Let me start by saying that not all holiday food is supposed to be totally healthy. There once was a time when most people ate pretty simply most days of the year. The holidays were different…they were special. It was OK to have more indulgent foods a few days a year because it was only a few days a year.
So, if eating healthy is important to you, and you make a point of doing it during most of the year, then, IMHO, it’s OK to relax your dietary standards on the holidays. (I’m speaking generally here…obviously if you have a food-related health condition you shouldn’t relax and have that food. For example, someone with celiac disease can’t relax and have grandma’s stuffing made with regular bread.)
That said, the holiday table can sometimes be a bit much, even when you do eat healthy most of the time. Exhibit A: The frequency of food comas on holiday evenings.
A handful of years ago, right before I started working on my graduate degree in nutrition, I had the grand idea to give Thanksgiving a health makeover. We were hosting eight family members, both kids and adults. Here are my two big fails:
  • Making a wild rice pilaf-thing instead of my usual fantastic sourdough stuffing. The rice dish was…fine…but it was NOT a hit.
  • I planned to make a pumpkin-tofu mousse, but fortunately (or not, depending on the POV), I did a trial run on my husband’s birthday in early November. I still have not entirely lived it down. Moral of the story: Chocolate-tofu mousse, tasty; pumpkin-tofu mousse, nasty. I ended up making pumpkin pie in tart pans (shallower slices and less crust).

That said, I did some things right, and I’ve repeated them since:

  • I used more buttermilk, less butter, plus some chicken broth and a touch of Dijon mustard in my mashed potatoes. They were tasty and sufficiently “cream”y.
  • I did a lightened up version (less butter, less brown sugar) of a sweet potato casserole with a nutty streusel top. It was a hit.
  • I served a nice tossed salad with nuts, dried cranberries and a little blue cheese AND a second vegetable (green beans, I’m fairly certain).
  • I cut red onions into wedges and roasted them (there was more to it than that, but I have misplaced the recipe).
  • I kept appetizers simple: Veggies and dip, mostly.
  • When I have a compulsion to do a second dessert (in case someone doesn’t want pumpkin), I usually do an apple crisp, which is on the lighter side.
From all of that, I’ve devised 10 tips for bringing some healthy balance to the holiday meal:
  1. If a particular dish is totally beloved (even if it’s marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes), don’t mess with it. Don’t become the person who ruined Thanksgiving dinner.
  2. For supporting side dishes that aren’t objects of affection, if you can make them a little healthier without affecting taste and texture, have at it!
  3. Serve an extra non-starchy vegetable side (or two). Green salad, green beans, Brussels sprouts (roasted, cooked or shredded raw for a salad).
  4. Question the rolls. There are a lot of traditional starchy sides (potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing)…would anyone really miss bread? (In my family the answer is yes, so I choose to skip the roll basket when it comes my way.)
  5. Don’t overdo appetizers. When you, or someone else, has devoted hours to preparing the holiday meal, isn’t it a shame to arrive at the table with a spoiled appetite. (Darn cheese plate!)
  6. Don’t starve yourself during the day. It makes it harder to not inhale appetizers while waiting for the main meal event. I try to do a protein-rich breakfast to balance out the carb-heavy holiday meal.
  7. If you are at a large gathering with tons of side dishes, don’t feel like you have to take a little bit of everything. The bigger the variety of foods on your plate, the easier it is to eat too much. This is known as sensory-specific satiety.
  8. Eat slowly and (try to eat) mindfully. Put down your fork between bites. When you take a bite of food, try to pay attention to its flavor, texture, aroma, temperature and other sensory qualities. You don’t need to do this with every bite (hard, when you’re eating with other people and presumably having conversations), but even if you do it periodically through the meal, you will probably be the most mindful person at the table.
  9. Avoid eating until you are uncomfortably full. There’s “satisfied,” there’s “full,” and then there’s “uncomfortable” I recommend that people stop at “satisfied” unless it’s a special occasion and the food is super good, but “uncomfortable” is, well, exactly that.
  10. Don’t let holiday eating bleed into the weeks between the holidays. Enjoy a day (maybe two) of leftovers if you love them, then return to normal.

Tomorrow, I’ll share my holiday menu!