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Putting Your Heart (Health) into the Holidays

For many people, the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s good for the heart and soul to spend time with friends and family. And, while enjoying favorite foods is often part of the festivities, it's a good idea to be mindful about making healthy choices and maintaining balance.

Whether you’re preparing the feast or attending a holiday gathering as a guest, follow the tips below to help you eat, drink and be joyful without putting stress on your heart. And be sure to scroll down to find ways to save money on meals during the holiday season.

Jump to Seasonal Recipes

It's all about moderation

“The best way to live a heart-healthy lifestyle throughout the year — and during the holidays — is through healthy eating and exercising,” says James Smith, MD, BJC Medical Group cardiologist.

When it comes to diet, he recommends watching portion sizes and total calories when you indulge in your favorite holiday treats, and going easy on alcohol. “During this holiday season, try to avoid overindulging in snacks that appear at your office and eating too much from the buffets at holiday parties," he says. “It's really about balance and moderation."

Speaking of moderation, he notes that it's also important to be cautious about excess consumption of alcohol during the holidays, which can lead to cardiac rhythm problems, such as atrial fibrillation.

In terms of exercise, Dr. Smith recommends regularly participating in an aerobic activity that raises the heart rate for a sustained period of time. "This would include activities such as brisk walking, jogging, bicycling or swimming," he says.

And, at this time of year, why not try ice-skating, a touch football game with the family or an impromptu dance party at home?

Dr. Smith also notes that having a check-up and addressing any risk factors are keys to overall heart health. “The most important thing to do to lower one’s risk of heart disease would be to get checked by your primary care physician or cardiologist to assess lipids, blood pressure and other risk factors to see if there are any underlying risks,” Dr. Smith says.

“In truth, a heart-healthy lifestyle should be something to strive for all the time, which means exercising on a daily basis and striving to eat healthy every day,” he adds.

'Lighten up' your holiday table

In addition to experiencing calorie overload during the holidays, it can be hard to maintain the quality of our diet, says Missouri Baptist Medical Center dietitian nutritionist Sherri Hoyt, RDN, LD.

"Too much added sugar, salt, saturated fat and alcohol can leave you feeling sluggish and missing out on important nutrients," Hoyt says. "Plan simple substitutes in cooking so the holiday foods you indulge in are a little more healthful."

She offers the following tips to lighten up traditional holiday favorites:

Dressing — Use whole grain bread and less of it (or whole grains such as barley and wild rice), then add extra onion and celery. Sauté them in olive oil instead of butter and add extra moisture with reduced-sodium broth. Add a sprinkle of dried fruits and toasted nuts for a burst of flavor, texture and nutrition.

Vegetables — In your holiday cooking in general, double the amount of vegetables called for in recipes to add nutrients you may be missing. (You'll also save money, since vegetables are less expensive than meat.)

So, stir more green beans into that famous casserole or, when planning your holiday menu, simply trade a starchy side dish for a new veggie. Make that new roasted Brussels sprouts recipe you’ve wanted to try. And remember that frozen veggies are a nutritious and inexpensive option.

Mashed potatoes — Start with Yukon gold potatoes because they have a natural buttery flavor. Cook them with a few cloves of garlic for a layer of flavor. Then skip the cream and butter but keep them light and fluffy by mashing in buttermilk or plain, fat-free Greek yogurt (the yogurt will add flavor similar to sour cream).

Pumpkin pie — Keep your pumpkin pie on the light side by making it with evaporated skim milk, less sugar and an extra sprinkle of spice for fewer calories and more flavor. And, if you’re one of the many who eat pumpkin pie just for the filling, consider skipping the crust completely — you’ll save more than 100 calories per slice (or just use pressed graham cracker crumbs as your crust).

Eggnog – Lighten yours by starting with low-fat eggnog, then go 50/50 (50% low-fat eggnog plus 50% unsweetened almond milk). Sprinkle with grated nutmeg for a holiday treat that’s still creamy and decadent.

Dips – In favorite recipes, try lighter versions of mayo made with olive oil, substitute plain fat-free Greek yogurt for sour cream and then control calories: Dip two veggies for every one chip/cracker/starchy dipper. Think: veggie-veggie-chip.

Veggie tray — Dress your holiday tray with unexpected selections like red and green bell pepper strips, sugar snap peas, jicama or slightly steamed asparagus spears — beyond the usual carrot and celery sticks.

