Traditional holiday dishes are one of life’s greatest pleasures. Filled with comfort food factors, such as richness, sweetness and indulgence, it’s almost unbearable not to partake. But, let’s be honest, those dishes can also leave us feeling sluggish and are typically made with unhealthy ingredients, including butter, cream, refined sugar, highly processed foods and unhealthy oils.
Luckily, it’s still possible to enjoy the festive food we all love and make it a bit healthier without feeling like we’re missing out on anything. A few easy swaps are all it takes.
1. Trade refined sugar for the real thing
Instead of highly processed, traditional white sugar, buy real, unprocessed and unrefined sugar. Real organic cane sugar and natural cane sugar taste better and even contain trace minerals that refined sugar doesn’t have; they’re also less processed and made with higher-quality sugar. Want to step it up a notch or two further and make your recipes even healthier? Use raw organic turbinado sugar, which is browner in color and still retains some of the nutrient-dense molasses that the actual sugar cane plant contains.
You can also use molasses or real maple syrup when you need liquid sweeteners. Both are nutrient dense and much better alternatives to corn syrup. Pure maple syrup and molasses can be used alone or combined in recipes, but do keep in mind that molasses has a stronger flavor than maple syrup, so it’s best to use it in smaller amounts (as with gingerbread recipes) supplemented by other types of natural, unrefined sugars.
If you’re up for it, try out coconut palm sugar; just keep in mind it has a stronger, slightly burnt sugar flavor that other natural sugars don’t have. If you don’t want to use any sweeteners high in natural sugar, use puréed medjool dates as a real-food option. Dates can be used in recipes such as baked goods, pie crusts, bread and sauces. Alternatively, try granulated date sugar, which is made from grinding dried dates. Date sugar can be used anywhere regular cane sugar or brown sugar is used, and it has a delicious caramel-like flavor to it.
2. Try plant-based butter
Many plant-based butter alternatives are on the market and in stores everywhere. These products are made with plant-based oils instead of cream, which is high in cholesterol. Many plant-based butter sticks and spreads taste just like the real thing, and some even contain omega-3 fatty acids for additional health benefits. While these products do contain fat from added oils, they’re still lower in saturated fat than butter. They’re an easy solution to eliminating dietary cholesterol in holiday meals while preserving buttery flavor.
3. Use soy or coconut milk instead of dairy cream
Unsweetened or light soy milk makes an excellent cream alternative because it has the same mouthfeel as regular cream and even a similar flavor. Soy milk tends to be the easiest dairy alternative; plus, it’s a natural source of fiber and heart-healthy phytosterols, and it’s completely free of dietary cholesterol, unlike dairy products.
Coconut milk is also a favorite substitute for cream among many people, but it does contain significantly more fat, which is primarily saturated fat, so that’s something to keep in mind, depending on your health goals.
Soy and coconut milk products can be found in store-bought, specialty whipped-cream products, or you can just use plain soy milk or coconut milk at home in place of liquid cream.
4. Look for real-food alternatives
In most cases, you can easily upgrade your holiday dishes to make them healthier simply by looking for real-food alternatives to the ingredients you always use.
For instance, opt out of buying a pie crust at the store that is made with refined sugar, refined flour and unhealthy oils, such as vegetable oil, and make your own crust instead. You can also purchase higher-quality pie crusts at health food stores if you don’t have time to make your own.
Instead of store-bought breadcrumbs that contain preservatives, added oils and refined flour, use stale whole grain bread you have at home. Make your own breadcrumbs by blending the stale bread with some herbs and spices in a food processor. For an even healthier upgrade, use a mix of rolled oats and wheat germ.
5. Buy organic ingredients
If you do nothing else at all this year, buy organic products for all your holiday recipes instead of conventional options. By choosing organic, you’re avoiding toxic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified ingredients. Organic store-bought products—even if they’re more processed than real-food ingredients—will still be a major health upgrade to your recipes this year without any sacrifice in flavor. Organic may cost a little bit more, but your health and loved ones are worth the extra expense!
If you’re ready to make the healthy swaps but need some recipes to get you started, check out all of Vitacost's holiday recipes.