The holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time to enjoy life’s true pleasures: time with family, celebrating momentous occasions and, of course, delicious food. More than likely, your family get-togethers may include a casserole (or two or three). Casseroles are classic and delicious holiday dishes that make it easy to serve large gatherings. While many traditional casseroles are loaded with fat, sodium and sugar, there are lots of ways to boost nutrition without sacrificing taste or tradition. Here are 10 easy steps you can take to have a happier — and healthier — holiday meal.
1. Boost the veggies
Healthy eating isn’t always about leaving things out. Sometimes, the easiest way to improve the nutrient content of your holiday meal is by putting more on your plate. Adding vegetables to a casserole is an easy way to ensure you load up on fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants at your holiday meal. If you plan on starting your holiday prep-cooking with a classic breakfast casserole, consider adding diced vegetables like onions, bell peppers and mushrooms to the mix. Making a pasta or potato-based casserole? Throw in a handful of broccoli or squash!
2. Swap in complex grains
Simple carbohydrates like white pasta and white rice are missing dietary fiber, a key nutrient often lacking in the American diet. If your favorite recipe calls for bread, pasta or rice, choose a whole-grain alternative with a minimum of 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving. The fiber will help to slow digestion, which allows you to feel more satisfied with each bite. Similarly, if your casserole is topped with breadcrumbs for a crunchy texture, try whole-grain breadcrumbs instead.
3. Choose leaner protein cuts
If your casserole calls for protein, choosing a leaner cut of meat is an easy way to decrease the saturated fat and overall caloric content of the dish. Rather than ground beef, opt for ground turkey or ground chicken. For a breakfast casserole that calls for bacon or sausage, choose a chicken-based alternative. You could even opt for a leaner cut of pork, such as Canadian bacon.
4. Reach for the low-fat dairy or plant-based alternative
Dairy is a common ingredient in many casseroles. For a simple nutritional swap, choose a lower-fat or plant-based version to preserve that creamy texture without losing an ounce of flavor. If you are making a cheesy casserole, a low-fat cheese with less than 3 grams of fat per serving is a great choice. If your recipe calls for heavy whipping cream, combine 3/4 cup of low-fat milk with 1/4 cup of butter and add a tablespoon of flour for thickness. And don’t ignore those plants! If you would prefer making your recipe with plant-based milk, give almond or oat milk a try.
5. Cut back on cheese altogether
In addition to choosing a low-fat option, consider cutting back on the amount of cheese you add to your recipe. Here’s a rule of thumb: Compare the amount of cheese to the total number of portions in the recipe. If you can, limit the amount of cheese added so that 1 serving would lend no more than a ¼ cup of cheese. For example, if the recipe calls for 4 cups of cheese but only produces 8 servings, consider decreasing the amount of cheese to 2 cups total.
6. Up the protein
Protein is known for its powerful impact on appetite, as it signals to your brain that you are feeling full and satisfied. Upping the protein content of your casserole is a great way to make sure you don’t overindulge. Adding unflavored protein powder to a traditional carbohydrate-heavy casserole, such as potato casserole, is an innovative way to sneak more protein into your dish. You can also go the whole-food route and add beans or legumes as a protein-rich bonus to a pasta-based casserole dish.
7. Substitute olive oil for butter
Cut down on saturated fat intake and increase your consumption of heart-healthy fats by substituting butter for olive oil. Rather than covering vegetables in a butter sauce, consider roasting veggies with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The substitution can even work in baking, adding a delicious moistness to breads and cakes! A general guideline is to substitute 3/4 of the butter in a recipe with olive oil. If the recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of butter, swap in 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
8. Mix in a super ingredient
Add a nutrient-dense ingredient to your recipe to give a nutritional boost. Ground flaxseed meal and ground chia seeds are two great add-ins for a sweeter casserole, like a French toast or sweet potato casserole. Both contribute a slightly nutty flavor and provide lots of omega-3 fatty acids in the process. These essential fats benefit the cardiovascular system and digestive system, as well as reduce inflammation and improve brain health.
9. Lower the sodium
Casseroles often call for canned goods, be it vegetables, soups, broths or sauces. Unfortunately, these ingredients can be laden with sodium. Luckily, there are lots of low-sodium and no-salt-added options that can easily decrease the sodium content of the dish. Choose a lower-sodium pasta sauce or broth, or utilize salt-free ingredients like tomatoes or beans. If a family member complains that the dish needs more salt (which we highly doubt they will), simply pass them the saltshaker!
10. Mix in a smarter carb
Many holiday meals and casseroles are carbohydrate-heavy. And while your family may not be on board for mashed cauliflower over mashed potatoes, you can try meeting them halfway. If you have a recipe that calls for mashed potatoes, rice or pasta, consider using a vegetable- or bean-based alternative for half of the recipe. For example, if the recipe calls for 2 cups of rice, use 1 cup of a riced vegetable. If you’re making an Italian casserole with spaghetti, make half of the dish with pasta made from beans.
The most important thing to remember is that holiday get-togethers are meant to be celebrated. If you can make some slight nutritional improvements to your family casseroles this year, that’s wonderful. But enjoying your favorite side dish is not going to ruin your health and derail your health goals. Just remember to eat mindfully and enjoy the company. Aim to start your day with movement and refresh the following day with a nutritious breakfast. Because in the end, food is about nourishing your body, but it is also about family, traditions and celebrations! Happy holidays!