By Laura Kruskall, PhD, RD, CSSD, FACSM

The holiday season is here once again.  Many of us look forward to all of the festivities, but then regret the food choices we make. Instead of making poor food choices, gaining weight, and then vowing to lose it as your New Year’s resolution, why not take some small steps now to prevent packing on the extra pounds?  There are some simple strategies you can use to make foods healthier and avoid temptation.

  • When preparing meals, one strategy to try is to NOT follow the recipe.  While this may be scary for some, we can modify recipes to reduce the amount of sugar, fat, and salt.  To cut down on sugar in baked goods, simply use one-third to one-half less sugar than the recipe states.  This may require some trial and error to find a taste that you like.  Instead, you can add extra spices like nutmeg or cinnamon or extracts for additional flavor. Another option is to use a non-nutritive product specifically aimed at reducing sugar and calories. These are readily available at the supermarket in the sugar aisle and are generally used in the same quantity as sugar.
  • Reducing fat in baking can be quite simple.  If a recipe calls for butter or oil, try replacing half or all with applesauce or a mashed banana (this will add banana flavor while the apple sauce will not).  This too will require some trial and error, depending on the recipe and food item.  The goal is to use as little butter or oil as possible while maintaining the integrity, texture, and flavor of the item.  For other hot dishes, simple substitutions of the original products may work just fine.  For example, you can use skim milk instead of whole milk (save 60 calories and 8 grams of fat per cup!) or reduced-fat cheese instead of full-fat cheese.  For “creamy” soups or pasta sauces, use non-fat evaporated milk instead of cream.  Finally, pay attention to the fat recommended during preparation.  For example, many recipes will recommend using large amounts of butter to caramelize an onion.  If you use a sweet onion and cook over low heat for a longer time in a non-stick pan, you do not need butter for this process.
  • Reducing salt is also something easy to do at home.  When baking, salt is needed in any recipe that requires yeast, so don’t reduce in these baked goods.  You can experiment with other items to see if you really need the sodium called for in the recipe.  For hot food items and soups, salt just contributes to taste, not the integrity of the food.  When making soup, use a low-sodium broth and omit the salt listed in the recipe.  You can add so many flavors with garlic, onions, herbs, and spices.  If you have a recipe with cheese, skip the salt.  Cheese has enough salt in it to maintain the flavor.
  • In addition to just paying attention to the sugar, fat, and salt, we need to look at the overall calories of the dish.  One concept that is important is energy density.  An energy dense food is one that contains many calories in a relatively small serving.  Research has shown that people who modify their recipes to maintain the volume of food, while reducing the calories eat less calories overall.  The best way to do this is to become friendly with vegetables.  Non-starchy vegetables (most except corn, potatoes, and peas) are low in calories compared to starchy foods.  For example, ½ cup of broccoli has 25 calories while ½ cup potatoes or pasta is 80-100 calories.  The rule of thumb should always be that half your plate should be vegetables and one-quarter should be starch and one-quarter lean protein.  This is simple when foods are prepared individually, but what about mixed dished and casseroles?  The simple solution is to substitute some of the higher calorie items with vegetables.  For example, if serving pasta, replace half of the pasta with broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, or any other vegetable of your choice.  Top with tomato sauce as usual.  Another option for pasta substitute is to use spaghetti squash.  Cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and discard.  Scoop out the flesh and bake in a dish at 375 degrees F for an hour.  Add garlic or spices as desired.  For a favorite comfort food like macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes, replace half of the pasta or potatoes with steamed or roasted cauliflower.  The cauliflower is lower in calories and will absorb the flavor of the sauce.   Instead of or in addition to cauliflower, you can add other vegetables like broccoli or tomatoes to the mac and cheese.

Simple strategies like these can really make our favorite foods healthier and lower in calories.  It is important to experiment with baked goods to use as little sugar, fat, and salt as possible, while maintaining the integrity of the food item.  Simply using less fat and salt and more vegetables in our favorite hot dishes can increase the amount of vitamins and minerals from the vegetables while reducing the calories.   Let’s not regret the choices we make this holiday season- let’s instead be pro-active making our favorite foods healthier.