Ah, the holiday season: a time for weight gain and money loss. But it doesn't have to be that way. These 24 cheap and healthy recipes keep costs and calories low by making smart grocery choices and suggesting money-saving ingredient substitutes. They include some new spins on old favorites, as well as innovative recipes to try for Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa.
Related: 10 Ways to Avoid Holiday Overeating
For holiday breakfast pancakes, try a minimalist, two-ingredient recipe from The Kitchn. The two ingredients: bananas and eggs, both cheap, healthful, and filling. Optionally, serve these paleo-friendly, gluten-free cakes with butter and jam or maple syrup if you have them on hand -- you can afford the calories.
Non-alcoholic eggnog can cost up to $6 for a half-gallon, and the calorie and fat counts for a serving of Turkey Hill, for example -- 190 calories and 9 grams of fat, 5 of them saturated -- represent only half a cup (not a whole cup, like the typical milk serving). Yikes. A simple homemade alternative from Food Network combines skim milk, orange or lemon zest, eggs, a bit of sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg, and vanilla -- all basic, inexpensive ingredients -- and comes in at only 90 calories per half-cup.
A perennial favorite, spiced apple cider comes pre-made in plastic bottles but contains unnecessary sugars and can be costly to boot. Instead, check out a spiced apple cider recipe on the blog A Beautiful Mess. Start with regular apple juice, which gets high health marks, and add spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and, if desired, cinnamon sticks. There's the option to add spiced rum, but that brings higher costs and unnecessary calories, and this cider tastes good on its own.
A filling soup recipe from the blog Baby Loving Mama will warm up the family on a cold winter day. It takes inexpensive macaroni or shell pasta, cans of diced tomatoes and sauce, onion, green pepper, and a pound of Italian sausage. Look for hot or sweet pork sausage for about $5 a pound or less, or opt for turkey Italian sausage for a healthier option that is also a dollar or so cheaper.
Kwanzaa, the weeklong celebration of African heritage (Dec. 26-Jan. 1), features dishes of Southern American, African, and Caribbean origin. A Southern specialty, collard-green dishes usually include a ton of bacon, but this vegetarian version from Food Network omits the costly, fatty meat and includes onion, tomato, garlic, and spices for a tasty, nutritious, and cheap side dish. It calls for a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of melted butter; the butter could be replaced with more olive oil or canola oil to cut cholesterol.
Brussels sprouts at Christmas dinner is a British tradition that many U.S. households have adopted -- and Brussels sprouts rank among the world's healthiest foods. Just don't coat them in sugar and bacon fat. Instead, try an Eating Well recipe with shallots, extra-virgin olive oil, reduced-sodium chicken or veggie broth, thyme, salt, and black pepper. Using fewer ingredients helps keep the dish cheap and healthy.
The ultimate comfort food, macaroni and cheese makes an appearance at many a holiday dinner. A healthier makeover of this classic dish -- and one not suited just for the kids' table -- comes from the blog Pinch of Yum. It calls for 100 percent whole-wheat pasta, which generally is healthier and doesn't cost more than plain pasta. The recommended sauce calls for a mere two-thirds cup of shredded cheese (any type will work, although health-conscious cooks may want to choose low-fat) per 2 cups of macaroni. Additionally, the recipe involves a small butternut squash (which is in season and at its cheapest), an onion, chicken or vegetable broth, and a few other basics.
This island soul dish popular at Kwanzaa meals features traditional black beans and rice with inexpensive but flavorful vegetables, spices, and condiments, per a recipe from Epicurious. Brown medium-grain or wild rice is a cheaper, tastier choice than instant rice. Steaming the rice results in a lower glycemic index than boiling or microwaving.
A must during Hanukkah, latkes are shallow-fried potato pancakes (after all, oil plays a key role in the story of the holiday). They are affordable but quite calorie-dense. Home cooks get pretty experimental with latkes these days, particularly using root vegetables instead of potatoes (which are tubers, not roots). A recipe from Epicurious makes latke pancakes out of ginger and carrots, along with other basic pantry ingredients, fried in healthy canola oil. If ginger's not a favorite flavor, the blog Eggs on Sunday offers a similar spin on latkes made with beets and carrots.
A stuffing recipe from Eating Well shows how substituting healthier options doesn't have to compromise a dish's taste or make it more expensive. Stuffing (or dressing, depending on the region) usually contains white bread, a lot of butter, and fatty sausage. Instead, use cornbread (boxed mixes are less than $1) with turkey sausage (often cheaper than pork), and no butter or cream. Basic spices and cheap veggies (onion and celery) plus reduced-sodium broth (chicken or vegetable) complete the dish.
Black-eyed peas are another popular Kwanzaa staple. Many recipes use bacon and pork, but Epicurious relies on beef stock or broth, spices, jalapeño peppers, onions, garlic, and jarred pimiento peppers to spice things up. The star of the dish, the black-eyed pea, is actually a bean and has high levels of fiber, potassium, protein, and iron, in addition to being low-calorie and low-fat.
On Christmas Eve, many Italian-Americans observe the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a dinner that features many seafood dishes. Among them is baccalà, which is dried and salted cod -- rich in protein and low in calories but high in sodium and often served fried. A cheaper and healthier option is spaghetti with baccalà. Chef Mario Batali's recipe, available from Food Network, calls for simple spaghettini (try whole wheat), canned tomatoes, olives, garlic, and other cheap, common flavoring ingredients.
