It’s December, that wonderful time of the year when cheer levels reach critical mass, we pretend we’re looking forward to snow while secretly hoping it doesn’t destroy the new leather Alexander Wang boots we got, and start contemplating how to dodge Aunt Maeve’s incessant questions about when we’re going to settle down and have babies with the fake boyfriend we found on Google Image Search (well, that backfired, didn’t it?).
OK, so not everything about the holidays is so holly jolly, but we still love spending time with our families eating our favorite foods from childhood. Now if only we had the metabolism and energy levels we did when were kids… then we wouldn’t have to be concerned about what we eat this time of year. The good news is, despite all the outcry about the holiday weight gain, it turns out most people only gain about a pound or two this time of year. The bad news is all that high-sugar, high-fat, high-carb food can leave us feeling bloated and lethargic.
While this is hardly the time of year to restrict your diet to raw veggies and flavorless protein, that doesn’t mean you can’t make healthier choices during the holidays—even if it’s just to feel 100 percent totally and completely justified having a whopping slice of nosy Aunt Maeve’s sugar-shockingly scrumptious Southern pecan pie.
It’s all about making choices you know won’t leave you feeling crummy (especially if you have more than one holiday party to attend) and picking the things that you feel are worth indulging in. To feel your energetic best during the holiday season, limit sodium and highly processed foods, bad fat, too many sweets, added sugars, and fatty or processed meats.
From healthier swaps to better-for-you recipes, we’ve got all the tips you need to enjoy the holiday season in high style without the hangover (of the cocktail or food variety).
Instead of High-Fat Hors d'Oevres...
Skip the full-fat deviled eggs and fatty (and sodium-laden) summer sausage, cheese and crackers and opt for better-for-you options. If you're bringing the hors d'oevres, you can make deviled eggs with Vegenaise (which many swear is better than mayo anyway) for less saturated fat and cholesterol (try it with these Sriracha mayo-topped eggs instead of the mayo she calls for).
Or BOLO for healthier options like crudités. Limit yourself to two or three bites or just skip the apps altogether and save room for the good stuff.
The Healthy Foodie
Instead of Mixed Nuts...
Mixed nuts seem to show up everywhere around this time of year, but the cans you buy at the store have so much salt on them, you could use what's left over on your fingers as a salt scrub for your lips. But Nat King Cole had a better idea.
Of course, you don't have to roast your chestnuts over an open fire anymore—an oven will do just fine. But no one would blame you if you wanted the fireplace atmosphere, anyway.
Instead of Ham...
Ham is a cured meat, so its sodium levels rival that of the Great Barrier Reef. That much sodium could put anyone into a serious funk this holiday season, so instead, opt for a fresh cut, like a roast or loin. This pork roast is chock-full of holiday spices, and since the honey is optional, you can save up sugar karma for dessert.
Instead of Ham...
A Christmas ham may be the tradition for a lot of people, but not only is ham a sodium-laden minefield, it's higher in calories and fat than white-meat turkey. It also has lower protein content and lower micronutrient density, meaning white-meat turkey is the clear winner if you're looking for healthier choices.
Moreover, ham is often served with sugary glazes, which no one needs more of. Swap it out for these turkey breasts stuffed with seasonal cranberries and luscious apples for sweetness.
Instead of Fried Turkey...
Of course, if you're Southern, your first thought for holiday protein might be a bird of the fried variety. But when overeaten, fried foods are notorious for creating those post-holiday doldrums—and you know you'll eat a lot, if not that day, in the days after in the form of leftovers.
Sure, it's a little Thanksgiving-y to some people, but a citrus- and herb-roasted bird gives healthier eaters the white meat they crave while still serving up dark meat for those who just need that flavorful fix (or someone who needs the specific micronutrients dark meat contains).
Spoon Fork Bacon
Instead of Canned Cranberry Sauce...
There's enough high-fructose corn syrup and regular corn syrup (yes, both) in canned cranberry sauce to give you a cavity (and brain drain) just looking at it.
Send those 22 grams of sugars packing by DIY'ing your own with fresh cranberries and natural sweetener. Plus, you can prove to your mom you really are using that Instant Pot she gave you last year. Win-win.
