Your Ultimate Guide to the 64 Best (and Worst) Holiday Foods
Best and worst holiday foods
A glass of eggnog here, a slice of pecan pie there, and salty, fatty foods everywhere: The holidays are not an easy time to maintain a healthy diet. That's why the average person puts on a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year's—and then never loses it. To create the ultimate healthy holiday food guide, we tapped three expert nutritionists: Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD and Health's contributing nutrition editor; Marisa Moore, RDN, an Atlanta-based nutritionist; and Vandana Sheth, RDN, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. With their input, we've determined the best and worst picks across 32 categories. Happy holidays!
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Worst breakfast: Skipping it altogether
Missing your morning meal slow down your metabolism, and can also trigger overeating later in the day. That means when you encounter the holiday cookie tray at the office or the buffet table at an evening soiree, you're more likely to stuff yourself with treats.
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Best breakfast: A healthy mix of protein and carbs
Whip yourself up an a.m. entrée that contains roughly 20 grams of lean protein, as well as a whole grain, a fresh fruit or veggie, and a dose of healthy fats. A spinach omelet with avocado and fresh fruit is one perfect option: The protein from the eggs, the fiber from the produce, and fat from the avocado will work together to keep you full until your next meal—and help you steer clear of the Christmas cookie tray.
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Worst dip: Spinach-artichoke dip
Spinach artichoke dip is one of those comfort food staples we just can’t resist. Whether hanging out with friends at the bar, or settling in to watch a game at home, the cheesy spread is pretty much always irresistible.
Best dip: Greek yogurt dip
Nonfat Greek yogurt is a healthy substitute for many creamy dip bases. Replace sour cream or cheese with the yogurt and you will still achieve that smooth consistency and tangy flavor. Serve with veggies and you'll have a low-cal appetizer.
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Worst cold appetizer: Chips and salsa
Though salsa actually is pretty good for you—you get some nutrients from the tomatoes—the chips are nothing more than empty calories. And those calories add up fast: One serving of tortilla chips costs you 300 calories.
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Best cold appetizer: Veggies with hummus
Wherever you can, substitute carb-dense foods with water-rich vegetables. In addition to the nutrients that the vegetables provide, the hummus provides a dose of healthy fats and fiber.
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Worst hot appetizer: Pigs in a blanket
Best hot appetizer: Broth-based soup
Here's a fun app your guests won't expect: broth-based or bean soup in small cups. Slurping soup before your main meal may help you jumpstart your new year's weight loss resolution. In one Penn State study, people ate 20% fewer calories after they'd started their meal with broth-based soup.
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Worst cheese appetizer: Cheese, salami, and crackers
In many homes, a cheese and meat platter is left out for family to enjoy throughout the holiday. But when you're left with a big spread of food—salty, fatty ones at that—it's more difficult to tell how much you've already eaten, making it easy to overeat.
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Best cheese appetizer: Grapes, goat cheese, pistachios
Moore recommends making small, bite size appetizers that have a lot of flavor. One of her favorites is using in-season red or black grapes and coating them in goat cheese with a sprinkling of pistachios. The grapes provide sweetness, with the goat cheese and pistachios supplying heart-healthy fats and protein.
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Worst salad: Any that seems low on veggies
An appetizer or side salad should really contain just veggies—you'll probably be getting plenty of protein and fat from your entrée. Toppings add unnecessary calories to the meal, so skip on ingredients such as croutons, cheese, and nuts.
Best: Garden salad
Use ingredients with a high water content such as asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers. This way, you will get healthy nutrients from the vegetables while not overdoing it before the meal.
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Worst salad dressing: Bottled dressing
Store-bought salad dressings tend to be full of sugar, preservatives, and artificial ingredients, and a couple spoonfuls can quickly turn a healthy side into a diet disaster. And no, fat-free and low-calorie dressings aren't a good alternative. They're often flavored with artificial sweetener, and your body actually absorbs nutrients more effectively when they're eaten with a little bit of healthy fat, like olive oil.
Best salad dressing: Homemade dressing
Make your own dressing using heart-healthy olive oil as the base and natural ingredients as flavorings. In this video, Health food director Beth Lipton shows you how easy it is to make your own delicious salad dressing from scratch .
Worst party carb: Cheese straws
This party snack staple may seem innocent, but get this: just one straw packs a third of your daily saturated fat. Plus, cheese straws are usually made with white flour, which will spike your blood sugar and leave you grabbing more snacks after it plummets a short while later.