Herbs and spices — Use herbs and spices for great flavor and good health. They’re a concentrated source of antioxidants and can help reduce or replace salt in favorite dishes.

For example, flavor sweet potatoes with nutmeg or allspice, stir oregano into pasta sauce, add a pinch of red pepper to salad dressing for an unexpected kick, top avocado toast with dill, use “everything bagel seasoning” to top salmon before baking or sprinkle onto a green salad for satisfying crunch, mix smoked paprika with olive oil and toss with cooked new potatoes, add pumpkin pie spice to coffee grounds before brewing or stir into peanut, almond or sunflower-seed butters.

Plan ahead — and you’ll dish up better nutrition for less cost

Planning is the key to less stress over the holidays and helps you keep tabs on your food budget. Last-minute grocery runs are expensive, and drive-through or take-out meals can take a toll on your health goals.

The calendar fills up quickly over the holidays. Start filling your pantry, refrigerator and freezer with everything you need to pull together a healthy meal in a flash.

Keep these low-cost, nutrient-filled staples on hand:

Low-sodium canned tomatoes – Use as a foundation for quick salsa, add to sauteed frozen spinach and garlic, use as a base for soup or stretch jarred pasta sauce.

Toss pouched tuna or salmon with cooked pasta, fresh tomatoes, garlic and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette for an entrée-style pasta salad.

Cook whole grains, brown rice or quinoa in large batches, cool, then package in small zip top bags, flattened in the freezer. These can be used as a foundation for a "power bowl" meal, quick side or bed for roasted veggies or stir-fry.

Make mealtime a cinch when you cook once to eat twice during the busy holiday season.

  1. Grill chicken breasts for tonight and turn the leftovers into chicken salad for tomorrow.

  2. Roast extra veggies. Serve half as tonight’s side dish and puree the rest into a simple soup for later.

  3. Combine cooked brown rice and ground turkey breast. Use half for filling red bell peppers and season the rest for taco salad.

Other tips to reduce food costs:

Instead of hosting the holiday dinner, gather family and friends for a leisurely brunch.

  • Brunch foods are often less expensive. Host the event as a potluck to offset meal costs, too. And potluck means less work for you and more time to enjoy family and friends.

  • Include a build-your-own overnight oats bar with fun stir-ins and toppings. For example, stir in cocoa powder and top with diced banana and walnuts; stir in pie spice and top with diced apple and pecans; or stir in peanut butter and top with diced strawberries. Or make baked oatmeal.

  • Serve mini egg frittatas with a variety of colorful veggie combos, such as bell peppers, mushrooms, spinach, shredded carrot, zucchini and broccoli. Eggs are a relatively inexpensive protein.

  • Make fruit salad using less expensive canned (packed in water or juice) and seasonal fruits like apples, pears, grapes and tangerines; pineapple, kiwi and bananas are year-round staples.

  • Serve the fixings for breakfast burritos. Include whole-grain or corn tortillas, scrambled eggs, black or pinto beans, tomatoes, roasted sweet potato cubes, avocado, light cheese, salsa and plain, fat-free Greek yogurt in place of traditional sour cream.

  • Keep a lid on cost and nutrition high on the list when you bake from scratch. Try using whole-wheat pastry flour for part of traditional flour, add fruit for sweetness and stir in nuts for muffins and quick breads. Offer defrosted frozen fruit with a drizzle of maple syrup to top pancakes and waffles.

Check out canned beans. They are convenient and pack inexpensive plant-based protein plus heart-healthy fiber and potassium. However, like other canned foods, they can pack a sodium punch. Minimize sodium with “no-salt-added” or “less-sodium” varieties. Rinsing and draining canned beans reduces their sodium by 40%, too. Here's how to dress up beans for the holidays:

  • Stretch and embellish ready-made fresh salsa (fresh salsa in the refrigerated section of the produce aisle tastes fresher than jarred varieties off the shelf) with black beans, mandarin oranges and diced avocado.

  • Roast chickpeas for a tasty, crunchy party appetizer — season with smoked paprika and cumin or cinnamon and a dusting of sugar.

  • Build a charcuterie board around a trio of homemade white bean hummus — stir in roasted tomatoes and basil, canned pumpkin and a drizzle of maple syrup, or minced garlic and grated parmesan cheese. Make it festive by topping each hummus variety with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of dried herbs or spices, chopped nuts or crumbled cheese. Serve with a variety of veggies, whole-grain crackers or pita.

