The holidays have a way of entangling festivities with not-so-healthy food options, which can make overdoing it all too easy (we see you, cheesy potatoes and pecan pie). If you’re making gains on your weight loss journey, you don’t have to let one day throw you off track (and don’t worry, if you do overeat, it’s OK — it happens. Here’s how to bounce back).
If there are some foods you can’t do without — like those cheesy potatoes, for instance — just go with a smaller portion. Dedicate 75% or your plate for non-starchy vegetables, lean protein and other foods that you’ll feel good about, and give the last 25% to the ones that make the holidays feel complete. It’s all about balance!
To inspire you, here are healthy substitutes to seven common calorie-dense holiday foods. Make these swaps, and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a healthy holiday meal. Enjoy!
Photo by wmaster890 on iStock
Swap: Green bean casserole
For: Green beans in olive oil
While vegetables might not be at the top of your list when it comes to holiday fare, most people can benefit from eating more greens. And green beans, by themselves, pack a lot of power: They’re loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber, and a full cup has only about 30 calories.1
But green bean casserole — that’s another story. A can of cream-of-mushroom soup adds about 250 calories, mostly from low-quality vegetable oils,2 while the fried onions on top add a couple hundred more.3
Avoid all the decadent add-ons by prepping beans the old-fashioned way. There are several ways to do it, but the easiest and healthiest is to simply boil the trimmed beans for 3-4 minutes in lightly salted water. Then drain and toss with extra-virgin olive oil. Add ¼ cup of sliced almonds if you want to replace the texture of the fried onions, and then season to taste!
(If you want a healthy recipe alternative with more kick, try this: green beans and bell peppers with hot-sauce vinaigrette.)
Swap: Classic mashed potatoes
For: Cauliflower mashed “potatoes”
Cauliflower and potatoes contain roughly the same amount of belly-filling fiber, but gram for gram, cauliflower has about a third as many calories.4a-b (The cruciferous vegetable is actually one of our favorite low-calorie foods for weight loss.)
But where you can really improve your mash is by cutting down on the excessive amounts of saturated fat. Most mashed potato recipes call for loads of butter, whole milk, or both — which aren’t the healthiest options when you’re trying to lose weight.
For a healthy and flavorful side dish, mash cauliflower with salt, pepper, garlic, and a splash of olive oil. For the full recipe, click here: Simply Inspired Mashed Potatoes.
Photo by Naim Benjelloun on Pexels
Swap: Sugary cocktails
For: Sparkling water with fruit
In terms of calorie savings, this might be the single biggest swap you can make. Consider the damage of boozy drinks: A standard vodka with soda has about 200 calories,5 and eggnog has 270.6 Drink a couple of those, and you’ve consumed the equivalent of a large dinner before the actual meal is even served!
For an alcohol alternative that’s equally festive with almost no calories, muddle a handful of blueberries and raspberries in a cocktail glass, fill it with sparkling water, and garnish with fresh mint. You can even find sparkling waters flavored with natural, calorie-free flavoring.
Photo by ElenaBoronina on iStock
Swap: Ranch dressing
For: Yogurt dip
It’s nice to put out something for dunking baby carrots and broccoli florets. But ranch dressing? What is in it, anyway? When you take a close look at the ingredient label, you’ll find that ranch is basically vegetable oil loaded with thickeners and preservatives.7
This year, upgrade your dip by putting out a bowl of nonfat Greek yogurt, which is loaded with protein and calcium. Blend in minced herbs, dill, and garlic, and add a squirt of lemon juice. No need to measure — just toss everything in until you like the way it looks. Yogurt is more forgiving than you think! Add salt and pepper to taste, and dip in good health.
If you’re wondering the appropriate serving size to stay on track with your health and weight loss goals — we recommend enjoying about ½ cup of yogurt dip.
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash
Swap: Candied yams
For: Roasted sweet potatoes
How did “candied” food land on the dinner table before dessert?! Between brown and granulated sugars, you might have more than a cup of sugar in your candied yam recipe. If you sprinkle marshmallows on top, it could add up to over a thousand calories of extra sugar.8a-b
So try ditching the candied yams for a healthy recipe alternative. Roasted sweet potatoes are every bit as colorful, festive, and delicious — and you don’t have to add a single gram of sugar. They’re naturally sweet!
To make them, chop the potatoes into 1-inch cubes, toss them in a little olive oil, and add a seasoning mix of your choice (Cumin and rosemary work great here, while dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg can add seasonal flair.) Use a baking sheet to put them in the oven at 400 F to 450 F, checking occasionally to make sure they don’t burn. After 30-40 minutes, they’ll be ready to serve.
Looking for other foolproof ways to reduce your sugar intake? Check out these 10 tips.
Swap: Glazed carrots
For: Shredded carrot salad
Guess what? Carrots don’t need sugar to taste delicious! Prepare them healthfully in one of two ways: Either roast them the same way you would with sweet potatoes, above, or shred them into a raw salad with pistachios, garlic, and lemon. By nixing the glaze, you’ll swap out empty calories for healthy ones from the olive oil, and you’ll earn an extra health kick from the natural herbs and seasonings.
Check out our carrot salad with coriander recipe for step-by-step details to make this flavorful and healthy dish!
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Swap: Pecan pie
For: Pumpkin pie
You don’t have to eat pie, of course. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, or your stomach’s full from dinner, just skip dessert. Do what will make you feel best.
But if you just can’t do without a slice of pie during the holiday season, pumpkin pie is a smart swap that’s worth keeping in mind. According to USDA data on common recipes, a slice of pecan pie has 464 calories.9 A same-size slice of pumpkin pie, on the other hand, has 374 calories10 — plus slightly more fiber and protein! That’s a savings of 90 calories and added nutrients — without having to forgo dessert. Just try to go easy on the whipped cream topping and aim for 1/8 of an 8-inch pie if you want to keep this dessert weight loss-friendly.
To discover more ways that Jenny Craig can help you with food swaps and weight loss, contact Jenny Craig for a free 15-minute weight loss consultation.
[8a] https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/343932/nutrients (836 calories in a cup of brown sugar)
[8b] https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/344110/nutrients (146 calories for each cup of miniature marshmallows)
Clint Carter is a reporter with more than a decade of experience in health, nutrition, and fitness, and his stories have appeared in Men's Health, Women's Health, Shape, and other fitness-driven magazines. His reporting is driven by the belief that foods are rarely ever "good" or "bad," but rather, their value depends on how they fit into an overall diet. His favorite meals are those consumed at a campsite, and much of his time is spent cycling and hiking around his home in New York's Hudson Valley.
Favorite healthy snack: sardines and avocado on toast
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
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