Healthy Cooking for the Holidays

Give yourself the gift of a nutritious holiday feast

By Kait Schuster

Holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year. They can, however, be a time to overindulge. Enjoying a few special holiday treats won’t hurt. For most families, the holiday may look a little different this year, so it is a great time to stay indoors and fire up your oven and try some new holiday recipes. We reached out to Emerson’s dietitians and nutritionists to seek advice on making holiday indulgences healthier. Here are some helpful tips for healthy holiday eating and a few easy-to-make recipes that will keep you healthy during the holiday season.

Skip ahead to:
10 Tips for  Making Healthier Choices
Healthy Recipe Substitutions
Side Dish Recipes
Dessert Recipes
Boosting Your Immune System with Food Podcast

10 Tips for Making Healthier Holiday Choices

  1. Plan ahead. Create a healthy menu and grocery shopping list in advance. Stick to it.
  2. Don’t skip meals or save your calories. Skipping a meal to save calories for later often leads to overeating. Having a nutritious and filling snack, like string cheese, fruit or nuts, can satisfy your appetite and prevent overeating.
  3. Make a toast! Instead of alcohol, try low-calorie options like seltzer water with slices of lemon, lime, or strawberries. Add a splash of cranberry juice! Drink plenty of water to stay full and hydrated.
  4. Try a smaller plate. Studies show that if you use a smaller plate, you will eat about 20 percent fewer calories per meal by simply switching from a 12-inch plate to a 10-inch plate.
  5. Eat s-l-o-w-l-y.  Savor each bite. It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to signal the brain that you are full. If you eat too quickly, you may eat too much.
  6. Think and eat in color. Make your plate look festive by covering at least half of it with fruits and vegetables. Be sure to include lean protein and fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables at every meal to help keep you full at a lower calorie level.
  7. Eat until you are satisfied, not stuffed. No one likes that bloated feeling after a meal. Save some food to enjoy as leftovers for a future meal.
  8. Substitute with healthy ingredients. Lighten up traditional recipes by substituting unsweetened applesauce or ripe bananas instead of butter. Cut the sugar in your recipes by 50 percent. Use spices like cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg to flavor your sweet treats.
  9. Create a holiday tradition that includes moving. Make being active a central part of your holiday traditions. Have fun walking with family and friends after a holiday meal or have a dance-a-thon to your favorite holiday tunes. (See below for Kait’s Holiday Dance Party Playlist)*
  10. Don’t feel guilty!  If you do overindulge, be sure the next meal is healthy and add some additional exercise.

*Kait’s Holiday Dance Party Playlist

  • “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” — Jackson 5
  • “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” — Brenda Lee
  • “All I Want for Christmas is You” — Mariah Carey
  • “Run Randolph Run” — Chuck Berry
  • “Feliz Navidad” — Jose Feliciano
  • “Santa Baby” — Eartha Kitt
  • “Last Christmas” — Wham!
  • “Mele Kalikimaka” — Bing Crosby
  • “Jingle Bell Rock” — Bobby Helms
  • “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” — Andy Williams
  • “Frosty the Snowman” — Gene Autry
  • “Baby’s It’s Cold Outside” — Idina Menzel & Michael Buble

Healthy Recipe Substitutions

When making your favorite holiday recipes this year, you can make small tweaks to lighten up your recipes. Here are substitutes to help make your holiday favorites less impactful to your waistline.
  • To reduce fat, use:
    • Reduced-fat of non-fat cheese
    • 1 percent or skim milk or evaporated milk instead of whole milk or cream
    • Reduced fat mayonnaise and swap sour cream for non-fat plain Greek yogurt, which has the consistency of sour cream.
  • To cut calories, cook in broth. Use reduced sodium, fat-free broth to add flavor to vegetables, stews, and mashed potatoes.
  • To reduce fats, instead of margarine or butter in baking, substitute:
    • Heart-healthy olive or canola oil
    • An equal amount of unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas, or pureed pears for at least half the fat called for in a recipe.
  • To reduce cholesterol, whole eggs can be replaced with:
    • 2 egg whites or ¼ cup egg substitute
    • Sauté´ with a non-stick pan lightly sprayed with non-fat cooking spray.
  • To reduce sugar, substitute 50 percent of the recipe with zero calories sugar replacement, such as Splenda, Truvia, Erythritol, or Swerve.

