Holiday feasts should be harvest celebrations grounded in the bounty of late-fall and early-winter produce. But too often they revolve around fats, sugars and processed starches.
"You're maxed out on carbs," says Sandy Dowling, chef and owner of The Willows in Central Point. "A lot of people just don't eat enough fiber."
They may be hearty, but many dishes at the holiday table are low in nutrients for their calorie content, says Medford nutrition counselor Kellie Hill.
"Some of the foods that are traditional are not our healthiest options — mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy," says Hill, owner of The Right Plan, which frequently hosts cooking classes.
Yet just about every aspect of the holiday meal can be made more healthful, say Hill and Dowling. And the trick isn't using low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar, processed ingredients, they say. Introducing more nutritionally sound whole foods to the spread, as well as incorporating them in favorite dishes, is the place to start. And choosing in-season fruits and vegetables always helps to ensure eaters' health, they say.
"Now is the perfect time to experience collard greens," says Hill.
"I've been putting more nuts and mushrooms into things I do," says Dowling.
Dowling and Hill come at cooking from different perspectives, but their tastes align on a few fronts. First, no one knows that the cook added steamed and pureed cauliflower to the mashed potatoes. Second, they both favor coconut — albeit a high-fat ingredient — in the kitchen.
Dowling roasts unsweetened, flaked coconut in a 350-degree oven, finely grinds it in the food processor and substitutes it for some of the flour in her pie crust. The technique also allows her to reduce the quantities of other fats and sweeteners in the recipe.
Hill uses coconut oil to roast sweet potatoes with rosemary, cinnamon and nutmeg, instead of topping them with brown sugar and butter for Thanksgiving.
"There were no sweet foods," says Hill. "Everything on our table was savory ... until pie."
When it comes to pie, says the nutrition counselor, have a slice, particularly from one that maximizes the healthful ingredient pumpkin. Pie is still rich and moist, says Dowling, with more pumpkin, low-fat milk instead of cream and egg whites instead of whole eggs.
"You're putting in the good things and keeping out more of the bad things."
Pies and other desserts, says Mary Shaw, can be a wholesome part of the holiday meal when they emphasize fruit: namely pears, apples and cranberries. The culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op urges customers to prepare upside-down cake with cranberries and cornmeal, apple-pear crisp with fresh cranberries or buttermilk pie with pear-brandy sauce.
"We're moving away from the really rich desserts," says Shaw, explaining that buttermilk is naturally low-fat.
The Co-op's "elegant comfort food" menu, featured in its November/December newsletter, also promotes seasonal produce — or fruits and vegetables that were preserved over the summer and, months later, can be transformed into holiday appetizers with little or no effort.
"So many of us have a family tradition, and it may not have anything to do with what's seasonal," says Shaw, explaining that eating green beans — harvested in summer — at Thanksgiving has always struck her as strange, not to mention the custom of combining them with canned soup.
When Shaw makes the vegetable side dish for a holiday spread, she hopes to introduce diners to a healthful food they've never tried — or to reverse negative opinions about unpopular produce. Beet and kale salad with feta cheese is a favorite, as well as potato-cabbage gratin, rich and flavorful with just half a cup of Parmesan cheese.
"Use the cheese as a garnish instead of a main ingredient," says Shaw. "You can get a lot of mileage out of little flavor bursts like that."
Dowling replaces the richness of butter in mashed potatoes with stock simmered from the turkey neck and entrails. She loves Italian-seasoned pork sausage in her stuffing but in recent years has cut the quantity in half. She uses extra-spicy sausage to maximize the pork flavor and makes up for the total quantity of meat with wild chanterelle mushrooms.
Sometimes cutting fat is simpler than swapping ingredients. Hill recommends lining cake pans with baking paper instead of greasing them. And if baking is a favorite family activity for her clients, Hill doesn't dissuade them but preaches moderation.
"One cookie — not a plate — or give 'em away."
And, of course, if one cookie turns into two or three — or a dozen — it's not the catalyst for putting healthful habits on hold until the new year.
"It's only a couple days each month," says Hill. "It's not a license to give up the whole holiday season."