Healthy Holiday Foods, No Swaps Required
Gingerbread pancakes, pomegranate salad, even cocoa brownies! We’ve rounded up 19 recipes highlighting popular holiday ingredients that are likely healthier than you think.
Marisa Moore is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and communications and culinary nutrition expert.
‘Tis the season for holiday eating and everywhere you look, you'll see a plethora of tips for low-calorie swaps for your favorite ingredients. Not here. Instead, this article will show you ways to enjoy holiday foods that are already good for you. No swapping necessary!
How to eat healthy during the holidays
It may be surprising, but as a registered dietitian, I encourage people to eat what they truly enjoy — especially during the holiday season.
We all know that avoiding our favorite foods is no fun. And there’s some evidence that this isn’t doing you any favors. Research suggests that deprivation is linked to increased cravings and overeating. That means if you don’t eat what you really want, you might still have the craving, go overboard later, or feel guilt around certain foods. Sound familiar?
So yes. Enjoy your aunt’s pie — that you might only get once a year. Have fun making your favorite holiday cookie recipe with your kids. And along the way, add a few of these healthy holiday recipes to your holiday menu. They just happen to be good for you too!
From pumpkin to sweet potatoes and cranberries and turkey, there’s a long list of foods available to create healthy holiday meals without sacrificing flavor.
1. Pick pumpkin
Rich in vitamin A and fiber, pumpkin is an autumn superstar. And to be clear, we’re talking fresh, frozen, or canned pumpkin, not pumpkin spice. Pumpkin can be used throughout the year but works well in pies, muffins, quick breads, and savory dishes such as soups and pasta.
TIP: When buying canned pumpkin, remember to check the label. Pick up pumpkin puree, not pumpkin pie filling, which includes sugar and seasonings and is often right next to it on the shelf.
Switch things up with small cups of warm pumpkin soup for a healthy holiday appetizer. This vegan pumpkin soup is well-spiced and flaunts a super silky texture thanks to coconut milk.
These dairy-free pumpkin pie cupcakes are a perfectly portioned dessert. They can be made ahead — a bonus for holiday meals!
2. Cozy up to cocoa
Flavanol-rich cocoa powder offers rich flavor and that craveable chocolate flavor that’s especially welcome during the holidays. And it might be good for more than just your tastebuds. Though more research is needed, the flavanols in cocoa may help improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, and may have a positive impact on blood cholesterol.
TIP: Make your own hot cocoa. Choose a high quality, unsweetened cocoa powder to increase the chances that you’re getting the most flavanols.
Cozy up with a mug of homemade cocoa that you can feel really good about. This one uses almond milk as the base for a full-bodied cup of cocoa.
These brownies top a healthy holiday baking list. Made simply with cocoa powder and almond butter plus ripe bananas for sweetness, they are a fudgy, nutritious treat.
3. Choose cranberries
Cranberries are in season right now and lucky for us, these antioxidant-rich berries are rich in fiber and vitamin C, among other nutrients.
Though canned cranberry sauce is a popular and easy option, now is a great time to make your own. Yummly’s citrus cranberry sauce gets a boost of fresh, tart flavor from lemon and oranges. If you want to skip the added sugar altogether, this Homemade Cranberry Sauce is sweetened with pineapple and apples for a very healthy holiday side dish.
Though fresh cranberries are great, you can reap similar benefits from dried cranberries too. These healthy-ish breakfast cookies would make an easy make-ahead breakfast for the family during the holidays.
TIP: Keep in mind that dried fruit may have sugar or oil added. So look for those without if that’s a concern.
4. Go for nuts
I remember how my grandparents would keep bowls of unshelled nuts with a nutcracker in bowls around the house during the holidays. Who knew they were on to something healthy — way back when fat was feared.
With plenty of evidence to support it, we now know that nuts and seeds offer up good fats that might help support heart health and more. From almonds to pecans, and pistachios to walnuts, nuts also offer a dose of protein and fiber, too. Grab a handful to power through a busy day, enjoy seasoned nuts as a healthy holiday snack or appetizer, or grind nuts into flour for pie crust.