Don’t overlook the potential of leftovers.

  • Throwing away leftovers or letting them hang out too long adds up to lost food dollars. Plan how you will use leftovers in advance.

  • Immediately freeze extra turkey and ham — which is perfect for soups, casseroles and hot sandwiches later in the season. Make turkey salad or add ham to omelets.

  • Turn leftover cranberry sauce into a tasty salad dressing with the addition of olive oil and cider vinegar, use as a topping for pancakes or add to a morning smoothie to add seasonal flavor.

  • Puree leftover roasted vegetables with low-sodium broth, milk and seasonings for a tasty soup. Thin leftover mashed potatoes with broth to make a hearty potato soup.

  • Toss leftover rolls into the food processor to make fresh bread crumbs and freeze.

Go non-traditional this year. If the cost of turkey is more than you'd like to spend, make lasagna, build your own pizza or serve up a series of soups — try chicken noodle, basil lentil and three-bean chili.

Keeping diabetes in check during the holidays

Not only does November mark the start of the holiday season as we celebrate Thanksgiving — it's also National Diabetes Month. So how can you enjoy the festive foods of the season and still keep your diabetes in check?

Simple! Plan now to fill half of your plate with carb-friendly, non-starchy veggies. Often referred to as “free vegetables,” non-starchy vegetables dish up loads of flavor, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and filling fiber without lots of calories and carbs.

Starchy vegetables (such as peas, corn, potatoes and winter squash) contain carbs similar to the amount in grains and “starches” such as bread, pasta and rice. Count these veggies as part of your carb allowance at meals.

In comparison, non-starchy vegetables are low in carbs and calories; generally, a 1-cup raw portion or ½-cup cooked portion dishes up just 25 calories and 5 grams of carbs.

Add up the numbers. Unless you eat more than 2 cups of raw or 1 cup of cooked non-starchy veggies as a meal or snack, you may not need to count the carbs in your meal plan.

Artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, greens, mushrooms, peppers, radishes, summer squash, tomatoes and turnips are some examples of non-starchy vegetables.

Keep your veggies lean and “clean” by not cluttering them with a blanket of creamy or cheese sauces, butter or coated and fried. Fresh, frozen and reduced-salt canned veggies are all good options.

Seasonal recipes made healthier

Butternut Squash Stuffing

This butternut squash stuffing recipe is a delicious mix of tender butternut squash, Italian sausage, crisp bread, and a melody of fall-themed herbs and spices. 
Healthier version: Replace chicken broth with unsalted vegetable stock. Add 2-3 cups chopped apple. Eliminate the Italian sausage. Use whole-wheat bread instead of Italian bread and use olive oil in place of butter. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 butternut squash, peeled

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1/2 lb. Italian sausage

  • 1 medium diced yellow onion

  • 3 stalks of diced celery

  • 1/2 cup salted butter, melted and cooled

  • 2 eggs

  • 12 sprigs fresh chopped sage

  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1 loaf Italian bread, dried out and cubed (roughly 8 cups)*

  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth, more or less depending on bread

  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray. Set both aside. 

Peel butternut squash with a peeler and place in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat squash in the microwave for 5 minutes or until soft. Allow to cool, then cut squash in half. Remove seeds with a spoon and cut squash into 1-inch cubes. 

Add olive oil to bowl and toss squash to coat. Once coated, pour squash onto prepared baking sheet and spread out into an even layer. 

Bake for 10-15 minutes or until squash has softened (test with a fork). Once baked, set squash aside. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook and crumble sausage until no longer pink, about 10-12 minutes. Once cooked, drain and discard any grease. 

Return skillet to heat and add onion and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, for 4-6 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Remove saucepan from heat and set aside. 

In a 13-quart mixing bowl, add the melted butter, eggs, sage, thyme, salt, butter, nutmeg and allspice. Whisk well to combine. 

Add cooked squash, cooked sausage and vegetables, and breadcrumbs to bowl, then use a spatula to gently toss ingredients together. 

Working in batches, slowly pour a little chicken broth over the stuffing, then gently mix. If needed, add more chicken broth and mix again. Only use enough chicken broth so that the bread is moistened but not soaked. 

Pour the butternut squash stuffing mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread into an even layer. If desired, top with chopped walnuts. 

