Welcome to the Healthy Holiday Swaps Challenge! Are you ready?
From holiday parties to cookie swaps, it’s easy to lose track of your healthy-eating goals in December. And if you suspect that you usually gain a few pounds this time of year, you’re probably right: Recent research from Cornell University tracked the year-round weight patterns of nearly 3,000 people and found that their weight began to rise in October, then increased by about 1.3 pounds during the Christmas-New Year’s season. What’s more, it took about five months for participants to get back to their pre-holiday weights.
The good news, though, is that it is possible to indulge in your favorite seasonal treats and comfort foods without adding inches to your waistline. By making these diet-friendly swaps, you can cut back on calories and load up on good-for-you nutrients.
Here’s how the challenge works: We came up with three weeks’ worth of simple food substitutions that boost nourishment without sacrificing flavor. Since we know you’ll need all your energy for the busy month ahead, we’re kicking off the challenge with clever swaps that trim calories in everyday meals. And because it’s the holiday season, there are also smart tricks to help you indulge in baked goods and party fare guilt-free by replacing fattening ingredients with healthier (but equally delicious) alternatives.
We’re ready. Are you? Show us how you’re using these healthy swaps and connect with others taking the Challenge on Instagram and Twitter with #HealthySwapsChallenge.
Theme: Fuel Up on Healthy Basics
Oatmeal is a tried-and-true breakfast staple. Zucchini? Not so much—yet. But once you swap regular oats for zucchini oats (or “zoats” as they’re called), you may never go back. When grated, zucchini mimics the consistency of oats and gives you a serving of nutrient-packed greens first thing in the day. The diet-friendly veggie also contains just 19 calories per cup and is a great source of potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin A.
For a low-calorie, low-carb alternative to white rice, try cauliflower rice. In a few simple steps, you can transform this superfood veggie into a grain-like shape and size. Cauliflower rice has a mild flavor that pairs easily with your favorite meat and fish dishes and can be used in any recipe that calls for rice. As an added bonus, you’ll benefit from 51 milligrams of vitamin C in every cup, or 85% of your RDA—which is important during cold and flu season.
Whip up this healthier version of chicken salad for nights when you’re rushing from work to gift shopping to holiday parties. By combining a lean protein with avocado instead of mayonnaise, you’ll load up on healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The best part? This dish is incredibly quick and easy to make: all you need is one cooked chicken breast, a mashed avocado, and salt and pepper to taste.
Craving a heartier breakfast? Eggs Benedict is a classic brunch order, but with the English muffin, ham, and buttery hollandaise sauce, it can be rich and not exactly low in calories. For a healthier option, try this version which uses creamy avocado instead of hollandaise. Thanks to avocado sauce and a Portobello mushroom “muffin,” our upgraded dish is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and B vitamins.
Love avocados? Then you need to try this tangy sauce, which is made with avocado, cucumber, garlic, anchovy, lemon juice, and plenty of fresh herbs, making it a healthier alternative to the cold-weather comfort food you’re probably craving right about now. Make one big batch and use it in a variety of different dishes throughout the week. It’s delicious drizzled on top of fish, folded into a pasta dish, or used to dress a salad (just thin with a few spoonfuls of water first).
Instead of spaghetti—another comfort food fave—try spaghetti squash. By making this simple (and gluten-free!) swap, you can cut nearly 180 calories and load up on vitamins A and C, folate, potassium, and fiber. To add flavor, try tossing it with asparagus, rosemary, and pine nuts, or serve with a dollop of whole-milk ricotta and fresh herbs.
By using chopped white button mushrooms instead of ground beef, pork, or turkey, you can eliminate as much as 200 calories from your meal. In one study, replacing ground meat with mushrooms significantly slashed calories and fat without affecting feelings of fullness. Not ready to go completely meat-free? Substitute mushrooms for half the ground meat in a recipe to give your dinner a healthy boost.
Theme: Indulge in healthier sweet treats
Digging into freshly baked brownies is a cold-weather tradition. Now, you can indulge guilt-free with this healthier version that uses avocado in both the brownie batter and the frosting. In the batter, ingredients like cacao powder, almond meal, coconut sugar, and medjool dates create a chewy brownie that’s not overly sweet, while the frosting is whipped up with just a ripe avocado, raw cacao powder, maple syrup, and vanilla extract.
Need an easy-to-make baked treat for a hostess gift? This avocado banana bread is the answer. Instead of butter, it uses creamy avocado to give you a boost of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. And unlike regular banana bread, which can be loaded with refined sugar, this version has subtle sweetness from the maple syrup and won’t leave you with a sugar hangover.
