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Eight Tricks to Make Your Favorite Holiday Foods Healthier

Almost as exciting as spending time with friends and family this time of year is eating our favorite holiday comfort foods. Although holiday dishes such as casseroles, macaroni and cheese and greens are satisfying, they’re not always the most nutritious. Often, they’re chock-full of saturated fats, sodium and sugar, and consuming too much can contribute to certain chronic health conditions. 


It’s a fact that the experts at North Sarah Food Hub know well. The food hub grows and distributes healthy food on a 240-acre property called Confluence Farms located in unincorporated north St. Louis County. The hub provides meals to those in need and works with BJC HealthCare to address food insecurity across the St. Louis region. Robin Ray, its director of culinary operations, says your standard holiday fare isn’t bad per se — it’s all about how the dishes are prepared. Still, a healthier version doesn’t have to strip away everything you love about the food.


“Food is comfort,” Ray said. “Food is everything, and that’s our mission. That’s why we’re so passionate and stand so strongly behind what we create because there’s nothing but love in our food. We want you to be able to enjoy it, and we don’t want to add to the problem.”

Below, check out eight recommendations from the food hub for upping the nutritional value of some of our favorite holiday foods.


Cooked turkey with a Christmas tree in the background

1. Smoke your turkey.

Smoking your turkey on the grill is a healthier alternative to deep-frying

 it, and this method adds flavor and prevents the turkey from drying out. Before you smoke it, brining your turkey tenderizes it and adds flavor. Use sea salt or low-sodium salt to control the salt content.


“You can make brine with fresh herbs,” Ray said. “You can use apple juice, sage, cinnamon, star anise, fresh oranges, fresh peppercorn, celery and onions. It's a harmonious event when you let the turkey sit in this.” 


2. Rethink your sweet potato casserole.

“Sweet potatoes become a poor choice when we add all of the extra sugars and marshmallows on top to make it candied yams,” Ray said. “You can make the same dish and take out all of the negative ingredients.” Try a sweet potato and rutabaga dish in which the vegetables are tossed in monkfruit sweetener and cinnamon and drizzled with a small amount of organic maple syrup. “You can also use vegan butter, or you can substitute the vegan butter and use grapeseed oil instead,” she said.


3. Consider a vegan macaroni and cheese. 

You can swap the dish’s typical ingredients with green lentil pasta, vegan cheese, vegan cream and plant-based butter, making it lactose-free and low in trans and saturated fats.


4. Steer clear of stuffing or dressing. 

“It’s highly concentrated in carbohydrates because of the cornbread in it,” Ray said. “You can make a savory dish with rice that is earthy and that beautifully compliments the turkey that goes into the dish.” Or, you can make farro using the same ingredients as dressing for an herbaceous and savory dish. “It’s still going to give you the heartiness you’re looking for,” she said. “You’re eating a superfood instead of a starch, which is essentially eating grass.”


5. Opt for cornbread muffins.

If you can’t pass up cornbread for the holiday, cornbread muffins are a healthier approach than cutting big pieces of cornbread in a 9-inch pan.


“Your proportions will be more controlled,” Ray said. “Whether you’re making the cornbread from scratch or using a mix, you can use a plant-based milk or lactose-free milk and use vegan butter to rub around your pan and to top the cornbread.”


6. Lean on poultry for your greens. 

Ham hocks, pork jowls and fatbacks give greens their signature flavor, but they’re not the healthiest. “You can make your own chicken stock to use as liquid gold to sauté the greens,” Ray said. “This creates a traditional ‘pot liquor’ to make greens healthy and that isn’t killing it by adding fat.”


7. Make homemade cranberry sauce.

“When you make your own cranberry sauce, you’re controlling what you’re eating and how you’re eating,” Ray said. Try combining cranberries, monkfruit sweetener or agave nectar and orange juice and simmering it in a pot to make cranberry sauce. “Fresher is always better,” Ray said. “You want to know what you’re putting in your body. We don’t know what some of those additives are in canned cranberry sauce. There’s an old saying: If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it.” If your sauce turns out too chunky, try pureeing it and then refrigerating. The natural sugars will help it congeal and you’ll end up with a smoother texture. 


8. Tinker with dessert.

North Sarah Food Hub is experimenting with desserts and testing out a sweet potato pie to replicate a healthy alternative. An apple crisp made with an oat topping or chia seed pudding made with organic coconut milk are other nutritious dessert options.


To learn more about North Sarah Food Hub and its food distribution services, visit northsarah.org. To learn more about BJC’s work in community health improvement, visit our site.

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