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Tips to make healthier holiday recipes

Minor ingredient changes can reduce fat, sugar, calories.

Paul Schattenberg

November 22, 2021

4 Min Read
bhofack2/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Holiday foods can be made healthier through some simple recipe alterations, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Often with minimal changes in taste, dishes can be made healthier by using some basic recipe substitutions, said Jenna Anding, AgriLife Extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition, Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station.

Reducing fat, sugar, calories in traditional recipes

“If a recipe calls for a cup of sugar, try using three-fourths of a cup. If it calls for a half-cup of oil, shortening or other fat, try one-third of a cup instead.”

Anding also suggested using reduced-fat or non-fat cheese, milk, cream cheese, cottage cheese or yogurt instead of higher-fat counterparts like regular cheese or cream.

“For mashed potatoes, try using defatted broth instead of butter to reduce both fat and calories,” she said.

Modifying a complicated recipe may not always produce the desired texture, so Anding suggests testing the recipe on friends or family before going “all in” on a holiday meal.

Keeping traditional holiday foods nutritious

Many traditional holiday foods are by themselves healthful and nutritious but are “embellished” in ways that take away from their innate nutritional value.

“The sweet potato, for example, contains fiber as well as vitamins A and C,” Anding explained. “A medium-sized baked sweet potato contains about 100 calories, but many people add sugar, butter and other ingredients, which really ups the calorie count. A baked sweet potato with a little brown sugar and cinnamon is far healthier than one topped with butter, sugar and marshmallows.”

Fresh cranberries are another healthy option for holiday recipes, she said. Unlike canned cranberries or cranberry sauce, which often contain added sugar, fresh cranberries are naturally healthful.

“Fresh cranberries contain phytonutrients and have anti-inflammatory properties that can promote health and may reduce the risk of disease,” Anding said. “Adding fresh cranberries to salads and baked items such as muffins, cookies and pies is also a good way to sneak in some extra nutrition and flavor.”

Cooking methods for healthier eating

Anding also suggested leaving the skin on a turkey during cooking and then removing the skin before serving to reduce the overall fat content.

For holiday vegetable dishes, the healthiest cooking method is either steaming or roasting the vegetables, using a small amount of oil or cooking spray, Anding said.

And, for many dishes, adding herbs and spices can enhance flavor without adding fat or calories.

Some healthful recipes from Dinner Tonight!

One source of healthy holiday recipes is AgriLife Extension’s Dinner Tonight! website. The Dinner Tonight program promotes family mealtime by providing quick, easy, healthful and cost-effective recipes. In addition to such recipes, the program provides free weekly video demonstrations of cooking tips and techniques along with information on nutrition, menu planning and healthy living.

“The goal of the Dinner Tonight! program is to improve health and wellness through nutrition education,” said Odessa Keenan, AgriLife Extension program specialist for the Healthy Texas initiative. “We try to make recipes healthful and nutritious, and we have assembled a variety of recipes for dishes that are 400 calories or less.”

Keenen said a number of these healthier holiday recipes could serve as main or side dishes for the holidays.

“In my experience, however, people usually know what their holiday meal main course is going to be — turkey, chicken, brisket, ham, etc. — but the sides are more difficult to decide on,” she said.

Keenan recommended the following Dinner Tonight! recipes as healthful versions of some classic holiday sides:  

Balance is key

Along with healthier ingredients and preparation techniques, it is important to balance the amount of calories taken in with the number expended.

“You can probably expect to take in some extra calories during the holidays,” Anding said. “Try to plan accordingly so you can keep your calorie intake in check. And don’t forget to schedule in some type of physical activity during this holiday season. It will not only help you burn off some those extra calories, it will also help reduce your stress level.”

Source: is AgriLife TODAY, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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