Great Recipes to Brighten Your Holidays

Do you feel like you do a pretty good job eating well most of the year, then when it comes to the holidays all of your good intentions disappear? We know that feeling! That’s why we have assembled several dietician-approved holiday recipes that are delicious and will leave you feeling great!

Side Dishes

Looks for some interesting holiday side dishes? Try these special recipes.

Green Bean Casserole (light version)

Source: Food Network

  • 1 lb. frozen green beans (French cut is best), thawed
  • 10.5 oz. canned, reduced-fat, low-sodium cream of mushroom soup
  • 1/2 cup low-fat sour cream
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 1 small onion (cut into thin strips)
  • Nonstick Cooking spray
  • 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a 9x13 casserole dish, combine green beans, soup, sour cream and pepper. Stir until well mixed and bake for 20 minutes.
3. While casserole bakes, spread out onion sticks and lightly spray with cooking spray.
4. Sprinkle flour over onion pieces, tossing to coat equally.
5. Spray a medium-large skillet with cooking spray and heat to medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until crisply, stirring occasionally. 
6. Remove casserole from oven, add ½ onions and stir well.
7. Top with remaining half and return to oven, bake 5 minutes more.

Nutritional Info
Serving: 1 cup
Calories: 77 calories
Nutrition: Total Fat 2.0 g, Cholesterol 4 mg, Sodium 138 mg, Carbohydrates 12 g, Dietary Fiber 2 g, Total Sugars 3.2 g, Protein 3 g

Meringue-Topped Sweet Potato Casserole

Source: Eating Well

  • 2 ½ sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 cup low-fat evaporated milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp salt.
  • 1 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple, undrained
  • ½ cup pecans
  • Meringue Topping:
    • 4 teaspoons dried egg whites or 2 large egg whites at room temperature
    • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  1. Place sweet potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a food processor. Process until smooth.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat an 8-inch-square (or similar 2-quart) broiler-safe baking dish with cooking spray.
  3. Whisk whole eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, oil, evaporated milk, vanilla and salt in a large bowl until smooth. Add the sweet potato, whisk until smooth. Stir in pineapple and its juice. Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with pecans.
  4. Bake the casserole until heated through and the edges are bubbling, 35 to 45 minutes. Set aside while you make the topping.
  5. To prepare meringue topping: Position rack in top third of oven; preheat broiler. Beat egg whites in a medium bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until soft peaks form. Beat in granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream. Continue beating until stiff peaks form.
  6. Spoon the meringue into a gallon-size sealable bag. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Cut a ½ -inch hole in one corner. Pipe the meringue onto the casserole, making marshmallow-size dots. (Alternatively, use a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch tip or spread the meringue over the casserole as if you were frosting a cake.) Broil until lightly browned, watching carefully to prevent burning, 30 to 90 seconds.

Nutritional Info
Serving: ½ cup
Calories: 196 calories
Nutrition: Total Fat 6.8 g, Cholesterol 41 mg, Sodium 138 mg, Carbohydrates 29.4 g, Dietary Fiber 3 g, Total Sugars 17.9 g, Protein 5.4 g

Hearty Vegetarian Pumpkin Chili

Don’t feel like cooking? Fire up the crockpot and make this delicious vegetarian pumpkin chili.
Source: Skinny Taste

For seasoning mix:
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoons ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
For chili:
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced
  • 1 jalapeno, seeds and membrane removed, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced into ½-inch cubes
  • 4 large Portobello mushrooms, stemmed, wiped clean and cubed
  • 2 cups frozen corn
  • 1 28-ounce can fire roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 15-ounce can pureed pumpkin
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups unsalted vegetable stock
For toppings:
  • 1 extra-large or 2 small avocados, cubed
  • 5 green onions, sliced
  • 10 tablespoons reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese
  • 5 tablespoons light sour cream
  • 2 ounces baked tortilla chips, crushed
  • chopped cilantro, for garnish
  1. In a small bowl, combine everything in the seasoning mix. Set aside.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeño and sauté until vegetables are soft, about 3-4 minutes.
  4. Add the carrots and mushrooms and cook until carrots start to brown and mushrooms release some of their liquid, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes.
  5. Add the seasoning mix and stir to evenly coat.
  6. Add the corn, tomatoes, pumpkin, beans and stock and mix well.
  7. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 45 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. When carrots are fork tender, remove from heat, serve 1 cup of chili and top with desired toppings like cheddar cheese, tortilla chips, and scallions.

