20 Healthy Holiday Food Swaps You Need To Try
Healthy holiday food swaps
Creamy, buttery foods have a way of creeping back into our diets during the holidays, so it's no wonder that the average American gains 1 to 2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And yeah, we know—there’s nothing like your mom’s green bean casserole or pumpkin pie to satisfy your comfort food cravings. Still, there are tiny tweaks you can make to your menu that cut calories and unhealthy fats without sacrificing taste. Registered dietitians and Health's food director reveal the ingredient swaps they use to transform diet disasters into healthy, yet flavorful holiday meals.
Healthy holiday swap: Greek yogurt
Any Thanksgiving side that requires sour cream—mashed potatoes, casseroles, sauces—can instantly be made healthier by subbing in an equal amount of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt. When incorporated into a recipe, Greek yogurt tastes nearly identical to nutrition-devoid sour cream. “With this substitute, you’ll enhance the protein in your dishes,” says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Health holiday swap: Zucchini noodles
If your family traditionally starts off holiday meals with a pasta dish, you can get those same tomato and garlic flavors by swapping out noodles for spiralized zucchini, says Sheth. Zucchini noodles, or "zoodles," cut out empty carbs while filling your plate with vitamins and fiber.
Healthy holiday swap: Cauliflower mash
For every spoonful of mashed potatoes you heap onto your plate at Thanksgiving, just know that a cup racks up over 200 calories (and that's before the added butter and gravy). Cut calories and empty carbs by making mashed cauliflower instead, suggests Sheth. Mashed cauliflower has the same texture and similar flavor, and in addition to being more waistline-friendly, cauliflower is loaded with vitamin C. For an earthy option, try this recipe for celery root and cauliflower mash.
Health holiday swap: Grilled fruit
Substitute one pie on your dessert table for baked, roasted, or grilled fruit, suggests Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor. This way, your guests will get the fruity sweetness they crave, minus the buttery, carb-heavy, calorie-dense crust. If you can’t stand the idea of going crustless, try a mock cobbler instead. “Sauté berries in a little lemon water with fresh grated ginger and top with a crumble made from a combination of almond butter, rolled oats, and apple pie spice,” says Sass.
Green bean casserole
Healthy holiday swap: Brussels sprouts or sautéed green beans
Creamy green bean casserole is a holiday classic, but with fried onions, butter, cheese, salt, and cream of mushroom soup, this dish is far from wholesome. Instead, Sass recommends oven-roasted Brussels sprouts for a savory, fiber-packed veggie dish. Another option: stick with green beans, but sauté them over low heat in extra virgin olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper. Add a garnish of slivered almonds for an extra something special—and for added protein and healthy fats.
Healthy holiday swap: Sautéed spinach or spinach salad
Spinach is a good source of fiber, vitamins A, C, E, and K, folate, calcium, iron, and more—but you're negating any of those health benefits when you make creamed spinach, which is loaded with saturated fat. This year, sauté the leafy green in heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Sass recommends topping the dish with diced red bell pepper for added crunch and sweetness. You could also toss a spinach salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette topped with sliced apples or peas and toasted walnuts or pecans.
Sweet potato casserole
Healthy holiday swap: Baked sweet potatoes
Topping your sweet potato casserole with marshmallows or a sugary crumble makes the dish more like a dessert than a side dish. Sass has a solution that's not so sickeningly sweet: Drizzle baked sweet potatoes with a sauce made from extra virgin coconut oil, maple syrup, fresh grated ginger, and pumpkin pie spice. While the syrup adds sugar, it acts as an unrefined form of the sweetener, which contains more natural nutrients than its refined counterpart, like calcium and iron. This recipe’s grated ginger adds zest and aids with digestion—something we all could use help with after a big holiday meal.
Cream cheese dip
Healthy holiday swap: Hummus
Serving up snacks pre-feast? Serve hummus instead of a cream cheese-based dip, which can pack on around 50 calories from fat and 14 grams of cholesterol per serving. Our personal favorite is this slightly tangy garlic and sun-dried tomato hummus that not only tastes great, but is also full of protein, fiber, and calcium. Add an array of fresh, colorful veggies to the plate for dipping—it’s an quick and easy substitute for chips or crackers and can add nutrients like vitamin A from carrots, folate and vitamin C from bell peppers, and vitamins B and C plus fiber from raw broccoli.
Meat and cheese plate
Healthy holiday swap: Veggie and shrimp kabobs
Sass suggests grilling or roasting fall veggies like zucchini and squash as well as onions and pepper and serving them on a stick for easy grabbing. For added flavor, alternate the vegetables with shrimp, a great meatless protein option. This veggie-filled alternative swaps out saturated fat and added salt for more fiber and nutrients like vitamins A and K, potassium, and manganese, which acts as a great metabolism booster as you enjoy the holiday dishes to come.
Healthy holiday swap: Sparkling water
Toasting with a cocktail may be a holiday tradition, but filling up on sugary drinks doesn’t need to be. “For cocktails, replace a sugary mixer with sparkling water flavored with fresh grated ginger, and fresh mint,” says Sass. She says mashed fruit makes another great natural sweetener when paired with bubbly water. Use either of these methods and you’ll bypass the 30 grams of sugar per serving most mixed drinks contain. For starters, try this golden apple cocktail that features sparkling cider, or a sparkling greyhound cocktail for a hint of tangy grapefruit. Half of this fruit contains only 8 grams of sugar, plus lots of vitamin and c to boost your immune system.