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Best party carb: Popcorn
Your best bet for a salty snack is plain popcorn. This healthy, antioxidant-rich snack is low in calories, high in belly-filling fiber, and packed with polyphenols. Plus, popcorn is a whole grain, and whole grains have been linked to a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.
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Worst popcorn snack: Popcorn ball
Yes, popcorn can be healthy, but not when you coat it in sugar, corn syrup, and salt and then roll it into a ball. Adding those ingredients completely cancels out any of the health benefits of popcorn.
Best: Spiced popcorn
Impress your guests by boosting popcorn's flavor with no extra calories. The key: spices, such as cayenne pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and garlic. Here are a few easy recipes to get you started.
Worst mashed potatoes: Mashed white potatoes
Potatoes themselves are healthy; at around 100 calories per spud, they pack even more vitamin C than an orange as well as fiber and other nutrients. The mashed potatoes on a typical holiday table, however, are another story. Mixing in heavy cream, butter, and sour cream adds unwanted saturated fat and calories. Consider substituting Greek yogurt in place of cream and mayonnaise, or swap the potatoes for cauliflower.
Best mashed potatoes: Mashed sweet potatoes
Getting a creamy consistency in your mashed potatoes is much easier when you use sweet potatoes, meaning you won't have to add extra ingredients for that wholesome texture. Plus, the vibrant orange color means you are getting tons of nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and iron.
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Worst sweet potato dish: Candied with marshmallows
Why add extra sugar to a food that is already perfectly sweet? The addition of a maple glaze and marshmallows just adds unnecessary sugar and calories to your meal.
Best sweet potato dish: Baked sweet potato
Naturally sweet and with a day's worth of vitamin A, sweet potatoes are delicious when baked. They start to caramelize in the oven, leaving a glaze similar to maple syrup—so you won't be missing anything! You could also try this recipe for oven-roasted sweet potato wedges .
Worst bread: Croissant
Best bread: Whole-grain roll
Our expert nutritionists recommend doing away with rolls altogether—many people overlook them on a packed holiday table anyway, and you may as well save yourself the prep time. But if you have to, go for a whole-grain roll so that you'll get the added nutrients and fiber—just be sure to skip the butter.
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Worst spread: Butter
While it's tempting to slather butter on a fresh-from-the-oven roll, one tablespoon packs 100 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat. And before you reach for a stick of margarine, read the label carefully. Many margarines still contain artery-clogging trans fats (especially the stick kinds) and nearly as much saturated fat as butter. Check the ingredients list: If "partially hydrogenated oils" appears on it, then the product still has trans-fat in it, even if the label claims it's trans-fat-free.
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Best spread: Sweet potato spread
Worst stuffing: Boxed stuffing
Take a quick peek at the back of the stuffing box and you'll see a long ingredients list littered with hard-to-pronounce ingredients. Since they usually consist of boiled hunks of bread with melted butter stirred in at the end, these boxed mixes are also major carb and calorie bombs.
Best stuffing: Homemade stuffing
Make your own stuffing and use whole grain bread—or even polenta—as the base. Load your stuffing with veggies, which will take up valuable real estate leaving less room for the less-healthy ingredients.
Worst carrot dish: Maple-glazed carrots
Much like classic sweet potato dishes, taking a sweet vegetable and making it sweeter just adds unnecessary calories. You don't need to glaze the carrots to get a great tasting side dish.
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Best carrot dish: Oven-roasted carrots
Instead of adding an extra layer of sugar to your carrots, stick them in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper. If you're looking for more spices, you can sprinkle on some rosemary or thyme.
Worst cranberry side: Canned cranberry sauce
Like many canned foods, canned cranberry sauce is loaded with preservatives. Plus, it's packed with added sugar. Clocking in at about 24 grams of sugar per serving, you may as well be eating pie with your meal.
Best cranberry side: Cranberry relish
Make your own cranberry sauce to better control the ingredients you want to consume. Use fresh cranberries as the base and simmer them in orange juice and some spices for a tasty way to indulge in this sweet side. Here are four other healthy recipes to consider.
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Worst cheesy dish: Mac and cheese
Mac and cheese may be a cold-weather comfort food staple, but between the pasta, cheese, and breadcrumbs, a small serving of a typical recipe serves up over 300 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat, and more than a whole meal's worth of sodium.
