the dessert table. You’ll likely see a spread of flaky pies and cakes that make choosing just one seem like an impossible task. If you can’t choose one, opt for very small slices of a few different ones, but pick with care. An average slice of pecan pie has about 500 calories, while the same sized slice of pumpkin pie comes in at just 300. But here’s a delicious compromise: If you’re still dying for pecans, toast them for maximum flavor and sprinkle them sparingly atop your pumpkin pastry. All of the joy, none of the deprivation!

 

Apple Pie vs. Baked Apples

We know a baked apple isn’t apple pie, but consider this: On any other day of the year, if someone set a fragrant, naturally sweet, spiced, oven-baked apple before you, wouldn’t you say “Yes, please”? Low in fat and festive, the baked apple brings together the flavors and spices of fall. Pie is a calorie-bomb largely because of the crust, so a baked apple is a great low-calorie alternative.

 

Brownies vs. Dark Chocolate

There’s now scientific proof that chocolate makes us happy, so eating it at festive celebrations couldn’t be more appropriate. Chocolate contains tryptophan, phenylethylalanine, and theobromine, all of which contribute to why chocolate promotes feelings of joy, helps beat depression, and provides a natural high.

But how should we partake of this most magic of foods? A two inch square of homemade brownie will cost you about 250 to 300 calories, depending on the thickness. On the other hand, an ounce of pure dark chocolate with 75% cacao solids has about 170 calories, only 7 grams of sugar, and is packed with antioxidants called flavonoids.

There you have it—our complete guide to navigating the avalanche of holiday food without packing on the pounds.

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Lynn Marie Hulsman

I'm a New York City-based novelist, cookbook writer, and ideation agent whose former jobs include stand-up comic, bookseller, and medical editor. Interests include nutrition, pop psychology, British culture, and dogs. My very favorite thing is reading.
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