Holiday Meals: Shaping Healthful Year-Round Eating Habits


Although most of us look forward to the holidays, no one looks forward to the consequences of overindulging in the unhealthy food options that have become commonplace at festive mealtimes. Due to the overabundance of food, especially sweets, the holidays can become a relatively unhealthy time for most people, including children.

However, despite all of the decadent dishes, holiday feasts can serve up a host of benefits that can’t be measured in grams of fat or scoops of sugar. By changing perspective and making an intentional shift from overindulgence to healthful decision making, holiday food traditions can help kids develop a positive interest in cooking and a healthy relationship with food –two keys to establishing lifelong healthy eating habits. Thanksgiving is the time to teach gratitude for the foods that have sustained them over the previous year.

During most of the year, many families report “multitasking” mealtimes with activities such as driving or watching TV. Holiday meals, on the other hand, are almost always eaten family-style, with a table full of food, family and friends. Eating meals this way results in more mindful eating patterns, because with fewer distractions, people can pay closer attention to what they put on their plates. When kids learn to appreciate sharing good food with family, they are learning cultural food traditions. Since food is the focus of so many holiday celebrations, these meals can offer people a time to eat in a more relaxed and present manner, a practice that can be continued throughout the year.

While turkey and pumpkin pie are commonplace at Thanksgiving, other holiday dishes are more regionally and culturally based, and many are family traditions.

Treasured recipes that don’t get prepared the rest of the year are the centerpieces of holiday meals, a time when food culture is passed down to the next generation. A family member’s beloved recipe, like your aunt’s baked macaroni and cheese, dad’s homemade gravy, or grandma’s special candied yams, can help create anticipation of favorite foods and excitement about cooking that lingers throughout the year. What do you most look forward to? Green bean casserole or glazed carrots? Dinner rolls or cornbread? Sauerkraut or cranberry sauce? Traditional breadcrumb or oyster stuffing? Mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes?

It is easy to overindulge during the holiday season, but many traditional holiday foods are exceptionally nutritious. When you reach for seconds, choose options such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, cranberries or turkey, and remember that you don’t have to eat it all in one sitting; leftovers are part of the fun.

Hopefully in your family, holidays are also a time when people don’t cut corners with ingredients. For these meals, people prepare dishes from scratch, spend more time in the kitchen and do whatever it takes to put the best food on the table – a practice that could be continued for everyday meals. This is often the time when younger generations learn some great cooking skills as well as and the art of cooperation. Who can mash the potatoes? These characteristics of holiday feasts can create memorable food experiences that can foster a lifetime of healthy eating.

If you haven’t already established special food traditions, try these healthy ideas at your next holiday feast:

  • Eat locally – celebrate the farmers who produced each ingredient.
  • Have everyone contribute a dish to the feast – boost cooking skills.
  • Prepare treasured family recipes – appreciate your cultural food traditions.  
Nick Rose
About Nick Rose

Nick Rose, MS, is a nutrition educator for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. He writes their monthly “Ask the Nutritionist” leads weekly "Walk, Talk, and Taste" classes, where he reveals the seasonal, sustainable and delicious food choices that are available. Nick has also taught nutrition courses at Bastyr University and his alma mater, Virginia Tech. He is looking forward to healthy holiday eating.

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