Festive meals, "complete with all the trimmings," are part and parcel of holiday celebrations. Unfortunately, entrees and trimmings alike are often calorie-laden dishes that leave us feeling sluggish and regretful. This year, when you share the bounty, why not give it a healthy makeover? With a few simple substitutions, you can transform your typical holiday dinner into a real cause for celebration.
Here are some tips for lightening up—and fortifying—traditional holiday fare:
* Aim for a variety of textures, flavors and color. (Variety can translate to added nutrients as well as appeal.) Add some dried fruits, like raisins and apricots, to a dish of heart-healthy nuts, for example. Serve red and green grapes with cheese slices and crisp whole grain breads.
* Offer a veggie platter before the big meal to start everyone off on the right foot and to cut down on consumption of higher-fat, higher-calorie foods.
* Serve low-fat dips with baked chips, whole grain crackers, and fresh vegetables.
* For cream cheese spreads, substitute Neufchatel, a lower-fat, lower-calorie cheese, for regular cream cheese.
* To add to the festive atmosphere, serve a variety of drinks before the meal, like sparkling juices, warm mulled cider, and eggnog or soynog (look for light varieties, make your own using skim milk rather than cream, or dilute traditional eggnog with skim milk).
* At the table, fill glasses with plenty of fresh, iced water. Add a slice of lemon, if you like.
* If you're serving alcohol, wine is a better choice. While all alcoholic beverages tend to be high in calories, wine (especially red wine) also provides resveratrol, a healthful antioxidant.
* Choose leaner cuts of meat, organic and local when possible.
* Opt for plain turkey rather than self-basting, which is higher in fat and sodium. Then baste the meat yourself, if you like, with a low-sodium broth, wine or fruit juice. Placing a foil tent over the meat will also help prevent drying.
* Roast meat on a rack so fat will drip into the pan.
* Remove the skin from meat before serving.
By the way, portion control is paramount at the table. Here's a handy guideline for meats: one serving of meat, fish, or poultry is about the size of a deck of cards.
* When preparing stuffing, increase the fiber and B vitamins by using whole grain bread and wild or brown rice instead of buttery white breads.
* For even more nutrients, replace some of the bread in your recipe with added produce, like onions, celery, and apples. You can also use fruits and vegetables in place of fatty sausage in stuffing recipes. If you prefer to include sausage, consider lean chicken or turkey sausage. Dried fruit (like apricot and dates) and chopped nuts (like walnuts and pecans) will add flavor and interest without excess salt and butter.
* Use vegetable broth or low-fat chicken broth, rather than melted butter, for moistness.
* Cook your stuffing in a casserole dish instead of inside the bird. Not only is it safer, it'll also reduce the amount of fat in each serving.
* Skip the drippings and use low-fat broth to make your gravy. Thicken the broth with cornstarch or arrowroot, and season with spices. (There are also some excellent natural gravy mixes available.)
* If you do use meat drippings to make gravy, first refrigerate the drippings, and then skim the fat off the top before using.
* Serve gravy with a spoon rather than a ladle or gravy pour spout; you'll wind up eating less of it.
* As an alternative to gravy, serve salsa, chutney, or fruit compote with meat, poultry, or fish.
* Serve a variety of colorful, in-season fruits and vegetables, like kale and carrots, yams and cranberries, squash and red and green apples.
* When preparing mashed potatoes, use skim milk, non-fat buttermilk, non-fat sour cream, and/or low-fat evaporated milk instead of butter and milk or cream. Add garlic powder, Parmesan cheese, or even horseradish for tang.
* For added nutrients and fiber, leave the skins on potatoes while cooking and mashing.
* Try mashing other vegetables, too, like turnips, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas.
* Keep in mind that sweet potatoes and yams are naturally sweet and creamy and don't need to be drenched in sugars. (They're also a great source of beta-carotene!) Instead, uses spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to enhance the flavor. You might even serve them baked, as you would a plain baked potato. Or combine them with white potatoes for mashing. If your guests are looking for candied yams and you don't want to disappoint, bake yours in a little fruit juice (apple or orange) with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract.
* Skip the butter and excess salt. Season vegetables with spices and enliven with a spritz of lemon juice. Add a topping of nuts. Instead of a green bean casserole, for example, serve fresh green beans with a squirt of lemon, a sprinkling of slivered almonds, and a sprig of dill.
* Grill veggies with a little olive oil to bring out their sweetness and maximize nutrients.
* Make your own cranberry sauce. (It's easy!) Cranberries are a great source of vitamin C, some of which is lost in the canning process.
* Transform high-sodium, high-fat casserole recipes with substitutions. A flavorful low-fat vegetable broth can replace a can of soup, for example, and baked onions or chopped nuts can take the place of a fried onion topping.
* In place of a tradition casserole, consider serving a pilaf, full of healthful grains and vegetables.
* Choose stronger-tasting cheeses (like an extra sharp rather than a mild cheddar), and you'll need less of it in your casserole.
* Many casserole recipes can be just as tasty when the salt is reduced by half. Increase other spices, if you like, for added flavor.
* Make a soup creamy without using cream: Add a little blended tofu, pureed potatoes, or non-fat evaporated milk. Or take a ladle full of the warm soup, puree in the blender, then add back to the soup.
* Chill soups and stews and skim any solid fats off the top before heating and serving.
* Reduce fat in baked goods by substituting unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas, or pureed pumpkin, pears, peaches, apricots, or plums for half of the oil. Ground flaxseed can stand in for about one-third of the butter in a recipe.
* If you reduce the fat in a recipe, take care not to overmix or overbake. Overmixing develops the gluten and toughens the product. And baked goods with reduced fat tend to bake faster and dry out faster than those containing oils and butters. Check for doneness earlier and lower the oven temp just a bit, maybe 25 degrees.
* Reduce cholesterol by substituting 2 egg whites for 1 of the whole eggs in a recipe. (It's best to leave at least 1 whole egg in the recipe.)
* Increase fiber by using whole wheat, whole wheat pastry or bran flour for half of the all-purpose flour called for in a recipe.
* Use fresh fruits lavishly in your dessert spread. Strawberries—dipped in dark chocolate, if you like—are always luscious, apple slices with caramel are seasonally festive, and a big bowl of assorted pears (couldn't be easier) is colorful and enticing!
* Use fruits as the mainstay for your baked desserts, too—baked apples, fruit tarts, blueberry bread pudding, peach custards, and poached pears, for example.
* If you do serve cake, consider angel food cake, which has little or no fat. Serve it with fruit, of course!
* Transform your pumpkin pie recipe by using nonfat evaporated milk for the filling and forgoing the crust (serve soufflé style). Or try a recipe for pumpkin tofu pie, which typically contains no saturated fat.
* In many dessert recipes, you can decrease the sugar by about one-fourth, then increase spices and extracts (vanilla, almond) to boost flavor. Adding coffee granules will intensify chocolate flavor, too.
* Instead of topping pies, cakes, and cobblers with full-fat ice cream or whipped cream, substitute fat-free sorbet or frozen yogurt.
* If you're baking holiday cookies, use smaller cookie cutters for smaller portions.
* Instead of icing cakes, dust with powdered sugar.
* Use streusel topping instead of a top piecrust.
One more thing! In the spirit of the season, take care not to waste food. If you've made more than enough, send leftovers home with guests or to a neighbor who might enjoy them. You might even tuck in a copy of the recipe for each dish. After all, as healthful and delicious as your recipes are, everyone will soon be asking!