Merry Makeovers: Healthy Holiday Foods


Happy holidays! Wherever you come from or wherever you’re going home to this season, here’s how to serve up fare that is both festive and light. Whether your table offerings lean toward Norman Rockwell-worthy all-American, Latino, Jewish, Italian, or German traditions, the time-honored dishes you love can be made with less fat and fewer calories — without sacrificing taste.

Healthy Holiday Foods: American

Inspired by the foods ladled up by the Pilgrims, the traditional American meal has come to mean eggnog, hot apple cider, and gingerbread cookies on Dec. 24. Christmas Day is usually spent with relatives over a big meal centered around an oven-roasted turkey, honey-baked ham, or other impressive cut of meat — accompanied by all the fixins.

Traditional treat: What’s a holiday office cocktail party without savory finger foods, creamy dips, and fried canapés?

Leaner eat: Bypass the chips and other fried pound-packers and help yourself to a small handful of nuts, reduced-fat cheese and fresh fruit, or chilled shrimp, says Arthur Agatston, MD, author of The antioxidant-packed nuts are good for you, in moderation, the corn syrup, butter, and sugar can pad your hips with up to 800 calories per slice.

Leaner eat: Opt for a small slice of pie minus the crust, and make it pumpkin, which is lower in fat and calories and also provides a good dose of beta-carotene. Or try a couple of strawberries dipped in chocolate, Agatston says.

Healthy Holiday Foods: Latino

Families in Latin American countries traditionally gather on Christmas Eve to share ponche (eggnog-like drink) and a meal. But the fun starts long before the holiday, as relatives get together on weekends to help make the festivities’ tamales. Think of it as a merry assembly line: One person makes the masa or ground corn dough, another prepares the pork, and still another is in charge of putting the right amount of masa in the corn husk, adding the pork and chile, and at the end, closing the corn husk just the right way.

Traditional treat: Depending on where it is made, ponche, the Latino-style eggnog, may contain less sugar and be free of heavy cream, unlike its American classic counterpart. The tradition is to add rum and/or fruit. Some versions are made with whole milk and condensed milk, others with only evaporated milk. And Puerto Rico’s version of ponche contains cream of coconut and is called “coquito.”

Leaner eat: Buy a lower-fat version and skip the alcohol to save calories per cup of eggnog, says Malena Perdomo, RD, a dietitian in the Prevention Department of Kaiser Permanente Colorado and Latino nutrition spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Or make it yourself the way Latinos do (that way you can use fewer egg yolks and more egg whites). And if the recipe calls for heavy cream or evaporated milk, reach for fat-free evaporated milk instead.

Traditional treat: Lechón asado (roasted suckling pig) is a traditional dish for families from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela. Everyone pitches in, digging a pit in the backyard, lining it with banana leaves, placing the pig in the pit, and covering it. A fire is built and the pig is roasted — slathered in oil, of course.

Leaner eat: Roast a pork loin in the oven by removing the skin, draining the fat, and adding broth, fruit, or bitter orange or orange juice instead of oil to keep it moist.

Traditional treat: A classic Mexican dish popular throughout Latin America, tamales are made of chopped pork and crushed peppers, highly seasoned, wrapped in cornhusks, spread with a dough made of dried corn and lard, and steamed. This recipe has many versions.

Leaner eat: Rather than using lard or shortening, make the tamales with a healthier vegetable oil, such as olive or canola. You can also save fat and calories by making them vegetarian with a Mexican cheese or Monterey Jack and adding a green chile (jalapeño or Anaheim, for example) for an extra kick.

Healthy Holiday Foods: Jewish

Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights. The holiday commemorates the 165 B.C. miracle of the oil, when a small jar that held only enough oil to keep the Jerusalem temple lights burning for one day lasted a full eight days. Jews remember this by eating foods that are fried, dipped, or made with oil, says Laura Frankel, executive chef of Wolfgang Puck’s kosher café in Chicago and author of Jewish Cooking for All Seasons: Fresh, Flavorful Kosher Recipes for Holidays and Every Day.

Traditional treat: Potatoes, onions, eggs, and matzo flour are formed into a batter and fried in oil to produce these crispy latkes, or potato pancakes.

Leaner eat: Use extra-virgin olive oil instead of higher-fat kinds such as corn oil, and toss out the egg yolks. When cooking with olive oil, you can’t take the temperature past 350 degrees, so add a bit of canola oil because it can handle the heat. The bonus: The pancakes are even crispier, Frankel says. Yolks make dough tender, whereas the egg whites create a crispy, crunchy crust.

Traditional treat: The typical topping for latkes is sour cream — not the healthiest choice.