Beef brisket often appears on the Hanukkah table, and happily it's one of the best cheap cuts of meat. A recipe from MyFitnessPal has just four cheap, healthful ingredients besides brisket: onion, Kalamata olives, canned diced tomatoes, and oregano (hint: check dollar stores for the same spices sold at supermarkets).
Turkey's generally cheaper and healthier than ham, and looks impressive on a holiday table. Although roast turkey doesn't have a reputation for being cheap to prepare, Eating Richly has a method that doesn't break the bank and results in a no-fuss meal. Check Target, WinCo Foods, Walmart, or a warehouse club for a cheap bird, and pick up a roasting bag for $1 or so. If you need a roasting pan, one from the dollar store will get the job done. Coat the turkey with olive oil or butter and roast with onion or celery.
Bone-in pork chops often make it onto lists of the best cheap cuts of meat, and a spin on the classic "pork and applesauce" pairing from Cooking Light is simple, enjoyable, and inexpensive. Cook the chops on the stovetop and then roast them in a pan with crispy apples, cider vinegar, and spices.
Whole chicken usually costs less than $1.50 a pound, and its high protein content makes it a favorite of weight-conscious folks. A version from Cooking Light dresses a whole roasting chicken with lemons, olive oil, and a bunch of spices for a healthy, affordable main dish. The recipe calls for dry white wine, but to avoid buying a bottle, substitute white wine vinegar or even lemon juice and get the same results for less money.
Related: 11 Recipes for Leftover Wine
This traditional, rustic French casserole of beans and meat is a Christmas favorite. The meats that go into a traditional cassoulet -- namely duck, goose, and lamb -- are some of the fattiest out there, and the price can be prohibitive. Recipes that opt for other meats keep the cost low and cut down on fat. Feast on the Cheap uses chicken, Italian sausage, and bacon, and a "For Dummies" holiday cooking guide calls for chicken, lean pork, sausage (substitute turkey sausage for less fat), and some lamb (lamb leg or shank is lower in fat and calories).
Related: 10 Quick and Inexpensive Recipes to Make With Rotisserie Chicken
Traditional West African-inspired meat dishes for Kwanzaa rely on spice blends for flavor without added calories. To make a Moroccan-inspired grilled steak from Eating Well, cut the visible fat off the steak and grill it with plenty of basic, cheap spices and some healthy sweet potatoes. The recipe recommends strip steak, a tender cut from the short loin of the cow that doesn't have large pockets of fat, although it's a bit pricey. To keep costs down, substitute chuck eye.
This pumpkin fudge from the blog The Big Man's World takes only three ingredients and meets requirements for paleo, vegan, and gluten-free diets. Start with coconut flour, a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that sells for as little as 23 cents an ounce. The recipe suggests coconut palm sugar, but a brown-sugar baking blend from Truvia makes an easier, cheaper substitute. Lastly, mix in unsweetened, canned puréed pumpkin -- not pumpkin pie filling -- and cinnamon's optional. A half-hour in the fridge finishes off the healthy, cheap, festive fudge.
Sweet potatoes figure in all three major December holiday traditions. These vitamin and fiber powerhouses rank among the healthiest vegetables and usually run 50 cents to $1 a pound. A "healthier" sweet potato pie recipe from Eating Well calls for pre-made whole-wheat pie crust, a pound of sweet potatoes, nutmeg, cinnamon, and standard baking ingredients. For an even healthier swap, consider subbing unsweetened applesauce, full-fat yogurt, or pumpkin purée for butter.
Fruitcake remains one of the most divisive holiday foods. For those who enjoy it or would be willing to try it again, chef Nigella Lawson has an easy recipe using few ingredients beyond basic baking supplies. To lighten it up, try substituting 4 ounces of applesauce for the butter and make half the flour whole wheat. In terms of the dried fruit -- probably the biggest expense -- consider mixed bags sold at Walmart or Target to save money. Any combination can work.
A traditional topping for latkes and a side dish or dessert at Hanukkah, applesauce is a crowd-pleaser, especially for children. Store-bought applesauce is laden with added sugar -- or bland when entirely unsweetened. A recipe from Eating Well calls for only six tart apples, two sweet apples, maple syrup, cinnamon, and water. Apples are usually readily available and cheap, and the nutrition stats on this sauce look pretty good at 77 calories, 2 grams of fiber, and 127 mg of potassium per serving.
Gingerbread is associated with Christmas all over the world. Replacing butter (with applesauce) and sugar (with maple syrup and molasses) yields a basic, low-fat gingerbread cookie recipe, per the blog My Whole Food Life. Try using only molasses in place of sugar -- it tends to be cheaper than high-quality maple syrup. Any flour and egg will work in this flexible recipe, which relies on cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, and, of course, powdered ginger to create the spicy, delicious gingerbread flavor.
Despite its name, this pie from Cooking Light doesn't call for pure cream -- just milk and half-and-half. It makes a yummy dessert for Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah at a modest 266 calories a slice. Flaked sweetened coconut, the star ingredient, can be found for cheap in the baking aisle of most grocery stores, and the rest of the ingredients are basic. If there's no vanilla bean to be found, vanilla extract will work fine.