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Holiday Meal Hacks to Preserve Your Health (and Your Budget)

Family Nutrition Specialist Offers Tips to For Eating Right as the Season of Gustatory Excess Begins

By Kimbra Cutlip

Plate of Thanksgiving food

Controlling portions, cutting carbs and reducing fat are ways to make healthy, budget-friendly choices around the holidays, says a UMD registered dietitian and nutritionist.

Photo from iStock

It's the time of the year when we test the weight limits of our buffet and dining room tables, when we try to squeeze just one more serving dish between place settings.

But those festive spreads that make our eyes light up can also be a source of anxiety and stress for anyone concerned with eating for their health—especially those contending with cardiovascular disease or diabetes. And if you’re a host, pleasing all your guests—from the gourmands to the wellness-minded to those with dietary restrictions—without roasting your bank account along with the turkey can also be a challenge.

Fortunately, Marylanders have access to a wealth of tips and tricks from University of Maryland Extension agents who work in their local areas and specialize in food and nutritional sciences.

One of them—Lisa McCoy, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, and a senior extension agent for Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties—shared her advice on making healthy, budget-friendly choices around the holidays.

Be Intentional

One of the simplest things to say but hardest to do is control your portions. No matter whether you are watching your carbs, sugar, salt or fat, thinking ahead is key.. These simple tips can help:

  • Don’t skip a meal to compensate in advance for party food later. “That will only lead to hunger and overeating,” McCoy said, who suggested eating a small meal and healthy snacks earlier in the day before a dinner celebration.

  • More talking, less lingering. “Remember you are at the party to socialize and see people you might not have seen in a while,” McCormick stressed. “So go to the food table, get a plate of food and then leave to join a conversation.” Standing around the table chatting leads to picking at the food.

  • Go for what’s special. Passing over everyday foods can help cut down on overall indulgence. “Knowing you can have mashed potatoes any day, but you really want that corn pudding your aunt makes, you can probably skip the mashed potatoes.”

  • Be small-minded. Serve modest portions. “Some people may just take more small brownies, but most will not. Serving mini muffins and small brownies rather than full-sized things can help guests control their portions.”

Cut the Fat

All the rich holiday treats can test a heart-healthy diet. But there are choices for cutting fat when you're the cook. Choose low-fat ingredients when available, and consider these additional ideas:

  • Substitute evaporated skim milk. It can fill in for least some of the cream in dishes that call for it, and greatly reduce fat and calories.

  • Separate drippings. Put your turkey drippings in the freezer or refrigerator for a few minutes to separate and congeal the fat and skim it off before making gravy. “Most people may not make their own gravy, but you can also buy low-fat gravies that taste just as good.”

Curb the Carbs

  • Divide the plate. For people with diabetes, focusing on serving size is key. “We like to think of the half, quarter, quarter method,” McCoy said, explaining that carbohydrates should be restricted to one quarter of the dinner plate. Protein should take up a quarter, and green vegetables should take up the rest. “You don’t have to eliminate carbs altogether,” she said. “But they need to be balanced with the other things. Just a small portion can still be satisfying.”

  • Offer green sides. For hosts, adding sides like Brussels sprouts and green beans to the table help guests achieve that balance.

  • Make surprising subs. Health food blogs and recipe sites are filled with creative replacements for high-carb dishes. Two popular stand-ins for mashed potatoes are parsnip mash and cauliflower mash. Add garlic and other flavorings to these for a satisfying side. (Just go light on the butter and cream.)

Be Healthy and Budget-wise

Serving a holiday feast isn’t cheap, but choosing lower-cost ingredients can help your pocketbook have a happy holiday as well.

  • Reach for cans, but remember to rinse. Canned vegetables can be a great budget-friendly alternative to fresh or frozen options. Their lower cost and longer shelf life make them a staple of food baskets and pantries that serve budget-stretched Marylanders. But, canned foods can have a heavy salt load. If low sodium varieties are not an available option, you can improve the health factor of canned vegetables and beans by rinsing them before using them.

  • Mix it up with low-fat powdered milk. This inexpensive substitution for fresh milk has all the same nutrients but much less fat. It’s also widely available in food baskets and pantries.

For more health and budget tips, or to ask specific questions about your nutritional needs, reach out to your local UMD Extension office.



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