Nutritional Info
Serving: 1 cup
Calories: 232
Nutrition: Carbohydrates: 35g, Protein: 7g, Fat: 7g, Cholesterol: 19mg, Sodium: 674mg, Fiber: 9g, Sugar: 8g

Other Side Dishes to Consider

Light and Delicious Holiday Desserts

For some, desserts are the best part of holiday dinners. Here are some recipes to help you feel less guilty after reaching for the sweets.

Mini Strawberry Santas

Source: Snack Girl

  • 1 pound of fresh strawberries
  • 1 container cool whip or 1 canister of whipped cream
  • 1 package mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
  1. Wash and hull strawberries. Remove stem.
  2. Slice a ¼ inch slice on the bottom of strawberry. Fill center with Cool Whip. Add a dab of Cool Whip on top.
  3. Add 2 chocolate chips for the eyes.

Nutritional Info
Serving: 2 Santas
Calories: 64 calories
Nutrition: Total Fat 5.7 g, Sodium 6 mg, Carbohydrates 302 g, Dietary Fiber 3.2 g, Total Sugars 1.6 g, Protein 0.5 g

Iced Gingerbread Cut-Out Cookies

This gingerbread cookie recipe will taste like the gingerbread cookies you are familiar with, but substitutes a portion of the all-purpose flower with white whole-wheat flour and uses less butter.
Source: Eating Well


Cookie Dough

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup white, whole-wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  •  1/3 cup canola oil
  • ½ cup molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 finely grated zest of 1 orange

Cookie Icing

  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, add more as needed
  • 2 tablespoon dried egg whites
  • 4 tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon light corn syrup
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
  • food coloring for decorating
  1. To prepare cookie dough: Whisk all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, cloves and salt in a medium bowl. Beat oil, butter, brown sugar, molasses, egg and orange zest in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer on low speed until well blended.
  2. With the mixer on low speed, then medium speed, beat about half the flour mixture into the wet ingredients until incorporated. Beat in the remaining flour mixture until just incorporated. Let the dough stand for 5 minutes. It should be somewhat firm, but not at all dry. If it seems overly sticky, stir in up to 2 additional tablespoons of all-purpose flour.
  3. Divide the dough into thirds. Place one third on a 12-inch-long sheet of parchment paper and shape into a disk. Top with a second sheet of parchment. Roll the dough out between the parchment into an 8-inch circle about 1/4 inch thick. Place the dough in the paper on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Freeze on the baking sheet until cold and firm, at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day. Place another baking sheet in the freezer to chill too (it will be used under the dough as the cookies are cut out).
  4. To shape and bake cookies: Position a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 350 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet(s) with parchment paper.
  5. Working with one portion of dough at a time, remove from the freezer and place on the chilled baking sheet. Remove the top sheet of parchment and cut out cookies with 2 1/2- to 3-inch cookie cutters. Transfer to a prepared baking sheet with a wide, thin spatula, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Repeat with the remaining dough. (If the dough gets too soft, freeze until firm again. As you cut out cookies, set aside the scraps. Shape all the scraps back into a disk and reroll between parchment. Freeze for at least 30 minutes before cutting out.)
  6. Bake the cookies on the center rack, one pan at a time, until browned on the bottom, 6 to 12 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool.
  7. To prepare icing and decorate cookies: Stir together confectioners' sugar and dried egg whites in a small bowl. Stir in water, corn syrup and vanilla (or almond) extract until smooth. Divide the icing among 3 small bowls and add a few drops of red dye to one and green dye to another so you have white, red and green icing. Add a little more confectioners' sugar if necessary to achieve a thicker consistency for piping. Spoon each color of icing into a pastry bag with a writing tip or into a small plastic bag with a tiny tip of one corner snipped off. Pipe designs onto the cooled cookies. Let stand until the icing sets before storing the cookies.

Nutritional Info
Serving: 2 ½ - 3-inch cookie
Calories: 126 calories
Nutrition: Total Fat 3.6 g, Sodium 40 mg, Carbohydrates 22.3 g, Dietary Fiber 0.7 g, Cholesterol 8.6 mg, Protein 1.2 g

Other Desserts to Consider

Podcast: How to Boost Your Immune System with Food

Stay healthy this winter. Liz Berman, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Acton Medical Associates, explains how to use food to boost your immune system.

Subscribe to the Health Works Here Podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and wherever podcasts can be heard.


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About the Author

Kaitlin (Kait) Schuster is a senior at Noble & Greenough School in Dedham, Mass. She lives in Sudbury with her parents, sister, three cats, and a dog.