Healthy Holiday Tips
The holidays can be a particularly trying time for health-conscious eaters
as well as vegetarians, who often find themselves at the fringe of celebrations that are centered on high-fat meals and guilt-inducing sweets. This time of year can also be stressful for those of us who don't like the idea of gaining the requisite 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.
It doesn't have to be this way, of course. Let’s adopt the exuberant attitude toward food and celebration that Europeans and many ethnic cultures do, by focusing on good-for-us foods—organic produce, grains and legumes, whole-grain flours and sweeteners, savory herbs and spices, exquisitely prepared into seasonal dishes For vegetarians, the health-conscious, and anyone who wants to reduce food-related angst, here are some ideas for eating heartily yet healthfully during the holiday season. Take a handful of these tips, season them with plenty of thanks and blessings for the abundant harvest, add a few loved ones and stir well. Serve in a relaxing, inviting, and joyous atmosphere. Yield: Many happy and healthy celebrations!
1. 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.
2. USE SEASONAL PRODUCE: Use an abundance of hardy fall vegetables, preferably organic, 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.
3. 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 can't use dairy products. Being able to accommodate everyone is gratifying, and I like everyone to leave the table happy.
4. PROVIDE FOR YOURSELF: If you're invited to a gathering where you suspect there will be limited food choices for you, volunteer to bring something healthy, whether an appetizer, a main dish, or a low-fat dessert. You'll ensure your own satisfaction while sharing your good food choices with others.
5. GET THE FAT OUT: Holidays are a perfect time for a bit of indulgence, but too much makes us feel awful. Oh, the guilt! Ouch, those tight clothes! Don't be afraid to break with tradition. Just because your mom made a favorite dish or cake with two sticks of butter, that doesn't mean you have to. There are many easy ways to substitute healthier ingredients for fatty ones. Some of my standbys:
• For creamy dips: Pureed silken tofu is a superb base. It also addresses the needs of those who can't use dairy products.
• For baking, you can substitute non-fat yogurt or applesauce for all the fat in a recipe. I particularly like nonfat vanilla yogurt for making quick sweet breads and muffins. The results are always unbelievably moist.
• Cook grains and "sweat" vegetables in vegetable broth. It gives them a flavor boost that help curb the impulse to use more butter or margarine to heighten taste.
• Dairy products such as cream, hard cheeses, and butter are high in saturated fats, which raise cholesterol levels. Use reduced-fat versions of dairy products and in general use organic dairy products as much as possible. In addition, stay away from products containing hydrogenated or even partially hydrogenated fats. Instead of butter, you might try using olive oil where appropriate, or a natural, nonhydrogenated margarine.
• 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.
6. 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!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nava Atlas, mother of two teenage boys, is a natural foods expert and author of eight cookbooks, including her most recent, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook (Broadway Books). You can find out more about her at www.vegkitchen.com, one of the most widely visited culinary sites on the Internet.