You Don't Make What You Like

21 Healthy Meal Hacks for the Holidays

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You Don't Make What You Like

Hack the Halls

For many, the holidays are the best time of year. The parties, the presents, the festive family gatherings — there's so much to love. But for better or worse, all of those parties and family gatherings are laden with delicious delights, many of which can present a serious challenge to your healthy-living goals. That doesn't have to be the case, however. Here are some tips and hacks for navigating the holiday-eating extravaganza, whether you're a guest or the chef, courtesy of nutritionists and health experts across the country. For even more tips on how to survive the remainder of the year with your health intact, check out 25 Sneaky Ways To Make The Holidays Healthier.

Simple Swaps

Simple Swaps

There are all sorts of ways to insert healthier ingredients into your meal without sacrificing much in the way of flavor, says Jamie Hickey, a certified nutritionist, personal trainer, and founder of "For example, use balsamic vinegar and olive oil instead of store-bought dressing, which is often high in sodium," says Hickey. "Blend cauliflower into your mashed potatoes. Have stuffing or a roll with butter, but not both."

Related: 17 Easy-to-Make Foods to Stop Buying at the Store

Make Simple Recipe Tweaks

Make Simple Recipe Tweaks

Just about every holiday recipe has way too much butter, salt, and sugar, says Hickey. "I just go ahead and slim these down by 25% to 50% depending on what I'm cooking or baking," he advises. "No one ever notices, and the new version helps keep you, and everyone else, from feeling full and bloated."

Eat Before You Eat

Eat Before You Eat

Going to holiday parties hungry is a big no-no. Why? Because you'll likely end up overeating, says Hickey. "And, remember, you're not going to your last supper," he adds. "Enjoy the company and engage in conversation. Don't solely focus on the food."

Roasted Vegetables

Bring Along a Healthy Dish

For holiday parties and family gatherings, says Hickey, prepare your favorite winter veggies, such as butternut squash, carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, and/or beets with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, and bake in the oven. "If you include a variety of vegetables, everyone will find something to like," he says.

Related: Lean Into the Holidays With These 24 Healthy and Cheap Recipes

Avoid Casseroles

Avoid Casseroles and Baked Goods

Most casseroles and baked goods that we indulge in during fall and winter are loaded with fats, sugar, and refined carbs, says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and creator of The Candida Diet. "Each of these ingredients is highly inflammatory and can inevitably lead to chronic disease when eaten in abundance," she says. "If you enjoy these seasonal favorites, do so in moderation." Another approach is to put a healthy spin on such dishes, notes Richards. Replace refined white rice with nutrient-dense quinoa or brown rice to add nutrients and reduce inflammation, and substitute fatty cheeses in casseroles with nuts that have been blended into a paste-like consistency, she adds.

Creamed Spinach

Skip 'Healthy' Foods Prepared with Sugar or Fat

Many healthy sides and main dishes are actually loaded with sugar, fat, empty calories, and refined carbohydrates, Richards notes. "This is especially true with vegetables and lean animal proteins. Creamed spinach, green bean casseroles, along with fried okra and other fried vegetables are just a few instances where a typically healthy dish is made unhealthy by adding fat for flavor," she explains. Instead, she suggests that, as a general rule, it's often best to avoid foods that have visible cream or cheeses added.

Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods

Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods

There are many filler foods, mostly sides, that do nothing more than add excess calories to your diet, says Richards. "Rather than filling up with these foods, choose the more nutrient-dense options," she explains. "Common dishes that provide empty calories include white rice, gravy, russet potatoes, (and) canned cranberry sauce, along with breads and croissants." More nutrient-dense options are brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, 100% whole wheat breads, and roasted or steamed vegetables.

Monk Fruit Sweetener

Use Monk Fruit Sweetener

Calorie-free and all-natural — it's made from the monk fruit melon — this sweetener can be equally substituted for white sugar in recipes, says Renata Trebing, a healthy recipe developer and founder of Nourish With Renata. "This is definitely a sugar alternative that people will not be able to differentiate from the taste of white sugar, and it doesn't have that bitter aftertaste like stevia may have," she adds. Monk fruit might also have a variety of health benefits, as limited research has shown that it may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. What's more, monk fruit sweetener will not raise blood sugar levels, making it a better option for people with diabetes.

Related: 29 Foods Diabetics Should Avoid

Include Lots of Veggies
Bartosz Luczak/istockphoto

Include Lots of Veggies

"I always aim for at least three different vegetables with our meal," says Trebing. "To make things even easier, opt for quick and easy veggie dishes like salads, steamed veggies, or even recipes that do not require lots of tending to, like braised carrots." The additional veggies will help add micronutrients and fiber to your holiday meal, which will help everyone's nutrition and digestion. "And usually guests feel compelled to try everything on your holiday table, so everyone will get some yummy veggies in their diet," Trebing adds.

