Published on 11/08/12

Traditional recipes get a healthy reboot

By Merritt Melancon

The holiday season often means preparing rich, traditional dishes like creamy green bean casseroles, macaroni and cheese and a whole menagerie of gooey, sweet desserts.

Some cooks may feel that they will have a family mutiny on their hands if they start cutting salt, fat or sugar from their traditional family recipes with options that have less salt, fat or sugar, but University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Nutrition and Health Specialist Connie Crawley believes you don’t have to sacrifice tradition for healthy food.

“Many traditional holiday dishes can be modified to cut back on the fat, sugar and sodium. Often if you do this one recipe at a time and do it gradually over several holidays, your family will never know you made the changes unless you tell them,” Crawley said.

Here are some ways to reduce the amount of sodium, fat and sugar hiding in traditional recipes without affecting the flavor or feel of the dish.

Cutting sodium without compromising taste

  • Canned vegetables contain far more salt than their fresh or frozen siblings. Nutritionists recommend using fresh or frozen vegetables whenever possible. If you do use canned vegetables, meats, stocks or soups in your recipes, choose the variety with the lowest sodium count.
  • Most recipes can hold their own with less salt. Cut the salt called for in a recipe by half or leave it out completely, and let people salt their own food at the table once they taste it. They may use less salt that way, Crawley said. Also, try seasoning with Mrs. DASH or herbs and spices to further enhance the flavor of the dish.

    Sweet desserts don’t always need sugar

  • There are a number of sugar substitutes on the market, and substituting one of these sweeteners for all or part of the sugar can cut the calories in many desserts. One sugar substitute, Splenda for Baking, is formulated to preserve the texture of baked goods.
  • Cooks may also try sugar-free gelatin or pudding to reduce the calories in desserts containing these ingredients.
  • Sugar substitutes are used most successfully in drinks and pie fillings, where they don’t contribute as much to the texture of the recipe. Some guests may taste a certain sweetener’s aftertaste more than others. Try several to find the one your family prefers.

    Cut the fat where you can

  • Many times the butter or oil in a recipe can be cut by one-fourth to one-third or entirely eliminated. This strategy may not work for baked goods or fried foods, but is worth trying in other dishes like casseroles. Reduced-fat margarine works well as a spread on rolls and to season cooked vegetables.
  • For salads and other recipes including mayonnaise, substitute half light mayonnaise mixed with half plain, non-fat yogurt.

    Try out the recipes before the big day

    Using sugar substitutes or cutting the fat from recipes doesn’t always work the way a cook wants. Sometimes sugar, salt and fat are in recipe because they contribute to the texture, color or volume of a recipe, and the dish will not work without them. If you’re amending a recipe for the first time — especially for baked goods and desserts — it’s worthwhile to whip up a trial batch before the big day.

    Other ways to be healthy

    If you don’t want to change your recipes, there are still ways to make the holidays a little healthier. Crawley advocates keeping serving dishes off the dining table to prevent people from automatically filling their plates with second helpings.

    She also suggests offering a bowl of fresh fruit as one dessert option for people looking to avoid an after-dinner sugar crash.

    Also, hosts might want to look beyond the kitchen to make the festivities healthier. Why not organize a family walk, outdoor game or dance party after the meal to help guests burn off all that turkey and dressing.

    “Doing something active together can build richer holiday memories for your family and friends, than just vegging out in front of the T.V. watching football games,” Crawley said.

    The holidays are traditionally a time to splurge, but choosing carefully where to splurge and then embracing healthy habits can give you more energy to celebrate and will make your holiday parties more fun.