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Balancing Health Needs with Holiday Feasts

November 21, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Holiday recipes can be made healthier with a few easy tips and ingredient swaps. Submitted photo

When you think about the holidays and all the happy things that we associate with them, what foods do you anticipate? I look forward to my mom's dressing and the sweet potato dish that I only prepare two times a year. I also anticipate spending time in the kitchen, preparing all the family favorites, something that for me is a pleasant pastime.

The holidays can bring fun, happy times but it can also bring stress and require a lot of time and planning, especially if you have family members with special dietary needs. In our family, we have some food allergies that require label reading when shopping and choosing recipes as well as special dietary requirements for some of our family members. To accommodate everyone's needs, we sometimes modify regular recipes or change how food is prepared so that everyone can enjoy the meal.

Whether your family has special dietary needs or not, everyone can benefit from a few healthy modifications. Taking a few simple steps to reduce the calories in a dish or the fat or sodium does not have to sacrifice the flavor. In fact, most of the time, my family does not even notice when I have done something to make a dish a little healthier before serving it.

Here are some easy tips that can make your holiday dishes a healthier option that the whole family can enjoy:

• Roast the turkey with the skin on but remove the skin before eating.

• Skim the fat from the drippings before making gravy.

• Try using whole wheat bread to make dressing.

• Add lots of vegetables (celery and onion) and fruit (raisins, cranberries, and apricots).

• Serve more whole grain foods. Substitute whole-wheat flour for ½ the white flour in recipes.

• Serve fat-free or low-fat milk and use it when making gravy and soup.

• Season foods with herbs and spices instead of salt or butter.

• Alter the amount of sugar or use sugar substitutes.

• Replace whole milk with lower fat substitutes.

• Determine which ingredients are extraneous to your recipe and eliminate them.

• Consider cutting back on some of the high-calorie ingredients when possible.

• Replace unhealthy oils with heart-healthy ones.

• Add whole grains or vegetables to meaty dishes.

Ready to put some of these tips in action? Try these great recipes to start planning your holiday menu. I have included a tasty and attractive side dish using acorn squash and wild rice, plus a bunch of flavorful extras that really give it some great taste. Love dinner rolls? Well, these whole wheat rolls are easy to make and have a great flavor. Want a dessert that does not make you feel guilty? The cranberries add nutrition and zing to our cupcakes that can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for up to a week.

For more information on ways to make the holidays healthier, contact the Garland County Extension Service at 501-623-6841 or email [email protected] Follow us on Facebook @garlandcounty-UADA.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Cranberry Wild Rice, Pears and Walnuts


3 acorn or dumpling squash

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Ground nutmeg

4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

¾ cup wild rice

1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

¼ tsp. salt, plus extra to taste

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 large rib celery, finely chopped, optional

1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped

2 firm Bosc or Anjou pears, peeled, halved lengthwise, cored, and cut into ½-inch dice

2 tsp. minced fresh sage (1 tsp. dried)

2 tsp. minced fresh thyme leaves (1 tsp. dried)

1/3 cup minced fresh parsley (1 tsp. dried)

1/3 cup chopped walnuts, toasted (see notes)

1/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut each squash in half crosswise. Scoop out and discard the seeds and strings. (Save a few for next year's garden or roast some for a tasty treat) If necessary, trim the top and bottom so that the squash will sit level, and place on a rimmed baking sheet, cut side up. Put parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet and place squash on it cut side up. Sprinkle each half with a little salt, pepper, and nutmeg, to taste. Using 3 tablespoons of the butter, dot each half with some butter. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake the squash until just tender, about 45 minutes.

Combine the rice, chicken broth, ¼ teaspoon salt (optional), and 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender, about 40 minutes (pour off any left over water).

In a 10-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Swirl to coat the pan and sauté the onion, garlic, celery, and carrot until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the pears and sauté 2 minutes longer. Cover the pan, adjust the heat to medium-low, and cook the vegetables until crisp-tender, 3 minutes longer. Add the sage, thyme, and parsley and sauté 1 more minute. Remove from heat.

Use a large bowl or the pan and combine the cooked rice, sautéed vegetables, pears, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Taste and add salt and pepper, if desired. Mound the rice mixture into the squash halves, dividing it evenly. Cut the remaining tablespoon of butter into small pieces. Dot each stuffed squash with butter. Cover with foil. Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes.


Toasting nuts brings out their full, rich flavor. Place the nuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degrees oven until lightly browned, about 5-8 minutes.

This recipe has several steps. The rice mixture can be prepared ahead of time to make it easier to time everything for your meal as well as prebaking the squash and then heating everything up later.

Nutrition information

Serving: 1 cup or ¼ squash with mix. Calories: 281, Total fat: 13.1g, Sodium: 272 mg, Total carbohydrate: 39.4g, Protein: 6.1g

Source: USA Pears

Wheat Rolls


1 1/2 c. milk

1/3 c. & 2 tsp. shortening

1/3 c. & 2 tsp. sugar

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 tsp. salt

1 pkg. dry yeast (2 ¼ tsp.)

1/3 c. & 2 tsp. warm water

3 c. whole wheat flour

2 1/2 to 3 c. all-purpose flour (add gradually, adding more if necessary)


Scald milk. Add shortening and let cool.

Dissolve dry yeast in warm water; let stand for 4 to 5 minutes.

Place sugar and salt in large bowl. Add eggs and mix well. Add cooled milk and shortening. Add yeast and water.

Add flour, mix well, and let rise in warm area for about 1 hour.

Punch down to remove air bubbles, place in warm area until double in size, about 30 to 50 minutes. Form into balls. Let rise until double in size, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until tops of buns are light brown. Brush with butter or margarine.

Nutrition facts

Makes 24 large rolls. Serving size: 1 roll -- 164 calories and 4.5 grams (g) of fat.

Source: NDSU Extension Service.

Cranberry Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting


1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

2 large eggs

1 cup cranberry sauce

½ cup unsalted butter, melted

1/3 cup honey

1 tsp. vanilla extract


8 oz cream cheese, softened

½ cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt

2 tbsp. cranberry sauce

1 tbsp. honey, or to taste

1 tsp. vanilla extract



Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tin with paper liners or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs. Mix cranberry sauce, butter, honey and vanilla.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients until just combined.

Fill muffin cups to about ¾ full. Bake 16-20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool 2-3 minutes before removing from muffin tin and letting cool on wire rack.


Beat cream cheese, yogurt, cranberry sauce, honey and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth.

Spread evenly on top of cooled cupcakes before serving.


The recipe makes 12-16 cupcakes, depending on the size of your muffin tin.

Refrigerate leftover cupcakes. Take out of the refrigerator and allow to warm to room temperature if you would like your cupcakes "warmed up" for eating.

Nutritional information

Serving size: 1 cupcake Estimated Calories: 143kcal, Carbohydrates: 19g, Protein: 2g, Fat: 7g, Cholesterol: 38mg, Sodium: 116mg, Fiber: 1g, Sugar: 11g

Source: Healthy Family Project in collaboration with US Cranberries


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