Tips for healthier holiday food

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Holidays often mean parties, celebrations and festive meals – not to mention extra calories, sugar and fat.

But with a few smart substitutes, cooking methods and new ingredients, it’s possible to enjoy holiday food without feeling guilty. Registered dietitians, cookbooks and food bloggers offer their top tips.

Healthier appetizers

Grazing board. Instead of heavy dips or planks with bread, meat and cheese as pre-meal snacks or party food, try these nutritious appetizers. Erika Schlick, food blogger and cookbook author Wandering palates, says you go for a grazing board stuffed with vegetables like cucumbers, nuts, smoked salmon, fruit and whipped tahini or tapenade sauce.

Better cocktail sauce. The shrimp cocktail is a great holiday appetizer rich in protein, says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, at Street Smart Nutrition. But store-bought cocktail sauces can be high in sodium or added sugars. Mix your own version with ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and chili pepper spice to warm up.

Soup shooters. Soups are served in small ramekins or glasses. “This is a creative way of presenting a famous recipe, and it works especially well with soups with a mixture of vegetables such as roasted red peppers and tomato biscuit or butternut,” says Harbstreet. Garnish each shooter with fresh herbs, a slice of apple or pear, a scoop of plain Greek yogurt or a small bite of bacon to add interest, aroma and flavor.

Non-alcoholic beverages. Serve with sparkling water or sprays made from seltzers and nozzles of different flavors such as pomegranate, cranberry, lime or lemon. Adding sprigs of fresh herbs or mixing sticks stabbed with seasonal fruit can elevate your cocktails.

Easier side dishes

During the holidays, the dishes that accompany the main course are usually rich, creamy, heavy or full of calories. Instead, lighten your sides with a few substitutions.

Instead of a green bean pan, sauté the broccoli. They have less sugar and do not contain preservatives from canned beans. In addition, sprouts still provide that colorful green component needed for a dinner table as a complement to turkey, roast beef or ham.

Instead of candied pits or sweet potato pans (one serving: a giant 235 calories), simply cook and mash sweet potatoes with a little nutmeg, pumpkin seasoning or cinnamon.

Roast your vegetables. This is the simplest and most nutritious way to serve cauliflower, beets, butternut or kabocha pumpkin and other hearty vegetables. “Roasting vegetables adds a nice depth of flavor and is a super simple cooking method that even novice cooks can do,” says Edith Yang, RD, CSR, CLT, a dietitian at Healthy Mission Dietitian, Inc. Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil and add spices and condiments like garlic, rosemary, thyme or tarragon, then bake in the oven at 375 F for 15-30 minutes.

Lean main dishes

This can help save space for dessert.

Replace the ham leg with ham. Kim Grabinski, a food blogger and founder of the 730 Sage Street recipe website, calls it “one of my healthy tricks for this year’s holidays.” Lamb is leaner than pork, and also has less sugar and sodium-based preservatives.

Go vegetarian. Even omnivores may not be short of animal protein with a hearty and satisfying vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie. Instead of minced meat, make it with tempeh or tofu. Harbstreet says it can also be adapted to vegans. Replace vegetable soup with beef broth and skip butter and cheese or try vegan substitutes. Customize it with your favorite vegetables like mushrooms, carrots, potatoes and peas.

Try Indian. Tandoori chicken is easy to make your favorite guest full of flavor. Chicken legs and thighs are cut to the bone and then marinated in a mixture of cooling yogurt, lemon juice and spices to give depth to the already moist pieces of chicken. Bake with the lid down on hot charcoal until slightly browned. Served with Indian flatbread and yellow rice for light but hearty food.

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