AgriLife Extension experts: Altered recipes, food choices make for healthier holiday meals

COLLEGE STATION – Turkeys aren’t the only things getting stuffed during the holidays. That’s why Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have offered tips on altering recipes and making food choices that will make for healthier holiday eating.

“The sugar, fat or sodium content of almost any holiday recipe can be reduced without a noticeable difference in taste,” said Dr. Mary Bielamowicz, AgriLife Extension nutrition specialist emerita, College Station. “In addition, there are several traditional holiday foods that have good nutritional value, provided you serve them in ways that don’t reduce or negate that nutritional value.”

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have tips for reducing the sugar, fat and sodium content of many traditional holiday recipes, while maintaining their taste. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have tips for making healthier holiday meals. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Bielamowicz said sugar and fat content are probably the biggest worries to address when preparing holiday recipes.

“If a recipe calls for a cup of sugar, use two-thirds of a cup,” she said. “If it calls for a half-cup of oil, shortening or other fat, use one-third cup.”

Processed foods typically have a higher salt or sodium content, she said, so people should be vigilant about checking food labels for sodium content as well as other nutrition data when selecting holiday food items.

“In addition, if it says to use one-half teaspoon of salt, use one-quarter teaspoon or leave it out entirely,” Bielamowicz said.

Low-fat also doesn’t always mean low-calorie, so be aware of both in holiday food choices, she added.

“Try using reduced or non-fat cheese, milk, cream cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt or mayonnaise instead of their higher-fat counterparts. And try substituting evaporated milk for cream. For mashed potatoes, try using defatted broth instead of butter to reduce both fat and calories.”

Bielamowicz said modifying more complicated recipes may not always produce the desired texture, so it’s best to try the new recipe out and do a taste-test before serving it to friends and family.

She said for more information on recipe substitutions, the free downloadable publication “Altering Recipes for Good Health” can be found on the AgriLife Extension Family and Consumer Sciences website at

“Many traditional holiday foods can be healthy and nutritious choices, so long as they are prepared properly and not ‘embellished’ in ways that take away from that nutritional value,” said Dr. Jenna Anding, AgriLife Extension program leader for nutrition and food sciences.

For example, she said, if you’re cooking a turkey, leave the skin on to contain the flavor, but then remove it afterward to reduce the fat content. Baste your turkey it in its own juice or use a defatted broth.

“For vegetables, the healthiest method of cooking is either steaming or roasting using a small amount of oil or cooking spray. Adding herbs and spices can add unique flavors without added fat and calories.”

Anding noted that sweet potatoes are a favorite holiday vegetable containing beneficial phytonutrients and antioxidant properties, as well as essential vitamins and minerals.

“Sweet potatoes are a good source of fiber, are high in vitamins A and C and are a good source of manganese. They are also low in calories — a medium sized baked potato only has about 100 calories, according to the USDA. For people watching their calories this holiday season, a baked sweet potato with a little bit of brown sugar and cinnamon can be a healthier option to one topped with butter and lots of marshmallows.”

Anding said cranberries, a common holiday food, are loaded with phytonutrients and are known for their anti-inflammatory properties that can promote health and may reduce the risk for disease.  Adding them in salads and baked items such as muffins, cookies, and pies can be a way to sneak in some added nutrition and flavor.

Even with healthier preparation techniques, when it comes to eating during the holidays, Anding cautions that portion size cannot be forgotten.

“Many of us have favorite holiday foods that we eat once or twice a year. If that is the case, enjoy the food, but just watch how much you eat.”

In addition, Anding notes that the holiday season often provides more opportunities to eat due to social gatherings, office parties and other festivities.

“If someone is trying to avoid holiday weight gain, the key is to plan accordingly so they can keep their calorie intake in check,” she said. “And don’t forget regular physical activity. It can burn off those extra calories and relieve stress that can periodically strike during the holiday season.”

For more food and nutrition information and resources available from AgriLife Extension, go to


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