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Keeping the Holidays Healthy

Healthy spins on holiday classics,
from Thanksgiving dinner to Christmas Day feasts

_FOOD / HEALTHY HOLIDAYS

by Heather Bailey

CNC, founder of the Optimal Kitchen

Every year, the holiday season comes and brings with it a combination of stress, excitement and exhaustion - a recipe that often leads us down a path towards unhealthy behaviors. This year promises to be vastly different from past holiday seasons. Anxiety levels are even more heightened due to the pandemic and the continued unknowns. Food is always a great stress reducer and many of us will make some unwise choices as we find comfort in those holiday favorites. This holiday season, more than ever, it is critical to find a balance between treating ourselves so as to soothe our mental and emotional health and making good choices to maintain our physical health.

Thanksgiving is the kickoff to the holiday eating season, and we all have family favorites we can’t imagine going without, but those recipes are often filled with butter, cream, and grains, foods that many of us try to avoid. I like to refer to Thanksgiving as the 2 sticks of butter per person holiday, because, if you can believe it, that is on average what most of us consume at the holiday table. Between the stuffing, the gravy, the mashed potatoes and, of course, the pie, it is simply too easy to consume huge amounts of butter without even knowing.

However, it isn’t just the butter at the Thanksgiving table that can be problematic. For those with dietary issues, navigating the traditional Thanksgiving feast can be a tricky feat. These days, many people are avoiding grains, some because they may have celiac disease, while others might avoid them because they exacerbate joint pain resulting from inflammation, according to a study published in 2010 by the American Society for Nutrition in their Journal of Nutrition. Then there are those trying to keep their blood sugars in check to control their Type II diabetes. Dairy, another staple in the traditional meal, is another problematic food with responses varying from allergic reactions, to stomach upset from lactose, to an increase in pain from inflammation, according to a study published in 2015 in The Journal of Nutrition. Rest assured, you will also have people who eat plant-based diets, so the free-range turkey, which seemed like the safe bet of the meal, is now off limits.

This does not mean you can’t have a classic Thanksgiving meal that is both incredibly delicious and provides healthy options inclusive of everyone who may happen upon your holiday table. In fact, the recipes below, though a spin on Thanksgiving favorites, are also perfect for Hanukkah or Christmas dinner or any holidays you and your friends celebrate.

SEASONAL SOUPS
Soups are great to have when hosting a gathering. It is easy to make a soup that hits all the food intolerances in one, like this classic squash bisque that uses sweet potato instead of cream to give it a beautiful texture plus uses the same spices as our beloved pumpkin pie. But what’s best about it is that it is gluten free, dairy free, and vegan. Make a day or two ahead and then keep warm in a crockpot for guests to enjoy all day. Not only does it provide loads of Vitamin A and C and is high in fiber, it’s an ideal addition to the holiday table for its immune-boosting capabilities. Soup is also a great way to start a meal because it fills you up with nutrient-dense foods and leaves less room for some of those less-healthy choices that are so easy to love.

HEALTHY SWAPS

When it comes to the classic holiday dishes there are actually lots of tricks to swapping out much of the fat and calories, but still keeping rich and delicious flavors. Here are some simple swaps to clean up that holiday table and help you stay on track for healthy eating.

 Traditional Mashed Potatoes 
Try substituting chicken or vegetable stock for the butter and milk, and to give it some creaminess toss in a handful of parmesan cheese
Substitute cauliflower for half the potatoes to increase the fiber and lower the calories and starch
• Be sure to use lots of fresh herbs like rosemary, garlic and parsley, and a drizzle of olive oil, to give them great flavor without all the extra saturated fat

Candied Yams or Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows
• Opt for roasted winter squashes, acorn or butternut, which have loads of fiber and a much lower glycemic load, sweeten with a touch of blue agave or maple syrup
Mashed sweet potatoes with a bit of olive oil, sliced scallions, cinnamon, and a drizzle of maple syrup are a perfect substitute for their sticky sweet cousin

Stuffing/Dressing
• Again, try using some broth to reduce the amount of butter you use, and if you are sautéing onions and other veggies to add to your stuffing, use olive oil instead
Oyster stuffing is a better option than sausage because those oysters are rich in heart-healthy minerals, which may counteract some of the other foods we eat that day
• Even better, add lots of veggies such as sautéed greens and even fruits like apples and pears to your dressing
• Always cook stuffing in a casserole dish, not stuffed in the bird, to avoid foodborne illness

Turkey
Opt for a pastured free-range turkey, where animals eat their natural diet, rather than a grain-fed diet. Their meat has the correct balance of essential fatty acids and is thus healthier for us to eat.