Opt for Homemade Foods

Opt for Homemade Foods

Often, take-out food providers and grocery stores are making food in bulk that's meant to last days and weeks, says Jamie Bacharach, licensed diet and life coach and founder of Acupuncture Jerusalem. "This means they're taking liberties with their recipes, the freshness of their ingredients, and the prevalence of preservatives in their food," she adds. "When planning your holiday meals, make sure you are preparing as much food as you can at home in your own kitchen. You'll be in control of what you and your family are eating and will know exactly what's going into your own bodies."

Related: Healthy Meal Prep Tips For a Busy Week

Bake, Don't Fry

Bake, Don't Fry

All too many holiday recipes feature pan-frying or deep-frying of foods in an unhealthy amount of vegetable oil, says Bacharach. "Try baking your food as often as you can this holiday season in order to limit the amount of saturated fat and greasy food you're ingesting."

Choose Water Over Alcohol at Parties
Use Smaller Plates

Use Smaller Plates

Our subconscious tells us to fill our plates with food, says Bacharach. "The larger the plate, the more food you're going to be serving to yourself, even if you don't really want or need it. Choose smaller plates during parties and holiday meals in order to make certain you're eating a healthy amount of food and not simply filling your plate to its capacity for the sake of it."

Avoid Naughty Sauces

Avoid 'Naughty' Sauces

The holidays usually mean putting calorie- and fat-filled sauces over nearly every type of food, says Samantha Milner, CEO and owner of Recipe This. "The tradition is always the super unhealthy cheese sauce that we load over our vegetables. It's full of butter and unhealthy flour, and you could cut hundreds of calories just here," she says.

Air Fryer

Cook with an Air Fryer

Another holiday alternative that Milner is passionate about is using an air fryer to prepare roasted potatoes with a fraction of the usual fat. One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil is all that's required to roast enough potatoes to feed the entire family, says Milner. Recipes that involve an air fryer typically call for far less oil than is used with deep fryers, thus largely removing fats and calories from the preparation process.

Related: 40 Cheap Air Fryer Recipes to Cut Calories Not Flavor

Thanksgiving Leftovers Recipes

Eat the Turkey, Skip the Stuffing

For those following the Keto diet, turkey is perfectly fine during the holidays. Just don't indulge in the stuffing, says triple board-certified and Emory University-trained physician Anna Cabeca. She suggests a healthy stuffing alternative is to instead fill the turkey with an apple, a couple of orange slices, and cloves. Yet another option is an almond flour stuffing, says Cabeca. "I would use some dried cranberries to make it a little bit sweet while still staying in the Keto realm," she says.

Related: 16 Creative Ways to Cook Your Turkey This Thanksgiving

Healthier Baked Goods

Choose Healthier Fats in Baked Goods

Fat is critical when it comes to baking. It creates the desired crumb effect in muffins and cakes, and makes recipes more palatable to our discerning taste buds, says Jenn Espinosa-Goswami, chief motivational speaker at Weightless Chronicles. But, she notes, "There are some lovely ways to change the type of fat you use in your baking. I love using nut butters and coconut oil the most." Bananas and sweet potatoes are another option, one that's fruit-friendly and can decrease the fat while pumping up fiber and nutrients, adds Espinosa-Goswami.

Greek Yogurt Dip

Substitute Greek Yogurt for Sour Cream or Mayonnaise

Not only is Greek yogurt great for snacks, dips, and on potatoes, it's also a great add-in for cake recipes, says Espinosa-Goswami. "Plain Greek yogurt, not sweetened, has a high amount of protein with very little sugar. Plus, getting the full-fat version makes your baked goods even tastier."

Share Dessert

Don't Eat That Dessert All by Yourself

Holiday desserts are incredibly tempting, and there always seems to be multiple options, all of which makes it hard to reign yourself in. Amanda Kostro Miller, a registered nurse, registered dietician, and member of the board for Smart Healthy Living suggests a good plan of attack is to always share your dessert with one to two other people. "Desserts can really wreak havoc on weight loss and calorie control, especially if some of the desserts are special holiday traditions," she says.

Hot Chocolate

Beware of Liquid Calories in All Forms

Hot chocolate with marshmallows and eggnog are synonymous with the season, and they, too, are laden with sugar, says Carrie Lam, a family medicine, board-certified physician. "The same goes for soda or alcoholic beverages," she adds. "In order to avoid holiday weight gain, you should limit your intake of these beverages. Instead, opt for something like green tea or warm water with a few slices of lemon."

Control Stress

Control Stress to Control Your Weight Gain

Though not necessarily a meal hack, controlling your stress will have an impact on how you fare with regard to weight gain, notes Lam. "Higher stress levels are linked to an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone. An increase in cortisol is your body's natural response to stress and is, in turn, linked to your fight-or-flight response," she explains. "Prolonged stress and continuous high cortisol production are linked to weight gain." In other words, try to relax and enjoy the holidays this year — and remember to try and eat healthy along the way.

Related: 10 Ways to Reduce Holiday Stress