Making holiday meals healthier

By Chris Jennings
December 1, 2021

Staying healthy during the holidays is always a struggle. After many families skipped large gatherings in 2020 due to the pandemic, it could be even harder to resist the temptation in 2021.

The simplest thing to do is plan ahead. Don’t skip meals leading to family gatherings, instead eat something before going to curb your appetite and stop you from snacking away on a table full of pre-meal snacks with questionable health benefits.

Skipping meals can also have harmful consequences for people with diabetes. As blood sugar drops, your body begins to crave more carbohydrates, leading to more unhealthy choices, especially when snacking while waiting for the main meal to begin.

Sodium intake should also be monitored by people who have been diagnosed with diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends people with diabetes limit their sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (one teaspoon of table salt) per day.

There are several ways to reduce your sodium intake when choosing how to eat certain foods. Chase Ward, a registered dietician with the Choctaw Nation says, “Packaged or prepared foods contain loads of sodium. If you prepare those items yourself, you can easily cut that sodium down because you’re the one in control.”

Salt is often used as a preservative in canned vegetables. Switching to frozen instead of canned can reduce or eliminate sodium. One tablespoon of butter contains about 91mg of salt. When cooking a recipe that requires butter, switching to unsalted is a better option. “Most of the recipes we use contain butter, so switching to unsalted butter for recipes will make a huge difference,” said Ward.

When it’s time to get together with the family, you can get ahead of the game by bringing some healthy alternatives for everybody to enjoy. Swap out one or two pies on the dessert table with some grilled fruit.

Another option is to replace cream cheese dip with hummus. Cream cheese dip can have around 50 calories from fat and 14 grams of cholesterol per serving. Load the plate with an assortment of veggies to dip with, and you get the added benefit of a more filling snack, which could lead to less overeating of the main course.

Serve a pumpkin pie pudding instead of pumpkin pie to cut out the carbs in the crust. Using fresh cranberries instead of canned cranberry sauce can eliminate a lot of added sugar. Cranberries are high in antioxidants, vitamins C, E and K. They also contain fiber, so go ahead and load up.

Instead of traditional eggnog, you can drink premade nog with almond or oat milk. Oat milk is more environmentally friendly, using less water than almonds do to grow. Instead of hot chocolate, drink cinnamon or chai tea to get the holiday flavor. You can also make substitutions while cooking to “healthify” some of your favorite holiday meals.

For cakes, cookies and quick breads, try using egg whites or cholesterol-free egg substitutes instead of whole eggs. Two egg whites or ¼ cup cholesterol-free egg substitute can be used in many recipes in place of one whole egg. You can mix whole wheat flour with half the called for all-purpose flour.

Instead of fruit canned in a heavy syrup, use fresh fruit or fruit canned in its own water or juice.
When a recipe calls for white or brown sugar, use half the called-for amount in cake and cookie recipes.
Switch to unsalted or salt-free soups or broth.

Ward jokingly referred to condensed soups and broth as just fancy names for salt. “You can lower sodium drastically by using the low-salt, salt-free or unsalted soup stock or broth,” said Ward.

On the right side of this page, you’ll find a few heart-healthy recipes that don’t skimp on flavor to try during the holiday season.

Instant Pot Turkey Tenderloin
Photo Provided

Instant Pot Turkey Tenderloin

  • 2 T dried parsley flakes
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dry mustard
  • 24 oz turkey breast tenderloin
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  1. Combine parsley flakes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and mustard in a small bowl. Rub evenly over turkey.
  2. Place turkey in a 6-quart pot and add chicken broth.
  3. Cover Instant Pot and, using the manual setting, set to 18 minutes on high pressure, making sure the pressure valve is sealed. When done, let the pressure slowly release.
  4. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before slicing.

Recipe courtesy of Jessica Ivey, RDN, LD via

Easy Pumpkin Soup
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Easy Pumpkin Soup

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 2 (15-oz) cans pumpkin purée
  • 3 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • 1 (12-oz) can nonfat evaporated milk
  • 3 T maple syrup
  1. Put olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Add garlic, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. Sauté for 3 minutes.
  3. Add pumpkin and stock. Stir to combine and ing to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
  4. Stir in evaporated milk and maple syrup.
  5. Let the soup cool for 10 minutes. Once cooled, transfer to a blender and process until smooth.
  6. Return soup to pot and heat.
  7. Serve hot.

Recipe courtesy of Jessica Ivey, RDN, LD via

Cranberry Apple Hazelnut Crumble
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Cranberry Apple Hazelnut Crumble

  • 12 oz fresh cranberries
  • 3 apples, peeled, sliced
  • 1 orange, zest and juice
  • 1/2 cup coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar), divided
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats, gluten-free
  • 1/4 cup whole grain, gluten-free flour (quinoa, sorghum or millet flour)
  • 1/3 cup hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp ginger, ground
  • Pinch salt (optional)
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil, melted, cooled
  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Mix cranberries and apples together in a medium bowl. Add the zest and juice of one orange and the sugar and toss well.
  3. Pour filling into a 9-inch pie dish.
  4. In a small bowl, mix together oats, flour, hazelnuts, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and salt (optional). Stir in coconut oil with a fork to make a crumbly mixture.
  5. Sprinkle crumb topping over cranberry-apple filling and bake uncovered for 1 hour.

Recipe courtesy of Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN via