“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.” — Erma Bombeck
As one of America’s foremost humorists, Bombeck was joking about her family, but there’s certainly a kernel of truth in there for most of us, especially during the holiday season.
It’s at this time that our food inhibitions tend to be lowered, when people’s “No pain, no gain” motto is often replaced by “Eat, drink, and be merry.” And, yes, this can make us quite merry— and then quite remorseful after the season is over.
Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it, too. The key is to make wise choices, whether you’re the one making the food or enjoying it.
What’s at Stake When You Bake: Prepping Swaps
If you’re in charge of any baking during the holidays, you’re also in charge of choosing the ingredients. By implementing some simple swaps, you can make a big difference in how healthy your food is without sacrificing flavor.
All-Purpose Flour → Nonbleached Flour
White flour is the usual choice for baked goods, but by choosing whole-grain, whole-wheat, or even a nut-based flour, you’ll amp up the nutritional benefits.
Oil/Butter → Applesauce
A form of oil is usually a necessity for most baking projects, but that doesn’t mean you lack choices. Avoid margarine if possible, and instead of vegetable oil, opt for a healthier version such as canola oil or sunflower oil. You could also swap the oil for something like applesauce, which adds a touch of healthy sweetness while also keeping your treat moist.
Refined White Sugar → Raw Sugars
When sweetness is needed, you can swap out white sugar for any number of things. Bananas, for example, are a high-potassium, fiber-rich substitute. Agave, honey, and even maple syrup are all good liquid options that are nowhere near as processed and have nutritional benefits.
Festive Food: Healthier Versions of Holiday Faves
In addition to making your guests homemade snacks right out of the oven, you’ll also have to consider other aspects of the traditional holiday spread that may not be quite so healthy. Some simple substitutions can result in healthier versions of these classics.
Store-Bought Eggnog → Homemade Eggnog
Although many people consider it delicious and a must during the holidays, most store-bought eggnog is high in fat and calories. If you’re going to offer this traditional treat to your guests, whip up this healthier vegan version.
Dips → Greek Yogurt
Dips are delicious but tend to be on the fatty side—which counteracts the benefit of pairing them with fruits and veggies. Instead, serve Greek yogurt mixed with ranch dip mix or fresh herbs with your vegetables and yogurt mixed with honey, peanut butter, or fruit preserves for your fruit.
Stuffing → Whole-Wheat Stuffing
If possible, make your own stuffing. Doing so will allow you to include more nutritious ingredients, such as whole-wheat bread or extra veggies. Either way, use unsalted butter, which can help you control the sodium in your dish.
Mashed Potatoes → Mashed Cauliflower
Some people prefer stuffing as their carb of choice, while others love potatoes. To kick up the nutrients, make mashed cauliflower instead—it has far fewer calories and carbs, packs more vitamins than potatoes, and is just as delicious.
Choose Good Foods: Eating Swaps
Not everyone will be hosting, and therefore making, the food for the seasonal spread. For most people, that means the best course of action is making wise eating choices. Here are some swaps you can make for healthier holiday eating.
Soda → Water or Flavored Sparkling Water
Frankly, soda brings nothing to the table nutritionally. The healthiest alternative, as always, is water. If you want a little flavor, add a squirt of fresh lemon juice or opt for a variety flavored with real fruit essence.
Dark Meat → Light Meat
In general, light poultry meat is better for you than its dark counterpart simply because it has almost three times less fat. It’s all relative, though: both are better options than red meat like ham.
Milk Chocolate → Dark Chocolate
Invariably, you’ll find a dessert table with ample choices of sweets like cookies and chocolates. Look around for dark chocolate, which can offer more health benefits.
Pecan Pie → Pumpkin or Fruit Pie
If there are a variety of pies available, stray away from pecan because of its fat content. Pumpkin or fruit? They both have positives and negatives, so take a thin slice of your favorite while avoiding crumb toppings.
A Final Point about Portions
There’s an old saying that says we eat with our eyes first, and this tends to be especially true during the holiday season. All the food, combined with abundant festive flair, can be hard to resist.
The bottom line, however, is that it doesn’t matter how many food swaps you make if you don’t also mind your portions. A good place to start would be to download the USDA’s Start Simple with MyPlate app to your phone, which can help you keep tabs on what and how much you should eat for a balanced meal. Also use a smaller plate, if possible. Doing so will help you keep your portions in control and will give you the visual sense of filling up without overdoing it. (Just don’t circumvent all this good by using the same plate for seconds and thirds.)
Gift swapping is one of the most enjoyable activities of the holiday season, but when it comes to the holiday spread, food swapping should top your list. By making smart holiday-food swaps, you’re giving yourself and your loved ones the best gift of all—better health.