Planning healthier holiday meals

Does your mouth start to water when you think about eating lots of delicious traditional dishes this holiday season? Are you also more likely to put on weight during this part of the year? Think there might be a connection?

Maybe it’s time to take a look at the recipes you’ve been using to prepare celebratory meals. Many times these recipes have been handed down through the generations and no one has ever thought once, much less twice, about the ingredients or the preparation methods. Often, those recipes aren’t even written down. That’s because we usually learn how to make them during warm, happy occasions at the elbows of those we love.

I know many of the traditional recipes served by previous generations in my family were loaded with what we now know were pretty unhealthy ingredients. They also contained tons of calories. I can still see my mother-in-law joyously making massive amounts of green bean, broccoli-rice, and hash brown casseroles. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure they all contained a higher percentage of ingredients like canned soup, sour cream, butter and cheese than vegetables. They were also usually decorated with indulgent toppings like French fried onions, cheese, or crushed potato chips.

My mother-in-law loved to cook and delight people with food. She also liked to make recipes “better”. For instance, if she had a recipe that called for a pound of bacon, like when making German Potato Salad for a crowd, she’d use two pounds of bacon. Her food tasted great, but is it any wonder that she was morbidly obese and had to deal with diabetes in her later years? I think not.

Her daughters don’t want to face the same fate. Consequently, holiday dinners in their homes, while definitely as tasty as their mom’s meals, consist of more dishes that are health conscious. You’re much more likely to find a spinach salad with low-fat balsamic dressing on the holiday table replacing the kind of salad their mom loved to serve.

One of her favorites was a simple salad made from iceberg lettuce dressed with full fat mayonnaise mixed with sugar, sort of like those dreadfully unhealthy wedge salads becoming popular in some restaurants, only with more sugar.

My sister-in-laws serve dishes full of flavorful roasted vegetables instead of so many high calorie casseroles. While they may put out some of their mom’s traditional foods as an homage to her, they’re also likely to modify the recipe somewhat to make it healthier.

That’s one option. Take a look at what you usually serve at special meals and see how creatively you can modify the recipe while still retaining the taste that brings back great memories. Simple changes may be all that is needed, like using fat-free or low-fat dairy products in recipes rather than the full fat versions and doing away with those high fat toppings. They won’t be missed that much. And, if you’re making a dish that contains rice, use brown rather than white rice. No one will notice the difference.

Try to reduce the amount of sodium in your dishes too. That involves more than simply not adding salt to your recipes. You also need to read the labels on ingredients as you buy them because some contain shockingly high amounts of sodium. For instance, if you’re making something like a green bean casserole that calls for canned soup, reach for the soup labeled “low sodium”, “reduced sodium” or “no salt added”. While canned soup in particular is notorious for containing a lot of sodium, it can be surprising how much is in other products too, so be alert as you shop.

Serve sides that don’t contain a lot of added sugar. There is no need to make a fruit salad full of mini marshmallows and dressed in whipped cream. Fruit is delicious on its own. It also makes a great dessert, especially when paired with some low-fat yogurt. If you want to serve pies, remember that traditional pie crust is also very high in unhealthy fats. There are alternatives there too. Some people use things like ground nuts as crusts and go as far as to reduce the amount of fat they use to hold those crusts together.

Heavy gravy and sauces can also undo all of your hard work and planning by adding a lot of unnecessary fat and calories to otherwise healthy dishes. Consider simply not serving them, or replace them with something less calorie dense. You can replace beef gravy with a simple au jus made of water, low sodium beef bouillon, low sodium soy sauce, a little garlic powder, salt and pepper. You can also exchange heavy sauces on vegetables for a little sprinkling of a sharply flavored cheese, like low-fat parmesan, or simply add some zip with a squeeze of lemon.

Take the time to think about how you can swap out other ingredients too. Make a point of using less sugar and salt, fewer saturated and trans fats, and less processed food in your recipes. Take a long hard look at your recipes before heading out to the grocery store. Then plan ahead so there are more vegetables, fruit, and 100 percent whole grain options on your holiday table. Then don’t even pull a salt shaker out of the cupboard. Your loved ones will enjoy a happier – and healthier – holiday season.

Those struggling to make ends meet may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages.. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at, or contact your local social services office.

For more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information, call 664-9502 ext. 217 or visit our website at

If you’re looking for new recipes you can find lots of tasty ones at or by using the recipe finder tool on the USDA website. You can also try one of these tasty recipes this holiday season:

Green Bean Saute


1 cup

onion (chopped)

1 cup

mushroom (sliced)

1 teaspoon

garlic (minced)

1 can

green beans (16 ounce, drained, cut)


1. Spray a skillet with non-stick cooking spray.

2. Saute onions, mushrooms, and garlic.

3. Add green beans and heat thoroughly.

Cost per serving: $0.38

Yield: 6 servings

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1/2 cup (114g), 35 Calories, 5 Calories from Fat, 0g Total Fat, 0% Calories from Fat, 0g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 190mg Sodium, 6g Total Carbohydrate, 2g Dietary Fiber, 2g Sugars, 2g Protein, 6% Vitamin A, 4% Calcium, 8% Vitamin C, 4% Iron


Potato Spinach Casserole


12 ounces

frozen hash browns, country style (thawed)

1/2 cup

green pepper (finely chopped, divided)

1/2 cup

onion (finely chopped, divided)

1/2 teaspoon


1/2 teaspoon

black pepper

1 can

evaporated milk, nonfat (12 ounces)

3/4 cups

egg whites

1/2 cup

cheese, reduced-fat sharp cheddar, shredded

1/2 cup

cheese, reduced fat Monterey Jack, shredded

1 cup

spinach (washed and chopped, fresh)

1/2 cup

tomatoes (chopped, fresh)


1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Wash your hands and work area.

3. In large bowl, combine hash browns, green pepper, 1/4 cup onion, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

4. Spray a 8×8 inch baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Press potato mixture into bottom.

5. Bake until lightly browned around edges, 20-25 minutes.

6. In large bowl, stir together evaporated milk, egg whites, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, cheeses, spinach, remaining 1/4 cup onion, and tomatoes.

7. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

8. Pour mixture over potato crust. Bake uncovered until center is set, 40-45 minutes.

9. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into 6 pieces. Serve hot.

10. Cover and refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours.

Cost per serving: $0.84

Yields about 6 servings

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 2 x 4″ piece or 1/6 of recipe (216 g), 180 Calories, 35 Calories from Fat, 4g Total Fat, 6% Calories from Fat, 2.5g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 15mg Cholesterol, 490mg Sodium, 21g Total Carbohydrate, 1g Dietary Fiber, 9g Sugars, 15g Protein, 325% Vitamin A, 45% Calcium, 25% Vitamin C, 2% Iron

Source: Kansas State University Research and Extension, Fix it Fresh! Recipe Series

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in the OBSERVER. Comments may be directed to