To me, holiday meals are all about quality—sharing the best meal you can with the best people you know. It’s not about having the most complicated dishes, the most expensive ingredients, the most sugary desserts, or the greatest number of animals stuffed inside one another. (I’m looking at you, Turducken.) Holiday eating is really just an extension of how we’d like to eat year-round: treating ourselves to food that’s both delicious and good for us.
Roasted Sweet Potato Casserole with Maple Cayenne Pecans from Healthy at the Holidays
However, with holiday parties, rushed travel schedules and traditional dishes that are, er, anything but “good for us,” it can be hard to keep to healthful goals during the holiday season. So I assembled my top tips for staying healthy as we head into November.
4 tips for staying healthy at the holidays:
1. Pick seasonal vegetables to be the star of your meal.
While traditional Thanksgiving and holiday feasts are centered around a turkey or ham or other big roast, I’m all about the sides. It’s the same reason I love small plates restaurants, tapas and just generally eating off of friends and family members’ plates: I want to try it all!
While you still might include an entrée or meat-focused center to your holiday meal, consider making a variety of seasonal produce the star of the table. Butternut and delicata squash, hearty kale, jewel-like pomegranates, tart cranberries, robust chestnuts and pumpkin are all bursting with flavor and color this time of year. And all those colors mean lots of phytonutrients and antioxidants for our bodies and a feast for our eyes as well as our stomachs. I love to make sure my spread includes the natural colors of the season: green, orange and red.
2. Swap creamy sauces for fresh vinaigrettes.
Lots of our “classic” holiday dishes from mashed potatoes to green bean casserole are loaded up with cream, butter, and other kinds of dairy. Let’s not even talk about that can of cream of mushroom soup! While dairy can certainly add amazing flavor and decadence to dishes, it’s not the only option in our culinary arsenals. Plus now many people are avoiding large quantities of dairy because they find the sugar hard to digest or because it’s a highly inflammatory and caloric food.
Instead, to jazz up your dishes, pick a sharp vinegar base (like balsamic, champagne, raspberry, apple cider or rice wine), mix with extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt to create a zippy vinegar to add flavor and height to just about anything. Spices and fresh herbs can also be blended in to intensify the flavor. Use this to toss with boiled potatoes, green beans, or even to drizzle over meats.
3. Roast, roast, roast.
I’ll take a page from Ned Flanders and “toast to the host who can boast the most roast!” Except I’m not talking about roasted meat. Roasting vegetables in a hot oven adds crispiness, caramelization, and easy hands-off preparation. From Brussels sprouts to squash to broccoli to green beans, pretty much every vegetable tastes amazing roasted.
Roasting also allows you to use less oils, butter, cheese, sugar, etc to create craveable vegetables. One of my favorite simple sides is a play on candied yams. Instead of boiling my sweet potatoes--which would dilute their flavor, sweetness and nutrients--I roast them whole in their jackets and then mash them up with pumpkin pie spices and top with spiced pecans. No sugar or extra ingredients required. The secret is in the roasting, which concentrates and intensifies their natural sweetness and richness.
When you roast, make sure to turn your oven up; depending on the vegetable, I roast anywhere from 400 degrees to 550! When thinking up some quick holiday sides to add to your meal, follow my mantra: “roast it!”
4. Bring along the healthiest dish.
At potluck-style meals, I always make it my task to bring a clean, healthy dish to contribute. It started off as a security measure to make sure that there would be something balanced and healthy for me to fill up on, but now my friends and family expect me to “bring the kale” at communal gatherings. You’d be surprised how many other people are also looking for something light and fresh at holiday meals. Kale salads, cabbage slaws, and grain and bean salads all fit the bill for something that’s easy to transport and can be served at room temperature.
Looking for more healthy holiday inspiration?
Join me for Healthy at the Holidays, Wednesday, November 4, 7pm at The Chopping Block Lincoln Square. The recipes in the class make a complete holiday spread but you can pick and choose from these plant-based recipes (read: vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free) to add some contemporary freshness to your holiday meals.
And because healthy eating and cooking should be stress-free, all of these dishes are make ahead- and take along-friendly and come with reheating instructions. We’ll be making my decadent sweet potato casserole, green beans with pickled red onions, a quinoa and squash bake that makes an excellent vegetarian entree, and an allergen-friendly apple cranberry crisp and more! These recipes are fast and simple and sure to be staples in your kitchen all winter long.
Cheers to being healthy during the holidays!