Though candied nuts are common, experiment with different spices for other flavor options. This recipe uses cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper plus a little sugar to balance it out. Candied and spiced nuts are great for snacking and also make the perfect gift for friends and family.
Use almond flour to whip up a grain-free pie crust. This one can be used as the base for an open fruit pie, pecan pie, or custard pies that don’t need a top layer. Need a vegan option? This 3 Ingredient Pie Crust might be the perfect fit.
5. Bring on the sweet potatoes
Often upstaged by pumpkin, sweet potatoes deserve a place on the holiday table. This orange superstar is packed with beta carotene and fiber for nutrition in every bite. Plus, it’s versatile. So make room for a few sweet potato recipes next to the Brussels sprouts and green beans in your healthy holiday meal planning.
The holiday table is incomplete without sweet potato casserole — at least that’s true in the South. But this one skips the marshmallows and gets a flavor boost from warm spices such as cardamom and ginger, crunch from pecans, and a hint of earthy sweetness from maple syrup.
Sweet potatoes are excellent in savory dishes too. And this top-rated recipe is a stunner. Thinly sliced sweet potatoes are oven-roasted with an aromatic bath of olive oil, butter, rosemary, and shallots. Yes. For this one it’s worth pulling out the mandoline!
6. Add more than a dash of spice!
If ever there’s a time to be liberal with spices it’s when you’re making holiday dishes. Make your meals memorable with big flavors that might also offer up a few nutrition benefits too! Cinnamon tops my holiday spice list. It adds a hint of sweetness; plus we get the potential added benefit of its blood-sugar-lowering properties. This spice works in many recipes from baked goods to oats to your morning cup of coffee.
Cinnamon spice is everything nice, and a key ingredient for healthy holiday desserts and breakfast staples like this baked oatmeal or a batch of French toast. This classic flavor combination is perfect for waking everyone up to a warm and comforting Christmas morning breakfast.
With cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, gingerbread is a warming, rich combination of spices and a much-loved holiday dessert. These healthy gingerbread pancakes take the same flavor concept and add white whole-wheat flour for a little extra fiber while keeping a fluffy finish. Not into gingerbread at breakfast? Make a family activity to frost some healthy gingerbread cookies.
7. Take a little turkey
Turkey often takes center stage this time of year, and luckily it makes the perfect healthy holiday main dish. Turkey breast is a lean protein option and an excellent source of B vitamins, among other nutrients. So feel free to include turkey in your healthy holiday meal planning both during and after Thanksgiving.
If you’re cooking for just a few people, you won’t need a whole turkey this year. Free up the oven and make a turkey breast in your electric pressure cooker instead. This turkey breast cooks up tender and juicy in only 45 minutes — no basting necessary!
If you do make a whole turkey and end up with leftovers, call it a happy accident and flip some into a delicious turkey soup. This traditional soup uses all parts of the leftover turkey and other ingredients such as celery, onion, and carrots that might also be hanging out in the crisper. From there, why not move on to a leftover turkey sandwich!
8. Imagine endless healthy holiday meals
This list can go on. Pomegranates are in season now and add a festive pop of color, nutrition, and flavor to holiday dinner salads. Use dates to sweeten your holiday eggnog. And make a veggie-heavy main dish such as loaded roasted sweet potatoes or stuffed butternut squash to delight your vegan and vegetarian dinner companions and boost your health, too.
More inspiration for healthy meals
Whatever you’re craving this season for Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner, and other holiday gatherings, and however you define healthy, we have loads of options on Yummly. Vegan mashed potatoes with roasted garlic? Gluten-free green bean casserole? Low-carb peppermint bark? Yes indeed. But we're ready to help beyond the special occasions. Once you get back to the quinoa and kale, keep Yummly in mind for all your healthy dinner recipes, as in the following collections.