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Small steps to make your holiday meals healthier

Make some tweaks without taking away the delicious taste of everything from turkey to dessert

Debbie Petitpain cooking
Dietitian Debbie Petitpain says making your own cranberry sauce instead of using canned kind lets you control the amount of sugar. Photos by Sarah Pack
Helen Adams | adamshel@musc.edu | Nov. 19, 2018

Dietitian Debbie Petitpain wants you to savor your holiday meals. “Not only should you enjoy your favorite foods during the holidays, but it’s actually encouraged.”

That sounds good, right? But she is a dietitian, so she encourages you to try a few changes to make your meals a little healthier. After all, she says: “There are 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. And to put on a pound in that time means only eating an extra 90 calories a day.”
 
First thing to keep in mind? Petitpain, who’s with Sodexo at the Medical University of South Carolina and works in MUSC’s Office of Health Promotion, says to remember that holiday feasts originated with celebrating the bounty of the season. 
 
“That mostly was an abundance of fruits and vegetables. So continue to make those the stars of the show. This is the last hurrah for things like green beans and peas and okra. It’s when pumpkins and winter squashes start. It’s when apples and citrus fruits are at their peak.”
 
Fruit can also help you cut back on oil in baked goods. “You can replace usually about half of the oil in a baked food with a mashed fruit like applesauce or mashed bananas. The fruits still add the sweetness. Often what the oil is doing is trying to keep your baked good moist, so it adds the moisture.”
 
And you can use half the amount of sugar your baked goods recipes call for, she says. “It will still taste just as sweet.”
 
ingredients

Look closely at the fat and salt in your ingredients, Petitpain says.
Sodium is on her holiday radar, too. “Anything you are starting a recipe with that comes out of a can or box, so broth being an example, if you buy the no-salt-added version you can adjust the seasoning and you’re not starting off with a whole lot of sodium in the dish. And then if you can use a lot of herbs and spices you can still not use as much salt but really celebrate the different flavors. Like sage,” Petitpain says.
 
“We start with some boxed or canned ingredients because they save us time, but they’re high in salt. So buying the no-salt version makes a difference.”
 
You can also tweak your traditional side dishes. “Instead of sweet potato casserole, try roasted sweet potatoes with a drizzle of maple syrup and some walnuts on top. Another one is making your own cranberry relish instead of getting the stuff out of the jar. That way you can really control the sugar. And instead of green bean casserole, use fresh green beans that are steamed or sauteed. Maybe put a few of those crunchy fried onions on the top as garnish.”
 
When it comes to the main course, baked or roasted turkeys are healthier than fried ones. “And skipping the skin saves a lot of grams of fat.”
 
side dishes

Simple, freshly-made side dishes can be much healthier than more elaborate versions that smother the taste of the fruits and vegetables associated with the holidays.
When it comes to pie, Petitpain says keep in mind that pumpkin is lower in calories than pecan. 
 
What about volume, as in how much food you eat over the holidays? Petitpain says watch out. “I read a statistic that if you consider all the appetizers, nibbling, et cetera, it is not unreasonable to think people will eat 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day, which is kind of insane.”
 
She suggests a few things to help you avoid that. First, don’t graze all day. Eat regular meals. Second, start with small portions. “Just a taste of each of those things. If you’re immersed in the family time conversation around the dinner table, you’re less likely to go back for more. This is also where serving in the kitchen is actually much better than having the food on the table.”
 
And find ways to celebrate togetherness that don’t involve food. “It’s really helpful if you can incorporate non-food-based family time, whether that’s doing games together, going on a walk, doing the Turkey Trot the Knights of Columbus always do. Those are really fun ways to engage in family time without it being centered around food. Thanksgiving comes once a year. Enjoy your family meal but recognize that the day after is not the Thanksgiving feast and you have a long holiday season in front of you to try to survive.”

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