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The Big Spread

How to Keep the Holiday Spread From Adding to Yours

By Sean P. Johnson

Chris Dearing loves cooking for the holidays.

Thanksgiving is the big event for Dearing, where he will prepare for a small group – about 10 to 12 people – consisting of family and friends.
That includes friends who make an annual pilgrimage from New York to spend the holiday weekend with him.

Of course, he likes to put together a holiday feast with all the trimmings: Turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes with butter and
cream and, one of his personal favorites, cornbread made with bacon grease.

“When I cook for the holidays, I go all out,” says Dearing, who is an account executive with Wisconsin Public Radio. “Thanksgiving is really
the big one for me.”

That’s going to change this year. Dearing will still be hosting a Thanksgiving get together, and he will still prepare a festive holiday feast. But this year he will place an emphasis on creating a meal that not only looks and tastes good, but is also healthier than previous years.

“I love all of that stuff, which is going to make it really hard,” Dearing says. “then again, who wants to eat a 2,000 calorie meal and feel terrible later?”

Dearing’s dilemma has become increasingly prevalent. As the holidays approach, nostalgia and tradition permeate the season. Many of those traditions are food traditions, with memories tied to dishes that have been passed down through generations.

At the same time, many Fox Cities residents have adopted healthier lifestyles, which can often create a conflict when it comes to making grandma’s cookies or a great aunt’s Swedish meatballs.

But it doesn’t have to, says Lawrence London, the executive chef for Thedacare and a co-owner of Big Tomatoes restaurant.

While the holiday season certainly poses a conflict between living a healthy lifestyle and the family food traditions many associate with the holidays, there are several steps you can take to enjoy your holiday meals without paying for it in the first part of the new year, he says.

The “too easy” answer is watching your portions, he says, which, while good advice, does not fully address the challenge.

“It is the holidays, and it is a special time where we indulge in a lot of traditions,” London says. “With some of these traditional recipes, there is just no way to make them ‘healthy.’ It’s OK to have them, just watch out for how much.”

The rest of the solution comes down to understanding how you can make the dishes that folks love without relying on the ingredients that will folks will regret later – primarily salt, fat and sugar. London says our reliance on processed foods has hampered our creativity in the kitchen and clogged our palettes from really tasting food.

To truly create a holiday feast balanced between traditional treats and good health, London advises getting back to basics in the kitchen, dusting off original recipes and looking for opportunities to go back to a dishes’ original ingredients, or look for opportunities to use healthier ingredients.

Mashed potatoes, for example, are a staple of holiday meals. Instead of using cream and butter – otherwise known as fat – why not olive oil and a little chicken broth? The potatoes will taste the same if not better, and the fats have been reduced.

Chances are, no one will notice the difference, says Lisa Lang Riegel, a Fox Cities-area dentist and dedicated foodie. Riegel not only hosts family gatherings of more than 20 people during the holiday season, she also throws a martini party featuring many traditional and requested favorites.

Riegel collects reams of recipes in three-ring binders in her kitchen and keeps detailed notes of each party and the items on the menu. Those attending have never noticed the addition of healthier ingredients to some of her recipes.

“I make a classic seven-layer salad that is requested year after year,” she says. “I replaced the mayonnaise and most the sugar with Greek yogurt and no one has noticed the difference.”

In addition to altering recipes, Riegel has added several healthier options along side some of the classic dishes she has not found a way to alter. Duck poppers and butternut squash soup shooters may be on the menu alongside a family recipe for a pineapple upside down cake.

Riegel has even found ways to improve upon her baking recipes, though she admits that’s harder to do. Still, she has cut back on refined sugar
where she can and will add yogurt, nuts and grains.

“There are some things I won’t change, but I’m also making sure to use some healthier recipes when planning the menu,” Riegel says.

Providing healthy options alongside those standard treats is one way to help folks balance their holiday eating, especially since the holidays throw many people out of the normal routines they follow to maintain a healthy lifestyle, says Debbie Stone, a dietician with Thedacare.

“People are on the run and it gets real hard to stay balanced,” Stone says. “When it comes to food, if we can choose some of the healthier things first, then that will slow us down before we get to the sweets.”

Stone has some other practical tips as well, namely remembering to get enough rest, eating sensibly throughout the day and trying to schedule time for exercise and stress management throughout the season.

“Try and set your days up so you are less likely to indulge once you get to the party,” she says.

For Dearing, some of the choices he will make this year are being driven by a recent conversation with his physician, and a change from what he describes as “a pretty hedonistic lifestyle.”

He’s trying to live – and eat – a lot healthier. As he plans the menu for the upcoming holidays, he is considering how he can alter some of his recipes to make them healthier while still offering folks the classic dishes they associate with the holiday meal.

“This is the first time we will be preparing a holiday meal since we made this lifestyle change,” he says, noting he can already anticipate some changes to the green bean casserole and concedes he probably doesn’t need the bacon grease for his cornbread.

“I’m never going to stop making some of the traditional things, but I can learn to make them better,” he says.

—FC

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