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until heated through. Serve immediately. 

https://homemadehooplah.com/butternut-squash-stuffing/

Courtesy of Brittany Lamm, RDN, LDN, Alton Memorial Hospital clinical dietitian 

Green bean avocado casserole

This recipe eliminates the sodium-filled cream-of-mushroom soup and adds heart-healthy avocados to create the creamy texture of traditional green bean casserole! It’s considered vegan for anyone trying to stick to a vegan diet. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. fresh green beans, rinsed, trimmed, cut in half

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 2 cups white button mushrooms, rinsed and sliced (or about 6 ounces whole mushrooms)

  • 1 Tbsp. water

  • 1 tsp. black pepper or more

  • 1 1/2 ripe fresh Hass avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, divided

  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk

  • 1 cup store bought crispy onions or homemade recipe below

Ingredients for homemade crispy onions:

  • 1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)

  • 1 Tbsp. almond milk

  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

  • 2 Tbsp. oil

  • Salt for seasoning

Other optional toppings:

  • 1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and crushed (optional)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 

In a medium-sized pan, bring water and plenty of salt to boil. Cook green beans in boiling salted water until tender, about 5-7 minutes to blanch them. Taste green beans; they should be al dente but not hard to bite. Remove green beans from the boiling water and set aside. 

In a medium bowl, place one avocado and almond milk. Use a hand blender or mixer and mix until smooth and frothy. 

In a large skillet, heat olive oil and sauté garlic and mushrooms for about 5 minutes on medium high. Season with salt and plenty of black pepper. Stir and reduce heat. Add a tablespoon of water to the mushrooms. 

Add smooth avocado mixture to the saucepan. Stir and simmer until smooth. This will take about 2 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust salt if needed. Avocado sauce will be smooth and thick, absorbing the mushroom flavor. 

Place green beans in a baking dish. Top with mushroom sauce and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, add crispy onions and bake for another 5 minutes. 

Remove from oven and garnish with remaining diced avocado and serve. 

Homemade crispy onions

In a bowl, mix onions and almond milk. Stir and let it sit for about 3 minutes. Drain and place flour on a plate. Add onion in small batches at a time and mix with the flour. Season with salt and black pepper and toss well. 

In a small skillet, heat two tablespoons of oil and fry onions until golden brown. This will take about 10 minutes. Stir fry all sides. Remove from the pan, and place on top of paper towel and set aside. 

Optional topping: In a small pan, warm 1/3 cup walnuts for 1-3 minutes on high heat. Set walnuts aside and crush them. Top green bean casserole with crushed walnuts. 

For a gluten free dish, use gluten free flour or chickpea flour. 

https://loveonetoday.com/recipe/green-bean-avocado-casserole/

Courtesy of Alyssa Trautman, MS, RD, LD, Parkland Health Center clinical dietitian 

Cinnamon Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Apples

This recipe is a great substitute for sweet potato casserole. 

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, 4 cups, cut into 1-inch cubes

  • 2 medium apples, 2 cups, cut into 1-inch cubes

  • 3 Tbsp coconut oil, melted

  • 1 Tsp salt

  • 2 Tbsp pure maple syrup

  • 1 Tsp cinnamon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. 

Grease a large baking pan. 

In a large bowl, toss cubed sweet potatoes with 2 Tbsp melted coconut oil, salt and stir until coated. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. 

While sweet potatoes are baking, stir the remaining 1 Tbsp of coconut oil, maple syrup and cinnamon into the apples. 

When the sweet potatoes start to brown, remove them from the oven and add the apples. Return to the oven and bake another 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. 

Once the sweet potatoes and apples have browned and the syrup on them has caramelized, remove from the oven and enjoy. 

Courtesy of Jeania Byerly, RD, CDE, Parkland Health Center clinical dietitian

Lemon Green Beans

Microwave-in-the bag beans make it a cinch to add veggies to your meal! Simply “finish” the beans with fresh lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil for just-picked freshness! 

Ingredients:

  • 1 (12-ounce) bag fresh, microwave-in-the-bag green beans

  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

  • Juice from 1/4 of a small lemon

  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

  • Fresh or dried rosemary

  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Pierce green bean bag with fork, and microwave on high for 4-5 minutes or until tender. Let stand 1-3 minutes. Open bag carefully as beans will be hot and bag will be full of steam. Place cooked beans in a medium bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Toss gently to coat; add pine nuts. Season with rosemary, salt and pepper. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings. 