Best cheesy dish: Baked brie with honey
This appetizer is so rich, you'll only need a small scoop to feel satisfied. Pair the brie with apple slices, grapes, and dried figs.
Worst potato side: Stuffed baked potatoes
Baked potatoes alone provide vitamin C, fiber, and phytonutrients. Baked potatoes stuffed with sour cream, butter, bacon bits, and shredded cheese, on the other hand, just tack on diet disasters like saturated fat, sodium, and, of course, empty calories.
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Best potato side: Roasted sweet potato wedges
To flavor potatoes, roast wedges in the oven with some olive oil and rosemary. Bonus: you'll eat less because they are cut into small pieces, compared to if you were served an entire potato.
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Worst grain side: White rice
White rice is quite low in fiber and high in calories—a single cup can cost you around 200 calories on top of everything else you're having with your meal.
Best grain side: Quinoa
Instead of serving a refined grain that is almost devoid of nutrients, try a bit of quinoa on the side. Technically a seed, quinoa contains a noteworthy amount of protein and fiber, keeping you full and satisfied.
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Worst soup: Cream-based soup
Like many other dishes during the holidays, the addition of cream can transform otherwise healthy foods into high-calorie diet disasters. Watch out for any soup with "cream" in the name.
Best soup: Bouillabaisse
This traditional French soup features clear broth flavored with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and other spices. What's more, it's loaded with lean protein from all the seafood, which can include shellfish such as lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, as well as a variety of white fish.
Worst potato pancake: Pan-fried in oil with whole eggs and flour
Pan-frying this Hanukkah favorite means you'll have to use quite a bit of oil and flour (meaning extra calories!) to get the crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside consistency.
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Best potato pancake: Baked potato pancakes
Cut out some of the fat in your potato pancakes by baking them instead of frying. Each pancake made from this lightened-up recipe has about 75 calories and 3 grams of fat. Each one also serves up 2 grams of fiber.
Worst chili: Beef chili
Chili is an easy dish to serve to a large crowd at a holiday party, and it tastes oh-so-good on a cold day. Thing is, while beef can be a great source of protein and iron, it is also loaded with saturated fat. Many recipes call for beef that contains as much as 25% fat.
Best chili: Veggie chili
Your guests won't miss meat if you load it up with plenty of beans, which are loaded with savory umami flavor. Plus, the combination of the fiber from the tomatoes and the protein from the beans and beef will prevent you (and your guests) from overeating, and the spicy peppers may trigger your metabolism.
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Worst canned food: Canned yams
Why buy canned yams when you can just as easily buy them fresh? With in-season yams, you have many more options for food preparation, while canned yams are mostly used for sugary candied yams.
Best: Canned beans
Beans can be a pain to prepare from start to finish, which is why canned beans are great to have on hand. They're nutritionally similar enough to dried beans that you'll reap the same health benefits without the huge time commitment. Just be sure to rinse them thoroughly before you use them.
Worst way to cook a turkey: Deep fry
A popular alternative to roasting, deep-frying a turkey adds extra fat to your main dish. Plus, juggling the bird and hot oil can make for a potentially dangerous situation: from 1998 to 2007, there were at least 138 incidents involving exploding turkey fryers that caused 36 injuries and more than $7.8 million in property loss.
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Best way to cook a turkey: Oven roast
Stick to the classics—oven roasting your turkey takes longer than frying, but it's far healthier (and safer) in the end. If you don't butter or baste your turkey while it's in the oven you can save calories. Or, you can avoid eating the skin altogether.
Worst turkey portion: Leg
One turkey leg supplies 54 grams of fat, which is roughly the amount you're supposed to consume in an entire day. It also racks up over 1,100 calories—that's enough for two large meals.
Best turkey portion: Breast
The white meat portion of a turkey contains less fat and fewer calories than the dark meat. You get bonus points if you skip the skin. If you can't give up your dark meat, try serving a small amount on the side.
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Worst casserole: Green bean casserole
While green beans supply dietary fiber and vitamins A and C, this casserole is far from wholesome. Fried onions, butter, cheese, salt, and cream of mushroom soup send the sodium level soaring to 550 milligrams per small scoop (and let's be honest—nobody has just one).
Best: Sweet potato casserole (no sugar added)
Sweet potatoes are a good vitamin-rich base for a casserole. You can remove the sugary topping for a lightened-up version with fewer ingredients. This way, you're sure to save calories. Try this lightened-up sweet potato casserole .