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How to Eat Healthy During the Holidays – 6 Meal Ideas & Tips

With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s easy to get swept up in unhealthy overindulgence. Whether you enjoy a few too many glasses of wine, or you can’t seem to step away from the Christmas cookies, don’t view these missteps as your cue to keep walking down a path lined with refined sugar and saturated fat.

Instead, remind yourself that the actual holidays don’t last for a full month, but just a handful of days. Allow yourself to enjoy your favorite treats at your family Christmas dinner and your big New Year’s Eve party, but plan ahead for the rest of the season by preparing healthier holiday-inspired dishes.

Swap Your Favorite Holiday Dishes

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Believe it or not, there are reasonably healthy substitutions for most holiday meals. Go ahead and keep that turkey on your table (it’s packed with lean protein, folic acid, vitamins, and minerals), but take a moment to assess your sides. If heavy cream, butter, mayonnaise, whole cups of sugar, shortening, or white flour are primary ingredients, it’s time to swap them out. Here are several easy alternatives.

1. Swap Baked Sweet Potato Fries for Candied Sweet Potatoes
It’s an unusual swap, but it’s exactly what I did for my Thanksgiving dinner. Sweet potatoes themselves are incredibly healthy, but when you load them up with sugar and marshmallows, they lose a bit of their luster. By baking up a batch of sweet potato fries, you can enjoy the sweet flavor of the potatoes themselves without the extra calories of refined sugar and carbohydrates.

While there are lots of ways to season sweet potato fries, I wedged five large sweet potatoes, tossed them lightly with olive oil, then sprinkled them with spicy seasonings such as pepper, crushed red pepper, chili powder, garlic, and salt. I then roasted them at 475 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes, flipping them a couple times for even browning. The result is a sweet-and-spicy side that’s the perfect accompaniment to casual holiday parties.

Swap Favorite Holiday Dishes

2. Swap Mashed Cauliflower for Mashed Potatoes
It sounds a bit unappealing, but don’t knock mashed cauliflower until you’ve tried it. This easy substitution looks like the real deal, but without the corresponding blood sugar spike associated with white potatoes.

To prepare, simply chop and steam a head of cauliflower with four to five cloves of thinly sliced garlic. Place the steamed cauliflower, a couple tablespoons olive oil, and a teaspoon of salt and pepper in a food processor, and process until smooth. Season to taste with additional salt, pepper, and garlic before serving hot or refrigerating for later.

If you like creamier mashed potatoes, add a couple tablespoons of low-fat cream cheese or plain Greek yogurt to the cauliflower before processing to give it a creamier consistency.

Swap Mashed Cauli Flower

3. Swap Green Beans and Bacon for Green Bean Casserole
Traditional green bean casserole made from the recipe on the back of the french fried onion canister is reasonably healthy except for one ingredient: those french fried onions. In fact, it was a staple in our household until my husband read the nutritional facts on the onion canister, and immediately banned their future use. I’ve gotten around the ban by subbing in LesserEvil Sour Cream and Onion Krinkle Sticks, but there’s another solution: a dish of sautéed green beans and bacon.

Bacon may not be the leanest meat on the planet, but as long as you limit your intake, a few slices won’t break your diet, and it makes for delicious flavoring. For a tasty vegetable side dish, boil a pound of green beans until they’re tender and then remove them from the heat. While the green beans are boiling, pan fry four or five slices of bacon. When the bacon’s nice and crisp, drain it on a paper towel. Transfer the green beans into your frying pan with the bacon grease and sautee them for a couple minutes before dicing the bacon and adding it to the mix. Serve the dish with a dash of salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

Swap Green Beans Bacon

4. Swap Hot Cider for Eggnog
Eggnog may be the drink of the season, but it’s high in calories and saturated fat. Instead of drinking a mug of nog, grab a mug of hot cider.

To prepare, you need five cups of 100% apple juice, a teaspoon of whole cloves, and a half-teaspoon of cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat the juice and spices over medium heat in a large saucepan. When the mixture is nice and hot, ladle into mugs and garnish with cinnamon sticks and orange slices. If you want yours served stiff, add a shot of spiced rum.

Swap Hot Cider

5. Swap 100% Wheat Rolls for White Rolls
Counter to many of today’s beliefs, bread is not the devil. That said, white bread offers very little in terms of nutritional content, and subjects the eater to blood sugar spikes and crashes that contribute to overeating. This year, skip the white rolls for your holiday dining and opt instead for 100% whole wheat rolls.

The good news is you can find prepared rolls in your grocery bakery or frozen foods section – just be sure to read the ingredient list. Food marketers have a way of tricking consumers into purchasing items they think are healthy, but really aren’t. If a bag of rolls says “wheat rolls,” but the first ingredient on the label says “refined wheat flour,” put it back. That’s just another way of saying “white rolls with brown food coloring.” Look for labels that say 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain, and whose first ingredients say wheat flour, whole wheat flour, or whole grain flour.

Some people dislike the taste of 100% whole wheat bread because it tastes different from white bread. If this sounds like you, try mixing up a batch of 100% whole wheat biscuits. Because the consistency and flavor of biscuits is different from rolls, you may have an easier time adjusting to the new taste. Also, try appreciating the taste of wheat bread for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. Don’t compare the flavor of wheat bread to white bread – instead, look at it as a new food and decide if you like the flavor on its own merits.

Swap Wheat Rolls

6. Swap Carrot Cupcakes for Christmas Cookies
Sweets are a part of the season, so it would be ridiculous to completely take them off the menu. But rather than go nuts with all the refined sugar found in cookies, candies, and pies, look for individually portioned alternatives (such as cupcakes or pie pops) that use flavorful, healthy, and naturally sweet ingredients.

I found a delicious carrot cupcake recipe in “The Lemonade Cookbook” that makes the perfect holiday dessert. The individually portioned servings won’t break you nutritionally, especially if you skip the cream cheese icing, and they’re packed with carrots, raisins, dried cranberries, nuts, and whole wheat flour. You can even substitute applesauce for oil, or avocado for butter (if you don’t mind a green tint to your food). You can find similar recipes by searching sites such as Yummly for healthy versions of your favorite treats.

Swap Carrot Cupcakes

Final Word

It’s a good, healthy thing to enjoy the holidays with your family and friends, and that includes embracing the freedom to indulge in dishes you love. That said, there’s a difference between respecting the freedom you have while making wise food decisions, and diving headlong into a platter of Christmas fudge with reckless abandon.

Take ownership and accountability for your health this holiday season and set reasonable boundaries when it comes to indulgence. Have a good time, but recognize that you don’t have to eat everything in the name of holiday celebration. Not only will you feel good about exercising a little self-control, but you’ll prevent holiday weight gain – a boon for your health-related New Year’s resolutions.

What is your favorite healthy holiday dish?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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