Creamy, buttery foods have a way of creeping back into our diets during the holidays, so it’s no wonder that the average American gains 1 to 2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. And yeah, we know—there’s nothing like your mom’s green bean casserole or pumpkin pie to satisfy your comfort food cravings. Still, there are tiny tweaks you can make to your menu that cut calories and unhealthy fats without sacrificing taste. Registered dietitians and Health‘s food director reveal the ingredient swaps they use to transform diet disasters into healthy, yet flavorful holiday meals.
1. Sour cream
Healthy holiday swap: Greek yogurt
Any Thanksgiving side that requires sour cream—mashed potatoes, casseroles, sauces—can instantly be made healthier by subbing in an equal amount of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt. When incorporated into a recipe, Greek yogurt tastes nearly identical to nutrition-devoid sour cream. “With this substitute, you’ll enhance the protein in your dishes,” says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Healthy holiday swap: Zucchini noodles
If your family traditionally starts off holiday meals with a pasta dish, you can get those same tomato and garlic flavors by swapping out noodles for spiralized zucchini, says Sheth. Zucchini noodles, or “zoodles,” cut out empty carbs while filling your plate with vitamins and fiber.
3. Mashed potatoes
Healthy holiday swap: Cauliflower mash
For every spoonful of mashed potatoes you heap onto your plate at Thanksgiving, just know that a cup racks up over 200 calories (and that’s before the added butter and gravy). Cut calories and empty carbs by making mashed cauliflower instead, suggests Sheth. Mashed cauliflower has the same texture and similar flavor, and in addition to being more waistline-friendly, cauliflower is loaded with vitamin C. For an earthy option, try this recipe celery root and cauliflower mash.
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Health holiday swap: Grilled fruit
Substitute one pie on your dessert table for baked, roasted, or grilled fruit, suggests Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health‘s contributing nutrition editor. This way, your guests will get the fruity sweetness they crave, minus the buttery, carb-heavy, calorie-dense crust. If you can’t stand the idea of going crustless, try a mock cobbler instead. “Sauté berries in a little lemon water with fresh grated ginger and top with a crumble made from a combination of almond butter, rolled oats, and apple pie spice,” says Sass.
5. Green bean casserole
Healthy holiday swap: Brussels sprouts or sautéed green beans
Creamy green bean casserole is a holiday classic, but with fried onions, butter, cheese, salt, and cream of mushroom soup, this dish is far from wholesome. Instead, Sass recommends oven-roasted Brussels sprouts for a savory, fiber-packed veggie dish. Another option: stick with green beans, but sauté them over low heat in extra virgin olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper. Add a garnish of slivered almonds for an extra something special—and for added protein and healthy fats.
6. Creamed spinach
Healthy holiday swap: Sautéed spinach or spinach salad
Spinach is a good source of fiber, vitamins A, C, E, and K, folate, calcium, iron, and more—but you’re negating any of those health benefits when you make creamed spinach, which is loaded with saturated fat. This year, sauté the leafy green in heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Sass recommends topping the dish with diced red bell pepper for added crunch and sweetness. You could also toss a spinach salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette topped with sliced apples or peas and toasted walnuts or pecans.
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7. Sweet potato casserole
Healthy holiday swap: Baked sweet potatoes
Topping your sweet potato casserole with marshmallows or a sugary crumble makes the dish more like a dessert than a side dish. Sass has a solution that’s not so sickeningly sweet: Drizzle baked sweet potatoes with a sauce made from extra virgin coconut oil, maple syrup, fresh grated ginger, and pumpkin pie spice. While the syrup adds sugar, it acts as an unrefined form of the sweetener, which contains more natural nutrients than its refined counterpart, like calcium and iron. This recipe’s grated ginger adds zest and aids with digestion—something we all could use help with after a big holiday meal.
8. Cream cheese dip
Healthy holiday swap: Hummus
Serving up snacks pre-feast? Serve hummus instead of a cream cheese-based dip, which can pack on around 50 calories from fat and 14 grams of cholesterol per serving. Our personal favorite is this slightly tangy garlic and sun-dried tomato hummus that not only tastes great, but is also full of protein, fiber, and calcium. Add an array of fresh, colorful veggies to the plate for dipping—it’s an quick and easy substitute for chips or crackers and can add nutrients like vitamin A from carrots, folate and vitamin C from bell peppers, and vitamins B and C plus fiber from raw broccoli.
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9. Meat and cheese plate
Healthy holiday swap: Veggie and shrimp kabobs
Sass suggests grilling or roasting fall veggies like zucchini and squash as well as onions and pepper and serving them on a stick for easy grabbing. For added flavor, alternate the vegetables with shrimp, a great meatless protein option. This veggie-filled alternative swaps out saturated fat and added salt for more fiber and nutrients like vitamins A and K, potassium, and manganese, which acts as a great metabolism booster as you enjoy the holiday dishes to come.
10. Cocktail mixers
Healthy holiday swap: Sparkling water
Toasting with a cocktail may be a holiday tradition, but filling up on sugary drinks doesn’t need to be. “For cocktails, replace a sugary mixer with sparkling water flavored with fresh grated ginger, and fresh mint,” says Sass. She says mashed fruit makes another great natural sweetener when paired with bubbly water. Use either of these methods and you’ll bypass the 30 grams of sugar per serving most mixed drinks contain. For starters, try this golden apple cocktail that features sparkling cider, or a sparkling greyhound cocktail for a hint of tangy grapefruit. Half of this fruit contains only 8 grams of sugar, plus lots of vitamin and c to boost your immune system.