Leaner eat: To up the nutritional value, Frankel makes a sauce using fresh apples and cranberries. Cooked together, they add fiber and give an antioxidant boost to the holiday menu. Another healthy substitution: sweet potatoes instead of the called-for russet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are high in fiber and beta-carotene. “I like to parboil my sweet potatoes in water until they are just tender. Then cool them off and grate them for the latkes,” says Frankel. Use a dollop of low-fat or fat-free sour cream on top.

Traditional treat that’s also a leaner eat: Some families serve arancini (“little oranges”), which is already fairly healthy, Frankel says. Chefs typically cook farro, a grain similar to barley or brown rice, until tender, then mix with egg and roll in flour. The little balls are stuffed with cheese or a spicy meat mixture and fried until crispy; the farro causes them to turn brownish orange. “I like to fry the arancini in an olive oil and canola oil mix. I get the flavor and health benefits of the olive oil with the heat tolerance of the canola oil,” says Frankel.

Healthy Holiday Foods: Italian

On Dec. 24, many Italians sit down with their loved ones to a multicourse meal, the centerpiece of which is seafood (Sicilians famously serve a seven fish-dish banquet). On Christmas morning, families gather around the tree enjoying coffee, homemade biscotti, and a classic Italian bread called panettone (“big bread”).

Traditional treat: Shrimp cocktail dipped in mayonnaise is obviously a recipe for too many calories and too much cholesterol, says Eldo E. Frezza, MD, chief of general surgery and director of the Bariatric Weight Loss Center at Texas Tech University Health Science Center and author of Slim the Italian Way.

Leaner eat: Lose the mayo, and wrap the shrimp in lettuce leaves instead. Flavor with a small drizzle of olive oil and lemon. Or serve the cold shrimp with cocktail sauce.

Traditional treat: Lasagna is traditionally made with cooking cream (heavy, like whipping cream) and lots of meat, topped with Parmesan cheese. It’s easy to overdo the fat and calories, Frezza says.

Leaner eat: Prepare vegetable lasagna (keep the cream — hey, it’s a holiday! Frezza says) and enjoy one piece instead of two. Or make lasagna the American way with lean ground beef, part-skim mozzarella, and low-fat ricotta cheese and skip the cream.

Traditional treat: For the holidays, fish (usually trout) is boiled but then cooked in -clogging butter and served with (again!) mayonnaise.

Healthier eat: Grill, broil, or sauté the fish in a little olive oil, and serve with lemon juice or a lemon juice vinaigrette instead of mayo.

Traditional treat: Italian holiday desserts such as zeppole and struffoli are filled with nuts, figs, or sugared sweets. Panettone is sometimes stuffed with ice cream and served with chocolate sauce.

Leaner eat: Make a cheesecake using low-fat ricotta cheese, or end the meal with sorbet or fresh fruit salad with lemon.

Healthy Holiday Foods: German

Traditionally, German families share a hot drink and a slice of stollen, a holiday cake, on Christmas Eve or gather over a meal of sliced pork roast, rolls, ham hock-flavored sauerkraut, and cookies.

Traditional treat: Lebkuchen, the German word for gingerbread, is a tradition, as are pfeffernusse — spice cookies made with molasses, allspice, and mace.

Leaner eat: “With the gingerbread and darker cakes and cookies, try subbing half the flour with whole-wheat flour to increase the fiber,” says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, a personal chef, owner of Dining Cents in St. Petersburg, Fla., and an ADA national spokesperson. German food tends to be traditionally low in fiber, which makes it easy to overindulge (fiber fills you up faster and makes you feel full longer).

Traditional treat: A yeast-bread fruitcake, stollen is made with eggs and butter and studded with dried fruits, citron, nuts, and occasionally marzipan, topped with powdered sugar.

Leaner eat: Try using an egg substitute to cut cholesterol, Krieger says. Cut the amount of fruit the recipe calls for by a third or a half, she says, and chop it up so you have more pieces. Toasting the nuts is a great way to increase their flavor, so you need a smaller amount of this high-calorie ingredient.

Traditional treat: Germans celebrate the holidays with mulled red wine — or glühwein — with cinnamon and cloves.

Leaner eat: Make mulled cider instead. You save the calories not only from the alcohol in the wine, but also from the added sugar. (Since cider is naturally sweet, you can use less.)

Traditional treat: Typically eaten on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, pork roast is a moderate-fat meat. But goose, another Christmas Day treat, stuffed with apples and dried fruit, tends to be high in both fat and cholesterol.

Leaner eat: Enjoy your roast, but limit your portion of meat to 6 ounces or less, with a few small spoonfuls of the flavorful stuffing — and you’ll save fat, calories, and cholesterol, Krieger tells WebMD.

With these menu makeovers, you can feast and still button your pants when the New Year rolls around. Happy, healthy holidays — wherever in the world you may be.

Originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.