Cooking (and Eating) Healthy Holiday Meals

Article by Make The Days Count Contributor Blake Cothron


When you imagine holiday meals, what comes to mind?  Is it hot, dressed ham, piles of mashed potatoes, ruby red cranberry sauce, eggnog and pumpkin pie?  Or do you focus more on the cookies, fudge and hard eggnog?  This holiday season, we can create memories of delicious, healthier traditional meals, while still fitting into the pants and belts we wore yesterday!


The holidays are a great time to reconnect with relatives, neighbors, and traditions going back hundreds of years or more.  This is also a great excuse to get other people involved in the food preparation process!  Put on some festive holiday music and get others involved.  This will make it fun to create abundant healthy meals for a crowd. 


We’ll be focusing on using whole foods to co-create amazing holiday delights.  When we use pre-packaged mixes, we miss out big time on flavor and nutrition.  Plus, by skipping the pre-packaged mixes we can miss out on the big doses of things like hidden trans fats, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors. 


This year go organic whenever possible.  Organically grown food has been produced without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation, and any other artificial, toxic chemicals and treatments.  It’s also generally higher in nutrients like minerals and vitamins, because of the healthier soil it was produced in.  These days buying organic food can be surprisingly cheaper and easier than ever.  Large chain stores that sell second-hand or close-out items are usually stocked with canned organic foods and ingredients at very cheap prices.  Of course health food stores will usually have everything you need, from organic sweet yams to organic turkeys on special order.  Even spices, surprisingly, are often tainted with additives and routinely irradiated.  Organic spices can also be purchased, like cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. 


Before the urge to prepare packaged mash potatoes with margarine strikes you, let’s stop and see what‘s really on the plate.  A typical packaged mashed potato ingredient list will read: Dehydrated potatoes, emulsifier (?), Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, and citric acid.  Add on some margarine and you’re pouring on loads of melted trans fats, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives.  Add to that all the hidden toxic pesticides and chemicals in the GMO potatoes used in the packaged mix.  Whoa!  That’s enough to make you lose your appetite.


So, whenever possible, start with whole foods, preferably organic.  This will give you the legendary taste and nutrition you’re looking for.  This also cuts the amount of food packaging way down, reducing waste. 


For mashed potatoes, simply dice the potatoes with skins on, boil or steam until soft, mash or blend, add dried parsley, salt, pepper, and pure butter.  Everyone will love it!  Alternatively add olive oil or a vegan butter.  Try baking whole fresh sweet potatoes instead of using canned ones.  Top with walnut pieces and maple syrup for a sweet, healthy delight.  Canned yams and sweet potatoes, as well as most canned fruits usually come swimming in thick corn syrup.  Talk about high carbs!  For pies and sweets try fresh and whole fruits, and if not, go for frozen bagged fruits.  Frozen foods contain more nutrients and have less packaging than their canned counterparts.  Fresh corn on the cob, whole or cut off and boiled then covered in butter is divine and so much better than canned. 


Healthy oils are also important to use.  Canola is a very low-quality oil not fit for a healthy diet. 

Try light “pure” olive oil for cooking, where a flavor is not desired, or sunflower oil, safflower oil, walnut oil, the list goes on and on.  And always choose pure butter (or vegan alternatives) over trans-fat laden margarine.


Nuts can be healthy, filling ingredients, or dishes themselves.  Nuts like walnuts and pecans make great toppings on pies, yams, and sweet potatoes, crushed and optionally sweetened with honey or agave.  Chestnuts are great baked or roasted, and are traditionally served this time of year.  Just cut an “x” shape on rounded side of the peel with a sharp knife, then roast or bake at 425 for 20-30 minutes.  Let cool and serve.


If you wish to serve that perfect glazed ham or plump turkey for dinner, consider exploring organic options.  Organic meats are produced without growth hormones that are used to create grossly big animals the industry prefers.  Organic meats are also produced without pesticides or antibiotics, and are fed organic non-GMO feeds of equal purity.  Organic animals are often raised in much more humane conditions than their suffering industrial neighbors, given sun and rain, fresh air, grass to eat, and space to roam.  The Kentucky farmer’s markets, for example, are open year round in many areas, offering mostly local meats this time of Winter.  They could have just what you’re looking for.  Health food stores often special order organic turkeys this time of year and have a sign-up list.  Organic sources may also be found online.  The taste and higher ethics make it worth it.


If you’re cooking for (or are!) a vegan or vegetarian, there are also vegan options for a meatless holiday.  The notorious “tofurkey” is one, as well as just cooking up some tofu or tempeh for that picky eater this holiday.  There are also plenty of vegan “cheeses”, butters, and even whipped cream available.     


Healthy eating means delicious eating.  You can have all the sweets and pie you want for the holidays, and still be eating healthy.  Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and can be used as low-sugar ingredients in pumpkin pie, or used half and half with pumpkin.  Butternut squash is a very sweet winter squash that makes awesome pies and “candied yams.”  Try using raw honey, agave nectar or molasses instead of white sugar.  A little honey mixed with butter adds a healthy, naturally sweet touch to corn, pies and other sweet dishes.  Real maple syrup adds that amazing Winter-time touch of sweetness to any dish or drink.  Make sure it’s real maple syrup from a tree – not the so called “pancake syrups” that are really just white sugar and chemicals disguised.  Go for whole wheat flours in recipes instead of white flour.  Spelt flour is a tasty, hearty alternative to white flour. 


One tip I can offer to avoid overeating is this: avoid seconds!  Get a heaping, monster plate of everything you want … then eat slowly, thankfully, and consciously.  The stomach tends to take a few minutes to realize its full, so eating slowly helps.  Then you’ll still have room for that legendary maple syrup, pecan butternut squash pie.          


“Clean living keeps me in shape.  Righteous thoughts are my secret.  And New Orleans home cooking.”
-Fats Domino


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Posted on 23 December, 2008 in Fitness & Health
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