Keeping the Flavor in Your Holiday Meal Without All the Extra Calories

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“The holiday meal and spending time with family and friends is something I look forward to”, says Rhonda Church, EFNEP Educator for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. It is also a time where we can consume double the amount of calories we need for one day in just one meal. The average American eats over 3000 calories in a traditional holiday meal. We only need around 2000 calories for the whole day. Many of us eat whatever we want that day, but with health concerns and not wanting to gain holiday weight there are simple substitutions you can make when preparing your holiday meal that do not sacrifice taste. Making small changes to traditional recipes can be done without the family even noticing.

By trading some high calorie ingredients and using a few calorie saving hacks you can save up to 1500 calories in your holiday meal. The average holiday meal consists of turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, rolls, gravy, and pumpkin pie. Based on these items we’ll explore ways to cut some of the fat, salt and sugar.

For the turkey, you can save up to 50 calories per 4 ounce serving and ½ the fat by not eating the skin. 4 ounces of light meat without the skin has 135 calories and only 3 grams of fat and 4 ounces of dark meat has 192 calories and 5 grams fat. Rubbing oil on the skin then a herbal salt rub inside and out before baking the turkey adds a lot of flavor to the finished product. Cook the turkey until it registers 165 on an instant read thermometer. It is safe to let the turkey rest when done outside the oven uncovered for 30 minutes, it will stay hot and this helps it to be moist. Using an instant read thermometer is very important to make sure the poultry is done to prevent food poisoning. Many times we overcook meat and it ends up dry and tasteless. Using the thermometer will prevent this from happening. It is recommended that you never roast a turkey in an oven lower than 325 degrees.

The dressing doesn’t need extra butter to taste great, each tablespoon of butter adds 100 calories. Use fat free low sodium broth (if you make your own broth ahead of time, refrigerate it then skim off the fat before using in your recipes). Broth adds lots of flavor without a lot of extra calories. Sauteed onions, celery, garlic and herbs add lots of flavor in the dressing then combine with the breadcrumbs. Add broth for flavor and texture then bake. It is recommended that you bake the dressing outside the turkey for food safety reasons. 

Canned cranberry sauce has around 86 calories per ½ inch thick slice with 4 teaspoons of added sugar, so watch your portion. You can make your own cranberry sauce and control the sugar. You could even use a sugar substitute and add fresh orange juice and zest for added flavor. 

Green Bean Casserole is a recipe where you can save a lot of calories. Start by substituting a lower fat version of canned creamed soup to save 50 calories per serving. The traditional casserole has 165 calories per ¾ cup serving, and the lower fat version has 115 calories. Better yet one cup of plain cooked green beans has 41 calories. Lightly season with a little olive oil and salt in just enough water to cook through. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated. 

Skip the butter on the roll, remember 1 tablespoon of butter has 100 calories, if you don’t really want a roll, skip it all together. 1 roll with a little butter can add up to 150 extra calories. 

Use low sodium or no salt broth and a little salt to cook potatoes instead of water. You will not need as much butter or salt later for flavor if you add the flavor during the cooking. Using plain nonfat greek yogurt instead of sour cream will save 100 calories for each ¼ cup used. Greek yogurt adds great texture, taste and protein without the added calories from fat.

Skim the fat layer off of the gravy before serving.

Pumpkin pie is a family favorite so to cut some calories use ½ fat evaporated milk instead of the full fat version, also adding extra cinnamon adds natural sweetness. Spices will add extra flavor, not calories. The pie is so sweet you can cut about ¼ cup of sugar from the recipe.

Here are some recipes for healthier alternatives. 


3 cups sliced peeled cooked sweet potatoes, 1 inch slices
3 cups sliced peeled apples (about 2 large,) 1 inch slices
½ cup brown sugar or ¼ cup brown sugar Splenda blend
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt, pepper
1 tablespoon butter

In a greased 1½ quart baking dish, layer half of the sweet potatoes and apples.
In a small bowl combine brown sugar, spices, salt and pepper.
Sprinkle half over the apples. Dot with butter. Repeat.
Cover & bake at 350° for 15 minutes. Uncover, baste, bake an additional 15 minutes.


5-6 cups canned green beans (drained)
1 can Healthy Request Cream of Celery or Mushroom Soup
1 cup crispy onions or 1 cup cracker breadcrumbs
Combine green beans and soup in a greased 1½ quart baking dish.
Bake at 350 for 25 minutes.
Spread crispy onions over the top (or breadcrumbs) and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes. 
To make cracker topping, combine 1 cup crushed crackers and 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet. Toast stirring often until just brown.


1 bag fresh cranberries
¼ cup sugar
½ cup all fruit or sugar free orange marmalade

Wash cranberries and add to medium pot,
Zest one orange and add to pot
Cut orange and squeeze juice into saucepan
Add orange marmalade, bring to a boil.
This mixture will boil over rapidly so watch it closely and stir often
Simmer for 10 minutes and put in the refrigerator.

I hope you all have a wonderful, healthier and tasty holiday together. Don’t forget to go for a walk to help burn off the extra calories.