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Healthy holiday foods: keep the joy, forget the guilt

Eating a little bit of the good stuff and reducing fat in cooking can keep you on track to a healthy season. Pictured, chef Dr. Linda Shiue, director of Culinary Medicine at the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center.

Looking forward to the holidays but dreading the extra weight and guilt from eating tasty but bad-for-you food?

Well here’s some good news: Holiday dining doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition when it comes to feeling good about what you eat and cook, according to chef Linda Shiue, MD, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco’s director of Culinary Medicine.

“The holidays should be a time of joy and celebration,” said Dr. Shiue, author of Spicebox Kitchen. “You don’t have to ditch the healthy lifestyle habits you’ve worked hard to achieve. Eating smaller portions of the things you love, but not completely eliminating them, is a more moderate approach to the season.”

Dr. Shiue said many people who go scorched earth and deprive themselves of tasty holiday food oftentimes give up and binge eat. One trick to moderating the kinds of high-fat, salty foods you typically find at a holiday party or dinner is to eat a fiber-rich fruit or vegetable snack before you go. Eating fiber before the apple pie or brownies will help prevent an up-and-down blood-sugar spike that would otherwise leave you even more hungry and likely to eat more.

“The fiber and water content of a fruit or vegetable also will not leave as much room in your stomach for gorging on those calorie-laden goodies,” she said. “If you go to the party hungry, though, you are going to fill up your plate.”

Another trick during the holidays is the “dessert flip,” said Dr. Shiue. If a piece of pie generally comes with some fresh fruit such as berries on top, flip it by eating more berries than pie.

Cooking with less fat

For those who like to bake and cook for the holidays and who are interested in experimenting with lower-fat versions of traditional dishes, Dr. Shiue said there are several ways to substitute the fat.

“Fat has a function and usually it’s for moisture and as a binder,” Dr. Shiue said. “A lot of people substitute apple sauce for some of the butter, but not all of it. Apple sauce keeps things moist and takes the place of sugar too.”

Other partial substitutions for butter in baking include cashew nut butter, a puree of prunes, silken tofu, which can be blended into a cream, and even beans or mashed, cooked chickpeas.

“In reality though I would rather have a real desert that isn’t necessarily healthy, but just have a bite of it,” Dr. Shiue said.

For dishes like mashed potatoes that require a ton of artery clogging butter and cream, Dr. Shiue said try adding some thinly shredded kale, which will increase the volume of the dish and cut down on the fat intake. Or if you are adventurous, substitute Greek yogurt for some of the cream and cashew nut butter for regular butter.

“And for cooking a turkey or chicken, brining it is a way to lock in the moisture without adding fat,” she said.

Dr. Shiue said the big picture advice is to add lots of plant-based dishes to the overall meal to cut down on the proportion of fat and salt.

“I like to have lots of salads and roasted vegetables, so your meal is mostly plants,” Dr. Shiue said. “You can have your mashed potatoes, gravy and turkey, but make most of your meal really delicious salads and vegetables. That way, you can really enjoy your holiday food.”

Thanksgiving kale salad with roasted root vegetables for 12

1 ½ pounds assorted root vegetables, such as sweet potato, delicata squash, and parsnip (about 2 small, sweet potatoes, 1 delicata, 1 parsnip)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt
1 bunch curly green kale, center rib removed


1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper


1/4 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons thinly sliced red onion

Heat oven to 400°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Peel root vegetables, as desired (no need to peel delicata), and then cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch-thick slices. Toss with olive oil and salt in a bowl, then arrange in a single layer, with some space between vegetables, on prepared baking sheets. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes, flipping over at 10-minute point. When vegetables are light brown around edges and you’re able to pierce them with a fork, remove from oven and allow to cool.

Thinly slice or tear kale into bite-size pieces and place in a salad bowl. Massage kale with your hands for about a minute, or until it has softened and is glossy and darker green.

Prepare dressing: Combine all dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk, or pour into a jar, tightly close lid, and shake until combined. Pour dressing onto prepared kale and toss to cover.

Toast pumpkin seeds for garnish: Place in a single layer in a small, dry skillet and heat over medium-low heat, shaking often, until pumpkin seeds puff up a bit and change from green to tan. This will take 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

When vegetables have cooled, arrange them atop dressed kale salad. Scatter with toasted pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds, and red onion.

Recipe from Spicebox Kitchen: Eat Well and Be Healthy with Globally Inspired, Vegetable-Forward Recipes by Linda Shiue, MD. Copyright © 2021.




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