Cook’s note: Unbagged, fresh and trimmed green beans can be prepared by steaming in the microwave. Sprinkle with water and microwave in covered glass dish; drain before tossing with remaining ingredients. Try haricot verts (thin French green beans) for a super tender and tasty variety! 

Per serving: 73 Calories, 5 g Fat, 1 g Saturated Fat, 0 mg Cholesterol, 152 mg Sodium, 6 g Carbohydrate, 2 g Fiber, 0 g Added Sugar, 2 g Protein

Courtesy of Sherri Hoyt, RDN, LD, Missouri Baptist Medical Center outpatient dietitian

Pumpkin Pie Dip

Serves 10 (1/4 cup per serving) 

1 serving is 35 calories, 3 grams carbs, 5 grams protein 

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups non-fat vanilla Greek yogurt

  • 1 cup pure pumpkin

  • 1 tsp vanilla

  • 1 tsp cinnamon

  • 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice

Directions:

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl until well combined. Serve with sliced apples, strawberries or graham crackers for dipping. 

Why it’s heart healthy: Too much added sugar and saturated fats from desserts can lead to increased triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Using non-fat Greek yogurt in desserts provides extra protein, which can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Pairing this with sliced apples can also help you get your fruit in for the day, which can be difficult during the holidays. 

Courtesy of Maddie Puto, MS, RD, LD, Christian Hospital outpatient dietitian 

Dark Chocolate Avocado Truffles 

These decadent truffles are made with a handful of ingredients, including dark chocolate and creamy avocado! Rich in healthy plant-based fats, mashed avocado replaces the usual butter in this recipe. 

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup mashed, ripe avocado (about 3/4 small avocado)

  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

  • 2 tablespoons dark cocoa powder

  • Nuts, powdered sugar, melted chocolate (optional)

Directions:

Place avocado in small mixing bowl; whip with electric mixer until smooth. 

Place chocolate chips in a small, microwave-safe bowl; microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Stir; continue to microwave, stirring every 15-30 seconds until chocolate is smooth and completely melted. 

Add whipped avocado, vanilla and salt to melted chocolate; stir until smooth and well combined. Cover; refrigerate 15 minutes until slightly firm. 

Line baking sheet with waxed paper. Drop truffle mixture by heaping teaspoons onto baking sheet, making 20 truffles. Let rest 5 minutes at room temperature before shaping into balls; roll in cocoa powder. Coat hands with cooking spray before shaping, reapplying as necessary. Avoid over-working the truffles. Serve at room temperature and store leftovers, covered, in refrigerator. Makes 20 truffles. 

Cook’s note: For a large batch of truffles, triple recipe and spread mixture into 8”x8” pan lined with nonstick foil. Cover and refrigerate until mixture is firm; cut into small squares and serve. 

Per truffle: 50 Calories, 4 g Fat, 2 g Saturated Fat, 0 mg Cholesterol, 24 mg Sodium, 4 g Carbohydrate, 1 g Fiber, 0 g Added Sugar 1 g Protein

Courtesy of Sherri Hoyt, RDN, LD, Missouri Baptist Medical Center outpatient dietitian 

Sparkling Cranberry Mocktail

Serves 4 (8-ounce servings) 
1 serving is 40 calories and 7 grams of sugar 

Ingredients:

  • 2 bottles kombucha of choice (cranberry or tart cherry would work best)

  • 1/2 cup sugar-free cranberry juice

  • 1 inch of fresh ginger

  • 1 spring of fresh rosemary

  • Cranberry for garnish

Directions:

In a pitcher, muddle ginger and rosemary with the end of a wooden spoon. Add cranberry juice and kombucha, and stir gently. 
Fill a glass with ice and serve. Garnish with ginger, rosemary or cranberries 

Why it’s heart healthy: The CDC recommends no more than 1 alcoholic drink per day for women and no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day for men. It’s easy to go overboard on alcohol during the holidays. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure or stroke. Try bringing a mocktail to reduce the amount of calories and sugars that are found in alcoholic drinks. 

https://therealfooddietitians.com/sparkling-cranberry-kombucha-mocktail/

Courtesy of Maddie Puto, MS, RD, LD, Christian Hospital outpatient dietitian

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