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The Healthiest and Least Healthy Holiday Foods (& How to Make Them Healthier!)

Let’s face it: When the holiday season rolls around, eating healthy is the last thing on our minds.

With all the delicious pumpkin offerings (lattes! pies! cheesecake!) and gingerbread cookies, the holiday season is a great time to indulge in all things sweet and delicious. But holiday treats can be too much of a good thing if you don’t balance the unhealthy options with some nutritious food, too. Check out our guide to the healthy and not-so-healthy foods so that you can eat properly this season while still enjoying the good stuff.

Side Dishes

One of the greatest things about big dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas is that there are so many side dish choices. From potatoes to green bean casserole, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. But what are the healthiest options?

Healthy: Vegetables

We all know veggies are an essential part of any diet, and holidays are great because there are so many side dishes to choose from. But even veggies can become unhealthy when smothered in creams and sauces, so watch out for those calorie-packed dishes that can masquerade as healthy options. Try making side dishes yourself so that you can control the ingredients and make sure they’re still nutritious. Stick to raw or roasted veggies, or a lightly dressed salad, for the healthiest side.

Unhealthy Turned Healthy: Green Bean Casserole

Beans are a legume, which is great because that means they’re a source of protein that works for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. But some green bean casserole recipes call for an entire can of cream of mushroom soup, which is laden with saturated fat and extra cream. Instead of reaching for the Campbell’s, try making your own with fresh mushrooms instead. We love this recipe from the Food Network, which has 60 percent less calories and 80 percent less calories than the average green bean casserole.

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 medium shallots, in their skins
  • Kosher salt, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • 1 pound fresh green beans, stemmed
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced (about 4 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups mushroom, vegetable or chicken broth
  • 3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • Ground black pepper
  • Vegetable cooking spray
  • 1 cup bread crumbs

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put the shallots (in their skins) on a small baking dish, roast until soft, about 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, skin and coarsely chop the shallots. Set aside.
  2. Bring a medium-large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add kosher salt, to taste. Add the green beans, and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Drain the beans in a colander and rinse with cold water. Transfer the beans to a large bowl.
  3. In the same saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season with 1 teaspoon salt, cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms to the beans.
  4. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until golden, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the broth, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add the shallots, 1 teaspoon of the thyme, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and stir to combine evenly.
  5. Spray a 2-quart baking dish with vegetable cooking spray. Transfer the vegetable mixture to the pan. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of thyme to bread crumbs and scatter over the vegetables. Bake uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the crumbs brown, about 20 minutes.

Unhealthy Turned Healthy: Mashed Potatoes

What’s a holiday meal without a scoop of homemade mashed potatoes? With scallions and the potato skin mixed in, mashed potatoes are nearly irresistible. And the skin is where the nutrients are, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Just make sure to avoid extras like butter and salt, which can take potatoes—and any other vegetables—from healthy to unhealthy. For mashed potatoes that are healthy and still taste great, check out HC Bentley writer Marina Lyushnevskaya’s favorite mashed potato recipe, courtesy of SpoonForkBacon.com.

Ingredients

  • 4 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup cottage cheese, pureed
  • 2 tablespoons chives, thinly sliced
  • chives
  • melted butter

Directions

  1. Place potatoes in a large pot and fill with water. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
  2. Boil potatoes until fork tender, about 25 minutes.
  3. 
While potatoes boil, place cream, butter and garlic in a small saucepan and simmer. Once mixture comes to a simmer, remove from heat.
  4. 
Drain potatoes in a colander and return back to the pot. Lightly mash the potatoes and season with salt and pepper.
  5. 
Pour cream mixture over the potatoes, a little at a time and mash the potatoes until all the cream mixture has been used and potatoes are smooth. 
  6. Stir in pureed cottage cheese and sliced chives and season with salt and pepper. 
  7. Top with remaining chives and melted butter, if desired. Serve warm.

If sweet potatoes are more your style, skip the maple syrup and mini marshmallows and use fresh cinnamon to sweeten them instead.

Unhealthy Turned Healthy: Stuffing

Stuffing is a must at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but stuffing mixes and even homemade stuffing can be loaded with sodium and saturated fat from butter and sausage. For a lighter take on the classic, try HC Illinois writer Katie Samuelson’s recipe for a healthier holiday stuffing.

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Main Courses

If you’re not a vegetarian, your holiday meal probably includes turkey, ham or another meat. Follow these tips to stay healthy while enjoying the main course of your meal.

Healthy: white meat.

If your family is eating a classic Thanksgiving turkey, opt for the white meat pieces rather than the dark ones—they have almost half as much saturated fat. Skipping the skin will also save you lots of calories and unnecessary extra fat.

Less Healthy: eating more than the recommended serving size.

While loading up on protein may seem like a better idea than eating too many carbs like mashed potatoes and dinner rolls, too much protein can be just as unhealthy. Your body can only process so much at one time, so unless you’re planning a big workout later that day, keep your main course small and load up on green veggies. If you’re not sure exactly how many slices of turkey to take, a good rule of thumb is to serve yourself an amount equal to the size of your fist.

Dessert

Healthy: Pumpkin Pie

While pumpkin pie may sound like an indulgent option, it’s one of your best bets in terms of holiday desserts. Pumpkin is a vegetable, which means it’s high in fiber and nutrients, and you won’t need to eat a large slice to feel full. The average slice of pumpkin pie falls at about 300 calories, which is a bit of a splurge for a normal day, but it’s okay to eat a slice every once in a while in the spirit of the season! To avoid extra pie calories, skip the extra whipped cream and crust.

If you’re not into pumpkin, try a fruit pie like apple or cherry so you’re still getting nutritional value. Just beware of extra glazes that can be full of high fructose corn syrup.

Less Healthy: Pecan Pie

A typical slice of pecan pie includes more than 500 calories, which is way more saturated fat than you need to intake. If you just have to have that slice, make it a small one. Your body will thank you later.

 

There you have it, collegiettes: You can enjoy all your favorite holiday meals this season while still staying healthy. After the big meals, try burning off your calories in a fun way, like running with your cousins or playing a game outside. Happy holidays!

Meghan is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying classics and English. She has interned at Girls' Life and Parenting magazines and was a Collegiate Correspondent with USA TODAY in Spring 2012. Meghan loves all things entertainment related and plans to move to New York and work for a national magazine after graduating in May 2013.