Holiday Meals Can Be Healthy and Festive

Tips to watch calories by making holiday foods healthier

Family, including grandparents and grandchildren, gather around the dinner table for a healthy holiday meal.

Tips to watch calories by making holiday foods healthier

Holiday festivities, from family gatherings to office celebrations, usually include delicious calorie-laden meals and rich desserts that can wreak havoc on healthy eating habits.


“This is the time of year we traditionally celebrate with food, but this doesn’t mean you have to give up on healthy eating,” says David Wetherhold, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic La Jolla.


“From a nutritional perspective, making some simple changes can result in healthier, but tasty, holiday meals,” says Melissa Wolinski, DO, also an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic La Jolla. “Reducing the amount of sugar, butter and gravy in recipes can significantly reduce the impact on your waistline and energy level, while allowing the foods’ natural flavors to come out."

Healthy holiday food tips

Healthy holiday food tips


Turkey is a rich source of protein and a good source of iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins. Enjoy roasted turkey breast without the skin to save calories and fat. It’s important to realize that a single serving of turkey is a two- to three-ounce cooked portion — about the size of a deck of cards.

Cranberry sauce

Cranberries are high in vitamin C and packed with phytochemicals and bacteria-blocking nutrients that assist in preventing certain infections. In fact, sailors used to snack on them to prevent scurvy.

Look for berries that are firm, plump and glossy — the luster is an indicator of ripeness. These little fruits can contribute to various dishes including stuffing, sparkling beverages and fantastic desserts.

Mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes are another source of vitamin C and also pack a strong kick of potassium. Use skim milk, chicken broth, garlic and Parmesan cheese instead of whole milk and butter, and be wary of the gravy, usually known to carry a lot of sodium and fat. This little topping can negate an otherwise healthful dish.


You can add some nourishing ingredients to your stuffing with fruits like pears, apples or currants and even veggies such as squash or eggplant. Substituting whole grain bread for others with more refined sugars like cornbread or sourdough is a good way to increase fiber, folic acid, magnesium and vitamin E.

Vegetable dishes

These items are an easy way to incorporate good nutrition. They don’t have to be boring when there are so many options out there. Try replacing the corn and lima beans with some bright-green broccoli tossed with sliced almonds or orange and yellow squash steamed with flavorful herbs and seasonings.


Pumpkins provide antioxidants and are a significant source of beta-carotene, which turns into vitamin A. Cut calories and reduce fat in your pumpkin pie by making it crustless. 

Dark chocolate-covered strawberries, fresh seasonal berries with a little bit of whipped cream or baked apples are other healthy options. 


Alcohol can add a substantial amount of calories, so practice moderation and drink plenty of water. Apple cider with cinnamon is a good option and even eggnog made with skim milk can be a healthy choice. Peppermint tea after your meal can aid digestion and can be relaxing.

Beyond the dinner table

The choices you make beyond the dinner table can also impact your health. Staying active, whether that is walking the dog, running on the beach, a yoga class or taking a stroll after a big meal, will help you stay calm, as well as help you maintain your weight. Prolonged physical activity releases “endorphins,” brain chemicals that act as natural pain- and stress-relievers.

“Start a new tradition and take a family walk after the big meal,” says Dr. Wetherhold. “Walking will help your digestion and prevent many stomach issues, such as indigestion and heartburn.” 

“By all means enjoy the tastes of the season and your holiday traditions,” adds Dr. Wolinski. “Wherever your holidays take you, making your health a priority can help this holiday season be healthy and fun.” 

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