The holiday season can be stressful for anyone with strict dietary preferences (vegans, vegetarians), food intolerances and allergies (gluten, lactose) and the generally health-conscious. No one, in fact, relishes the idea of gaining the fabled seven pounds that the average American puts on between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. I’m not convinced of this statistic’s accuracy, but it’s become so emblazoned on our consciousness that just the fear of those extra pounds makes it a force to be reckoned with. Still, food-related guilt and fear aren’t choice emotions with which to head into the holiday season. To help find balance and joy, here are a few of my favorite ways to celebrate happily as well as healthfully:
- THINK ETHNICALLY: I enjoy stepping outside of my own cultural heritage to jazz up holiday meals, whether that means making Sephardic dishes for Hanukkah, or Native American dishes for Thanksgiving. Ethnic cookery offers—quite literally—a world of options, including the use of creative seasoning and greater use of produce in the menu.
- USE SEASONAL PRODUCE: Use an abundance of hardy fall vegetables, including a variety of squashes, pumpkins, apples, pears, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, the cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) and fresh greens. Support local agriculture by shopping for late-season crops at local farm markets. Soon, many of them will be closed until May. Use lots of seasonal fruits to reduce the temptation to overindulge in sugary sweets.
- KNOW YOUR GUESTS’ NEEDS: When planning a holiday meal, or any festive meal, I like to ask guests beforehand if they have any dietary restrictions. It’s surprising, for example, how many people have gone gluten-free. Being able to accommodate everyone is gratifying, and I like everyone to leave the table happy.
- PROVIDE FOR YOURSELF: If you’re invited to a gathering where you suspect there will be limited food choices, volunteer to bring something healthy, whether an appetizer, a main dish, or a fruity dessert. You’ll ensure your own satisfaction while sharing your good food choices with others.
- GET THE FAT OUT:Holidays are a perfect time for a bit of indulgence, but too much makes us feel awful. Don’t be afraid to break with tradition. Just because your mom made a favorite dish or dessert with tons of fat, that doesn’t mean you have to. There are many easy ways to substitute healthier ingredients for fatty ones. Some of my standbys:
- For baking, you can substitute nondairy yogurt, or applesauce for nearly all the fat in a recipe (as I’ve done in the baked goods, above). The results are always unbelievably moist.
- Cook grains and “sweat” vegetables in vegetable broth. It gives them a flavor boost that helps curb the impulse to use more fat such as butter to heighten taste.
- Move away from the notion that the richer something is, the better it tastes. Fresh and dried herbs, spices, lemon and lime juice, vegetable stock, and wine all do wonders for flavor without adding fat—or even calories, for that matter.
- KEEP UP THE EXERCISE! This is no time to undo any good exercise habits you’ve (hopefully) gotten into. In fact, exercise will not only help you burn off the almost inevitable extra calories, it helps regulate the metabolism, and is a great cure for the winter doldrums. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy—grab a few of your holiday guests, bundle up, and take a nice long walk!