Gravy
This is one of the most delicious and revered parts of the Thanksgiving meal and, unfortunately, there is not much you can do to make it healthier. However, you can make it gluten free by making a corn starch slurry using sherry or white wine and some corn starch instead of roux, cutting out both the flour and butter so it is an improvement.

Cranberry sauce
Make your own cranberry sauce using a little stevia or blue agave syrup to sweeten it instead of sugar. Also add some cinnamon which helps regulate insulin production, as well as fresh orange juice and zest for both added flavor and another dose of vitamin C.

Green Bean Casserole
It might be time to encourage your family to give this one up if it still has a place on your holiday table. Instead, why not try blanching some fresh or frozen green beans and then toss with some olive oil, lemon zest and some sliced almonds for a much healthier dish.

If you are in charge of bringing a side dish, try bringing a salad for a change. You’ll be amazed at how well it goes over, and for a festive touch toss in some dried cranberries and walnuts with a simple vinaigrette.
Pies
As a food purist, I have to say why mess with a good thing? Instead, be sure to control your portion size and opt out of the ice cream. If you really love pumpkin pie and can’t imagine a small piece, skip the crust, which has more fat and calories than the filling. Also, if you are making the pies, opt for whole wheat pastry flour rather than regular bleached all-purpose flour. It is a change no one will notice but will add a bit of fiber to those pies.

_the RECIPE box

Healthy Spins on Holiday Classics

SQUASH AND APPLE BISQUE

Ingredients:
  • 2 lbs winter squash, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces
  • 2 lbs apples, roughly chopped
  • 1 lb sweet potato peeled and cubed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1-inch piece of fresh ginger grated
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp clove
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 quart+ vegetable stock or water
Directions:
  1. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat; coat pan with cooking spray. Add garlic, ginger and onions and sauté for 5 mins or until onions are clear, add cinnamon
  2. Add apples, squash and the sweet potatoes and sauté
  3. Add 1 quart+ of broth and simmer until potatoes are very soft
  4. Let cool a bit and using a blender or food processor blend until smooth, adding a bit more stock or water to get the right consistency
  5. Top with toasted pumpkin seeds or nuts for a bit of crunch and extra flair


ROASTED ACORN SQUASH WITH NUTS AND CRANBERRIES

Ingredients:
  • 1 medium-sized acorn squash
  • ⅓ cup dried cranberries
  • ½ cup roasted chestnuts, walnuts, or almonds
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ real maple syrup or raw blue agave syrup (esp. for those with diabetes!)
  • sea salt and pepper

(Note: You can buy chestnuts already roasted. You can often find them frozen or roast them yourself. To do so, score an x on the side and place in a 350-degree oven until the skin begins to spread, about 25 mins)

Directions:
  1. pre-heat oven to 375
  2. Slice the squash using the ribs as your guidelines and remove the seeds and stringy pulp, then drizzle with olive oil and roast in oven for 10-15 minutes, until just soft
  3. Add the chestnuts and cranberries and drizzle on the maple syrup, be sure to get some on each and every piece and continue roasting for an additional 10 minutes or until squash is soft
  4. Serves 4-6 as a side dish, just be sure to tell your guests not to eat the rind!


KALE DRESSING

Ingredients:
  • 2 lbs dry bread cubes from a crusty country style or even corn bread (this makes gluten free easy)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ stick of butter
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, stem removed and minced
  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 large onion minced
  • ½ bunch celery minced
  • 1 lb chopped apples
  • 2 tbs. fresh thyme
  • 4 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 head of kale, preferably Tuscan or red Russian (stems and ribs removed)
  • ½ dry white wine
  • 3-4 cups low sodium chicken, turkey or vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper to taste


Directions:
  1. Sautee onions, celery, garlic, spices and herbs in olive oil and butter for 2 minutes, add apples and chopped kale and continue to cook until kale becomes tender, season with salt and pepper
  2. Add vegetable mixture to dried bread cubes
  3. In the vegetable pan deglaze with wine and add stock and bring up to a slow boil
  4. Pour broth over vegetable and bread mixture and stir to combine
  5. Season again and place in a greased casserole or baking dish
  6. Bake in a 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes covered in foil, then remove the foil and cook for an additional 25-30 mins. until brown and crispy on top


