Quad Cities, IL/IA

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Ideas for Eating Healthy This Holiday Season


By Benjamin Goodin

Most of us use the holiday season as an excuse to cheat on our normal diets a bit, or for many of us, a lot. You probably grew up with at least one baker in the family who took it upon his or herself to provide the entire holiday season’s worth of baked goods for the family. In my house, that was my mother. Her prolific baking habits kept teachers and neighbors supplied with appreciation packages and our own freezer fully stocked with tupperware containers bursting with homemade fudge, Hello Dollies, Andes Mint cookies, and all other manners of treats. The tastes and smells of these seasonal delights still take me back to when our tree was decked with oversized, crushed glass “lighted ice” bulbs and to a time when I worried more if I was on the nice list than about my sugar intake.

Treats and feasts are such ingrained holiday traditions that they are practically synonymous with the celebrations themselves; so much so, that its hard to break or alter these food conventions without losing the flavor and feel of the holiday, let alone gaining the frowning disappointment of relatives when they notice that marshmallow-dotted candied yams didn’t appear at the Thanksgiving table. Making the holidays delicious without expanding your waistline doesn’t have to tread on your whole-milk using, real-butter-loving, two-scoops-of-white-sugar mixing Grandmother’s time-tested standbys.

Cooking smarter

If you are your family’s cook-elect of the holiday season, then you have a bit more agency over the health of the food that stars at the feast table. If you’re serving a large crowd, the dietary differences can be quite diverse: there might be a diabetic in the family, Uncle Larry might have high cholesterol, and there may be someone with a gluten allergy, or aversion, coming to dine as well. Preparing dishes to acknowledge their needs doesn’t mean that everyone will dine from a separate menu or that you’ll be preparing a special dish for each person at the table. As the saying goes, “fight smarter, not harder.” There are a number of easy alterations and substitutions you can make to the benefit of all those sitting down to share the meal.

Substituting lower calorie and cholesterol cooking oils for fats like butter is a great way to easily adjust the health of a dish. If you just can’t let go of that buttery undertone, butter-infused olive oils and cooking sprays are a great way to add an edge of richness without hardening the arteries.

Opting for natural sugars found in fruits and lightly sauteéd vegetables is always preferable over heaping scoops of white sugar: cranberries, dates, and citrus rind add sweetness and a tart edge that is kinder to the digestive tract and blood sugar. If baking absolutely calls for sugar, opt for less-processed or raw varieties, and reduce amounts to a quarter less than called for; the difference is barely notable to the palate. With sugar being one of the dietary demons of the decade, a wide variety of organic sweetener substitutes have emerged for general use. Molasses and date sugar still rate highly on the glycemic index, but they require less quantity to go as far as white sugar in terms of taste. The other benefit is that both maintain high levels of other nutritive qualities like minerals and vitamins to complement sweetness. Honey, stevia, and agave nectar are lower-calorie options for sweetness, and don’t provide the same rapid blood sugar spikes as white sugars.

As the cook of the celebration, you also have the right to experiment with establishing new traditions — you might ruffle a few feathers for altering the menu with new additions or omissions, but choosing healthier options will keep the whole family coming back to the table for future celebrations to come, which is the true spirit of the festivities.

Giving gifts

The longstanding tradition of a box of lovingly handcrafted baked goods has been a classic gift during the holiday season for probably as long as there have been holidays. For distant relatives, receiving a batch of homemade holiday cookies through the mail service is like a love letter from home. Although the gift of cookies comes from the heart, it’s not always kind to the health. Holiday culinary temptations abound, and adding a care package of treats can make a person feel obliged to eat yet another indulgent sweet against his or her better judgement. There are healthier ways to give the gift of a full belly to those you love and respect. Fruit baskets are a classic, classy gift that can give the gift of health in a season otherwise rife with unhealthy eating choices. Fresh, sweet produce in the middle of winter is not only a refreshing alternative to yet another snowman shaped cookie, it’s a healthier alternative. If you’re looking to give something more substantial than a single basket of assorted fruits, consider purchasing a CSA (community supported agriculture) membership for a loved one or the whole family; a monthly gift of local, fresh produce is a great way to show you care and encourage healthy eating year round, and it’s a fantastic way to make sure that wayward college students eat more than just ramen noodles regularly.

Discipline your dining

As for your own plate, it’s easy to overindulge when the holiday buffet is before you. If you’re trying to keep yourself from overeating during the family gatherings, an easy fix is to use a smaller plate to monitor your portions and prevent mindless munching. Be sure to strike up a conversation at the table; taking time to converse will help you eat a little slower and give your body time to acknowledge its level of fullness. You might even reconnect with a relative! Although we always give ourselves some leeway to indulge around the holidays, make sure that you’re still choosing a diversity of foods for good health. Make sure you load your plate with fruits, vegetables, and nuts to ensure that your body is running on more than glazed ham and stuffing; choosing differently shaped holiday cookies doesn’t count as variety — cheater.