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Updated Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 07:31 AM

Enjoying holiday food traditions ... healthfully

By Carrie Dennett
Special to the Seattle Times

One reason most of us look forward to Thanksgiving and the holidays beyond is the food. Whether it's your mother's famous pumpkin pie or your uncle's stellar turkey dressing, food helps us celebrate and form lasting memories.

But what happens if you want to have your pie and your mashed potatoes and be healthy, too? Trying to make some favorite dishes low-fat or low calorie can be a recipe for disaster.

Here are a few ideas for keeping the delicious while adding the nutritious.

Lighten ... lightly: Look for places to make tweaks that will go unnoticed. Can you reduce the amount of oil you use to sauté the onions? Can you replace some of the butter in the mashed potatoes with low-fat plain Greek yogurt or buttermilk for creaminess and flavor?

Add instead of subtract: Bumping up the amount of veggies in the turkey dressing can reduce calories while adding nutrients and preserving great taste. Balance out starch-heavy sides with a nice fall-winter salad (mixed greens, apples or pears, dried cranberries, pecans or walnuts, a sprinkle of blue cheese, vinaigrette) and extra vegetable dishes, such as roasted Brussels sprouts or green beans with almonds.

Streamline the menu: Research shows that when offered more variety, most people eat more food. Keep the core favorites, add in more vegetables, then look for stragglers. I suggest ditching the dinner rolls, which are little more than a vehicle for butter. As far as starchy carbs go, the dressing and potatoes are much tastier.

Bookend the meal: It's nice to have something to nibble on while waiting for the feast, but traditional pre-meal offerings like cheese and crackers, bowls of nuts and hot hors d'oeuvres fill people up before the turkey hits the table. Instead, prepare the palate with a beautiful veggie tray with flavorful yogurt-based dips. Give the meal a strong finish by rethinking the number of desserts. Taking "just a sliver" of three different and equally tempting desserts usually adds up to a bigger portion than if there is just one wonderful offering.

Eat slowly: It's ironic that we look forward to special holiday meals all year and spend hours (or days) preparing them, only to wolf down the fruits of that labor in minutes. When you don't give your first plate of food the attention it deserves, you don't fully taste it. That's likely to leave you wanting more, even if your stomach is full.

Don't drink your calories: Eggnog, punch, soda, cider, wine, beer and cocktails all pack a calorie punch. Plus alcohol can make us want to eat more. Try sparkling water with lemon or lime as a festive spacer — or substitute — beverage.

Frame the day: Give holiday meals their due by eating normally on the days surrounding it. Even holiday leftovers can be incorporated into a normal eating pattern ... you don't have to actually re-enact the big day! There's a difference between enjoying eating a little extra on a single day and allowing that excess to seep into several days — or weeks — of overdoing it.

Next time: Eating for energy.

Carrie Dennett: nutritionbycarrie@gmail.com.

Dennett is a graduate student in the nutritional-sciences program at the UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com


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