SAUTÉED LEMON GARLIC GREEN BEANS

Ingredients:
  • 2 cups cleaned and trimmed green beans
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • juice and zest from 1 lemon
  • olive oil for cooking (1-2 tbs)
  • sea salt and pepper to taste
  • sliced almonds (optional)
Directions:
  1. Blanch green beans in boiling water for 1-2 minutes until bright green and then drain
  2. Heat oil in the pan and add green beans and garlic and toss gently to make sure nothing sticks
  3. When the green beans start to turn a golden color squeeze the lemon over them, which will help draw out some of those delicious flavors in the bottom of the pan, this is called deglazing and is done with wine, stock or lemon juice and helps enhance the flavor of food by removing the crispy particles that adhere to the pan


HOLIDAY FRUIT AND NUT BARK

Ingredients:
  • ½ pound good quality dark chocolate, aim for at least 60% cacao
  • ¾ cup chopped dried fruits (use what you like: apricots, cherries, raisins, plums, or a combination)
  • ½ cup walnuts or sliced almonds
  • ½ cup oats
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground clove
Directions:
  1. On a rimmed cookie sheet spread out the oats and nuts and sprinkle with cinnamon and cloves
  2. Toast in a 325-degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until lightly brown
  3. In a microwave or in a double boiler on the stove, melt the chocolate
  4. Stir in nut and oat mix and chopped fruit
  5. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper and press out the chocolate mixture into a thin, even sheet about ¼ inch thick
  6. Chill in refrigerator until firm, break into bite-size pieces and keep in a sealed container in the fridge for several weeks

MIND YOUR PORTIONS

Above all else, be smart about portions. By all means taste everything, but most times a simple taste will do, and do try to load up on the veggies and turkey and go light on the stuffing and potatoes. Never forget that the original Thanksgiving was a celebration of the harvest.

The holidays don’t end with Thanksgiving, though, and the entire month of December can be a bit of a free-for-all when it comes to how we take care of ourselves. There are temptations around every corner, candy and cookies everywhere, and it is just too easy this time of year to let things slide and we pay with our health.

HOW TO AVOID OVER-INDULGENCE
When it comes to overeating during the holidays, I have discovered 3 major causes:

1) Food Gifts
2) Holiday Parties and Gatherings
3) Rushed for time, we grab whatever is easy

The solutions are almost as simple as the problems are themselves:

1) When it comes to food gifts, the cardinal rule is if it is not homemade, re-gift the item. Consider donating them to your local shelter or church. At least homemade gifts tend to be made from whole foods, so they aren’t loaded with preservatives and chemicals.

2) As tempting as it may be to fast all day to make up for gorging at that evening’s party, there is truly no bigger mistake. Instead, be sure to have a protein-and-fiber-rich snack before heading out. Think hummus and carrots or whole wheat pita, or even an egg and whole grain toast. Don’t skip meals, as it slows down your metabolism, and if you go to a party famished, don’t be surprised if you pig out.

3) We may not always have time to sit down and have a proper meal but having whole fruits, clementines and apples are a great choice this time of year, because they are easily portable and full of vitamins. Or keep nuts on hand or in your purse – they can be a lifesaver when you are suddenly starving and will help keep you from grabbing that cookie.

There is no doubt that the holiday season is a time rife with chaos, exhaustion, and stress, but it is supposed to be a time to slow down, rest and enjoy those around us. In that spirit, I am including a recipe for a holiday treat that satisfies any sweet tooth, but in a way that cause far less guilt than most. Be sure to use good quality ingredients, especially when it comes to the chocolate, and the darker the better. Avoid using milk chocolate because once dairy combines with cacao the antioxidants are nullified. Packaged in a cellophane bag with a ribbon and a tag, this also makes a terrific gift.

Like most everything in life the key to keeping the holidays healthy is finding your balance. By all means, celebrate with friends and family, social connection is crucial now more than ever, but be reasonable with what you choose to eat and drink, and most importantly get outside every day, no matter where you are. Get the blood flowing and your body moving so you can start the new year feeling healthy and strong.

Please share your adventures with us at share@juniperunltd.com
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