Instead of Mashed Potatoes...
Cauliflower mashed potatoes have a rep for being runny and a little baby food-ish. Sonia at The Healthy Foodie takes her mashers very seriously and aims to change all that with her recipe for the best cauliflower mashed potatoes ever.
You'll get added nutrients from the veggie with none of the heaviness of the spud-tastic version. Plus, she swaps butter out for fat-free but flavorful ghee, which is similar to clarified butter.
The Healthy Foodie
Instead of Green Bean Casserole...
Green bean casserole is so ubiquitous at American holiday celebrations, you'd think "the right to green bean casserole at holiday dinners" was enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Fortunately, it was replaced by the Fourth Amendment at the last minute by our forefather Lin-Manuel Miranda (Google it). But as tasty as this casserole is, it's laden with high-sodium condensed soup and prepackaged fried onion straws. By the time it's out of the oven, any nutrition the green beans had is canceled out.
Instead, opt for roasted veggies. You can roast Brussels sprouts, broccoli or any cruciferous veggie with great results. Or try these roasted green beans if you just can't live without the verdant little pods.
Instead of glazed carrots
It's tempting to serve up a side of hot, sugary glazed carrots with dinner, but since carrots have so much natural sweetness, doing so is basically making them into dessert. They become a Franken-side mashup of carrots and the goopy stuff from pecan pie.
Instead, season your carrots with herbs and roast them up to enhance their natural sweetness.
Instead of Eggnog...
If you're lactose intolerant or have a sensitivity to dairy, milk-based beverages can leave you feeling a little unenthusiastic. But even if you're not, eggnog is a bit fatty, which can leave anyone sluggish.
Instead of traditional eggnog, opt for this almond milk and coconut milk version for a frothy, holiday-spiced sipper that'll leave you feeling happy and bright even if it's not spiked.
The Health Foodie
Instead of Piecrust...
Fact: You can't make piecrust without fat. But what if we told you could you at least add a little nutritional value to it by swapping that bleached white flour with almond and coconut flours and adding eggs for extra protein?
This paleo piecrust uses heart-healthy lard (you read that right). Just make sure you look for the purest kind you can find to reap the benefits.
The Healthy Foodie
Instead of Pecan, Pumpkin, or Cream pies...
There's no need to make a special pie to keep it a little healthier. Just opt for apple pie over corn-syrupy pecan or fatty custard pies like pumpkin or coconut cream.
The fruit provides nutrients, and while there's sugar in an apple pie, at least it's not the corn syrup you'd find in pecan and the fat comes only from the pie crust and any butter in the recipe. It's not health food, per se, but it's certainly the better choice.
Instead of Whipped Cream...
Whether you like it on your pie or atop a hot cup of coffee or cocoa, whipped cream is literally nothing more than heavy cream and sugar, and you're already going to have plenty of sweets this holiday season as is.
Instead, try this sugar-free vegan whipped cream made from aquafaba, which is surprisingly similar in flavor to its fattier doppelgänger. As an added bonus, you can use it instead of meringue on cream pies to save a few grams of sugar there too.
Instead of Traditional Fudge...
Traditional fudge is packed with food coma-inducing ingredients like corn syrup or sweetened condensed milk, (tons of) sugar and butter, but why does it have to be?
Dark chocolate (eaten in moderation, of course) is packed with good-for-you nutrients, so start with that and opt for healthier fats and sweeteners. This dark chocolate fudge even features pomegranate arils and dried cranberries, so you'll get a boost of vitamins and minerals from it too.
Joyful Healthy Eats
Instead of Leftovers...
If you're hosting, there's bound to be a ton of food left over. Your guests will also have food they bought they aren't super-keen to take home (what are they going to do with a half casserole dish of green bean casserole, after all?).
Buy a load of plastic to-go containers just like the ones you get in restaurants (don't forget some smaller containers for dessert), and encourage people to take what they want, grabbing a little of both yours and theirs for yourself too… the ultimate food swap!
Remind them to take enough for another meal or take some home to someone who couldn't make it. If you still have leftovers when you're done, don't hesitate to take a complete meal or two to an elderly neighbor. That's healthy for you in more ways than one!
Food Storage Containers, $10.45 at Amazon