To increase the nutrition of your favorite holiday cookies, cupcakes, and muffins without sacrificing flavor or texture, try using pureed fruit instead of sugar. While you may not be able to take all the sugar out of a recipe, you can replace up to half with the same amount of pureed fruit. Pureed bananas, peaches, and very ripe pears all work well for this.
If you weren’t already convinced that avocados are one of the best baking substitutions around, we give you Chocolate-Avocado Pudding. Indulging in a sweet bowl of smooth, chocolaty goodness doesn’t have to be considered a cheat with this recipe, which uses ripe avocados and bananas, as well as zero refined sugar or dairy.
There’s only one thing that could make the combination of chocolate and nut butter taste even better—caramel. This recipe for Caramel-Almond Butter Cups uses coconut oil and energy-boosting dates to make better-for-you candies that don’t contain refined sugar. Serve these bite-sized treats at your holiday party or give them as edible gifts.
Fava beans aren’t just for your salad. The legume can also be found in flour form—and it’s way more nutritious than all-purpose flour. Substitute fava bean flour for all-purpose flour in your holiday baking to give sweet treats good-for-you nutrients (a 1:1 swap usually works great). Fava bean flour packs 8 grams of fiber in a quarter cup (compared with less than 1 gram in all-purpose flour) as well as protein and antioxidants.
Day 14: Bake a Healthier Holiday Cake
These holiday cakes may look impressive, but they contain significantly less sugar and butter. In our Apple Spice Cake (left), we swapped low-fat buttermilk and vegetable oil for butter and added cinnamon and cloves for a nutritious flavor boost. And in our Orange Marmalade Layer Cake (right), we used naturally sweet marmalade instead of store-bought icing to create a rich, moist topping that still tastes decadent.
Theme: Make over holiday party favorites
Monkey Bread is one of those crowd-pleasing party appetizers that everyone gets excited about. But since it’s traditionally made with refrigerated biscuits, butter, and white and brown sugar, it’s not exactly great for your waistline. So we created a healthier version that uses much less sugar and butter, whole-wheat pizza dough instead of refrigerated biscuits, and maple syrup instead of brown sugar. But not to worry: it's still ooey-gooey and sure to be a hit with your guests.
Cocktail-party bound? Pass on the eggnog and mulled wine and reach for this sweet but healthy sip from celebrity chef Ariane Resnick’s new book, The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Drinking: Cocktails Without Regrets. Her Cozy Fire drink comes in at 160 calories and is made with better-for-you ingredients like spiced rum, maple syrup, and sliced ginger, so you can imbibe and have seconds of the passed hors d’oeuvres.
Don’t be turned off when you see celery root in your local supermarket. The vegetable may be unlovely, but it tastes like a delicious mix of celery and parsley and has a smooth, creamy texture that makes it a great alternative to mashed potatoes. This dish is also low fat, gluten-free, and a good source of calcium and protein.
Navigate holiday parties with ease by using these smart swaps. Reach for four large shrimp instead of two pigs in a blanket to save 140 calories; one cup of apple cider instead of one cup of eggnog to save 165 calories; one candy cane instead of 3 oz. peanut brittle to save 354 calories; and a handful of olives instead of wasabi peas to save 88 calories.
Day 19: Make Healthier Side Dishes
With a little planning, you can serve up healthier holiday sides that are still packed with flavor. Instead of using sour cream (it shows up often in recipes for casseroles, sauces, and mashed potatoes), substitute equal amounts of plain Greek yogurt, which is more nutritious and won't change the taste of the dish. Love green bean casserole? Make savory oven-roasted Brussels sprouts instead; they're a great source of fiber and contain significantly fewer calories. And if your family usually asks for creamed spinach, try sauteeing the iron-rich veggie instead. By not using cream, you'll eliminate all the saturated fat.
We set out to create a sweet potato casserole that's satisfying and luscious, but with healthier ingredients and a bit more balance. This one has the creaminess and sweetness you want in the filling; a cinnamon-laced, crunchy nut-and-oat topping; and no refined sugar, so you really get the sweet potato flavor. It's easy to prepare, rich and indulgent enough to satisfy everyone at the table, and won't leave you feeling terrible afterward.
By using quinoa instead of bread, this stuffing recipe is low-carb and a great source of iron, magnesium, and filling fiber. And with fresh herbs, crumbled feta, chopped pecans, and leafy kale, you can rest assured that the dish still packs plenty of flavor. Bonus: Baking the stuffing in muffin tins helps with portion control and makes it easy to dole out individual servings.