Holiday meal hacks to keep you healthy (and your budget)

It’s that time of year when we test the weight limits of our buffets and dining tables, when we try to squeeze just one more serving dish between the places.

But those holiday 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 struggling with cardiovascular disease or diabetes. And if you’re the host, please all of your guests, from foodies to well-being lovers to those with dietary restrictions, without roasting your bank account along with the turkey.

Fortunately, Marylanders have access to tons 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, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and senior advisor for Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, shared her tips for making healthy, inexpensive choices during the holidays.

Be intentional

One of the easiest things to say but the hardest to do is to control your portions. Whether you’re watching your carb, sugar, salt or fat intake, thinking ahead is key. These simple tips can help:

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

  • Talk more, stay less. Remember you’re at the party to socialize and see people you may not have seen in a while, McCormick stressed. So go to the food table, get a plate of food and then go to join the conversation. Standing around the table and chatting leads to picking food.

  • Go for what’s special. Skipping through everyday foods can help reduce overall enjoyment. Knowing that you can eat mashed potatoes every day but really want that corn pudding your aunt makes, you can probably skip the mashed potatoes.

  • Be small minded. Serve modest portions. Some people can just take multiple small cookies, but most won’t. Serving mini muffins and small cookies instead of full-size items can help guests control their portions.

Trim the fat

All the rich holiday treats can test a heart-healthy diet. But there are choices to cut the fat when you’re a chef. Choose low-fat ingredients when available and consider these additional ideas:

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

  • Separate the drops. Place your turkey breast in the freezer or refrigerator for a few minutes to separate and render the fat and render it before making the sauce. Most people may not make their own sauce, but you can also buy low-fat sauces that taste just as good.

Curb your carbs

  • Share the board. For people with diabetes, focusing on serving size is key. We like to think of it as the half, quarter, quarter method, McCoy said, explaining that carbs should be limited to one quarter of the dinner plate. Proteins should take up a quarter, and green vegetables should take up the rest. You don’t have to eliminate carbs completely, she said. But they have to be balanced with other things. Only a small part can still be satisfactory.

  • Offer green pages. For hosts, adding side dishes like Brussels sprouts and green beans to the table helps guests achieve that balance.

  • Create surprising backgrounds. Health food blogs and recipe sites are full of creative substitutions for high-carb meals. Two popular substitutes for mashed potatoes are parsnip mash and cauliflower mash. Add garlic and other flavorings to them for a satisfying side. (Just turn on the butter and cream.)

Be healthy and on a budget

Serving up a holiday feast isn’t cheap, but choosing inexpensive ingredients can help your pocketbook enjoy the holidays, too.

  • Reach for the cans, but don’t forget to rinse. Canned vegetables can be a great inexpensive alternative to fresh or frozen options. Their lower cost and longer shelf life make them a staple in food baskets and pantries serving budget Marylanders. But canned foods can have a high salt load. If low-sodium varieties aren’t an available option, you can boost the health factor of canned vegetables and beans by rinsing them before use.

  • Mix it with low-fat milk powder. This inexpensive substitute for fresh milk has all the same nutrients, but much less fat. It is also widely available in food baskets and pantries.

For more health and budgeting tips or to ask specific questions about your dietary needs, reach out to your local UMD extension office.

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