Healthy holiday swap: Pumpkin pudding
Want that seasonal pumpkin flavor without filling up on buttery crust? This pumpkin pudding is your answer. It’s low in calories and gluten-free, so it’ll satisfy every member of your clan, regardless of dietary restrictions. If pudding isn’t your thing, Sass has another crust-free suggestion: Pour the pumpkin filling right into the pie pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean. This way, you’ll eliminate ingredients like white flour and shortening, which add saturated fat and refined carbohydrates to this holiday dessert standby.
Healthy holiday swap: Dark chocolate
Chocolate lovers, rejoice: Megan Roosevelt, RDN, the founder of HealthyGroceryGirl.com, says dark chocolate makes a great addition to any dessert table. “Dark chocolate has less sugar than white or milk chocolates and contains flavonoids that may improve blood circulation and support heart health,” she says. So do your body a favor and munch on a square of rich dark chocolate after dinner rather than fat and carb-laden milk chocolate candies.
White bread stuffing
Healthy holiday swap: Sprouted bread or grain stuffing
Stuffing makes a Thanksgiving turkey extra special, but that doesn’t mean the filler has to contain nutrition-devoid white bread, a refined, simple carbohydrate that can spike your blood sugar levels, since it contains added sugar. Roosevelt suggests substituting that Wonder Bread for a sprouted, whole-grain loaf when making your turkey day stuffing. “Sprouted grains can be easier to digest,” she says. Plus they contain more good-for-you nutrients, such as zinc, calcium, and iron.
Like Roosevelt, Health food editor Beth Lipton suggests rethinking your turkey stuffing. “Take out the bread entirely and use grains instead,” she says. Try quinoa, couscous, or farro-based stuffing to cut down on cholesterol, saturated fat, and empty carbohydrates. When these grains are blended with all the other stuffing ingredients, you won’t even be able to taste the difference between the traditional and your healthified version.
Healthy holiday swap: Baked apples
Roosevelt suggests going crust-free and loading up on the fruit itself to make this recipe more health-conscious. “Core out the center of the apples and stuff with a mixture of rolled oats, a little coconut oil, cinnamon, and nutmeg,” she says. Just pop them in the oven and you’ll have a warm and gooey baked apples in no time. Coconut oil provides a dairy-free alternative to butter, while cinnamon and nutmeg pack in added flavor and contribute to lower blood sugar levels and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Healthy holiday swap: roasted turkey
Besides being a fire hazard, deep-frying your turkey adds an unnecessary amount of fat an unhealthy oils to your turkey-day meal. Instead, opt for an oven-roasted or braised turkey. Lipton suggests having a butcher cut your turkey into two breast halves, two thighs, two wings, and two legs and cooking them separately to retain the meat’s juiciness. “Roast the breast and wings and braise the legs and thighs,” Lipton says. “Normally the breast is dry because it has to hang out in the oven while the thighs and legs finish cooking.” Bonus: This cooking method means you won’t have to overcompensate with lots of fat-laden gravy on overly dry meat, since the juices will still be intact.
RELATED: 9 Great Recipes for Leftover Turkey
Healthy holiday substitute: Pesto
Topping your serving of turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy certainly adds extra flavor, but at the expense of extra fats, carbohydrates, and tons of sodium. This year, try a less salty alternative. Lipton recommends an herb pesto—try adding parsley, tomato, or arugula to your take on the sauce to make it extraordinary. Pesto sauces also have far fewer calories and less fat content than gravy, plus added nutrients like potassium and calcium.
Healthy holiday swap: Homemade cranberry sauce
Skip the preservatives and extra sugar in canned cranberry sauce and make your own version of the topping instead. Lipton’s go-to includes fresh mashed cranberries mixed with port, orange zest, and chopped up apples. “These ingredients play up the tartness of the cranberries so you don’t feel the need to use a ton of sugar,” she says. These berries are rich in antioxidants, vitamins C, E, and K, and contain fiber. At the same time, a half-cup of fresh berries only 25 calories, meaning you can load up, guilt-free.
Butter and rolls
Healthy holiday swap: Whole-wheat rolls and olive oil
Munching on a dinner roll might fill you up initially, but the empty calories will leave you wanting more food soon after. Add butter into the mix and you’ve got a side dish that lacks any nutritional value. If the breadbasket is a staple at your holiday meals, try adding whole-wheat rolls into the mix. This will add more protein and fiber to the dish—and arguably more flavor. Then, trade the butter for olive oil for dipping. Olive oil contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. With this swap, you’ll cut down on sodium, too.
Healthy holiday swap: Cabbage salad
Roosevelt has a mayo-free concoction that will still let you enjoy that crunchy bite of a raw cabbage dish. She suggests combining cabbage, coconut milk, apple cider vinegar, and sea salt for a lighter version of coleslaw. “Coconut milk is lactose-free and rich in a nutrient known as lauric acid which has been linked with helping reduce cholesterol and heart health,” she says of the dish. Another option: make coleslaw with your family’s favorite salad dressing instead of mayonnaise. The swap will eliminate around 2 grams of fat and 88 milligrams of sodium per serving if you use a dressing like balsamic vinaigrette.
Healthy holiday swap: Dark hot chocolate
Roosevelt’s go-to recipe is 1 tablespoon of raw cacao powder, 1 teaspoon of maple syrup or stevia, and 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk. Heat up the concoction for a sweet treat that’s also rich in heart-healthy antioxidants. Making the swap will eliminate the heavy cream and whipped eggs that add 150 milligrams of cholesterol, 11 grams of fat, and 20 grams carbohydrates to the traditional beverage.
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