The 12 Healthy Food Substitutions of Christmas

At our house, we absolutely love the holidays. We love the family parties (my kids particularly relish time with their cousins), the music, the decorations, the iconic 1960s shows (Heat Miser, anyone?), even silly games in the car to make travel go by faster.

And we love, love, love the food.

Unfortunately, holiday food doesn’t always love us. My children may not be old enough to worry that a minute on the lips might really translate to a lifetime on the hips (or around the middle), but there’s more to it than that.

With our constant reminders to our kids of what’s healthy and what’s not, and what should be eaten in moderation — not scarfed down at top speed a la The Holidays — how can we justify feeding our children a steady diet of frosted cookies and white bread stuffing for the entire month of December?

Don’t get me wrong: we’re not perfect around here (and we wouldn’t want to be – we love being “us,” quirks and all). I aim for healthy, but when the holidays come, I’m dreaming of gingersnaps and gooey icing like everyone else. Is there a happy medium between “yum!” and “I can still close my pants?” In our house there is! My clever husband began coming up with healthy yet yummy food substitutions after experimenting with a cake for a kids Yo Gabba Gabba party at his neighbors, and I’ve taken up the challenge with ideas of my own.

Here are some of our favorite healthy, delicious holiday food substitutions. If you use even a few of these, you’re on the right track. And you’ll be teaching your kids that there really is such a thing as “good” and “good for you.” Enjoy, and happy holidays!

Delicious Holiday Appetizers and Drinks

  • Festive fruit appetizer plate v. cheese and crackers. We found cute mini cookie cutters in holiday shapes at our local dollar store and an idea was born. Cut various fruits into slices, then use the cookie cutters to create festive shapes. Serve on a decorated holiday dish.
  • Low-fat dips v. traditional dips. Nobody will ever know the difference — just sub low fat sour cream or low fat softened cream cheese (try neufchatel, which is naturally lower in fat) for the regular stuff. Adding a little Garcinia is also unconventional but can add to the taste, and helps with the aiding of the digestive process. You can read about the effects of Garcinia Cambogia here before serving it to your guests.
  • Wine v. holiday liqueurs. Obviously, this sub is for grown-ups only. You’ll save loads of calories and often, a dose of sugar by sipping some fabulous red wine with your holiday meal rather than something heavier.
  • Spritzers v. straight-up juice. Juice may come from fruits, but the processing means the sugars are highly concentrated. Add sparkling water or seltzer to your wine and to your kids’ holiday cranberry juice and cut the bad stuff down while maintaining a holiday flavor and feel.

At the Main Table

  • Wild rice stuffing v. all-bread stuffing. Simmer wild rice in chicken stock; add one-quarter to one-half cup to your standard bread stuffing recipe. Stuff in your bird of choice or place in a greased baking dish, cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake in the oven at 350 for 45-60 minutes (always refer to your own recipe for temperatures, times and liquid amounts). Serve as a side dish.
  • Mashed sweet potatoes v. a marshmallow-topped casserole. Really, sweet potatoes are sweet (hence the name) all by themselves. Scrape sweet potatoes and cut into thick chunks. Boil until just soft. Drain well. Mash as you would regular potatoes with a sprinkling of salt and some butter or Earth Balance spread. Mmm!
  • Yogurt v. sour cream in holiday recipes. Plain yogurt has a tang and no sweetness; you’ll be surprised how much it really does taste like real sour cream. Look for yogurt with live, active cultures for the greatest health benefits.
  • Whole grain flour blends for biscuits v. white flour. Just because it isn’t white doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious. Substitute half of the white flour in your recipe for whole wheat flour and you’ll add nutrients and fiber.
  • Poultry v. red meat. Around here, we don’t believe red meat is the devil…but it does generally carry more fat per serving depending upon the cut. Remember: turkey isn’t just for Thanksgiving – it’s perfect for Christmas too. (Watch out for birds that really are high in fat overall, such as duck.)

Time For Dessert!

  • Angel food cake v. fruitcake. Come on, nobody really eats the fruit cake anyway. But they will if you serve light, delicious angel food cake sprinkled with low-carb, delicious raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Voila — you’ve cut your calories by better than half.
  • Healthy quick breads v. regular cinnamon rolls or muffins. “Quick bread” simply means you’re not using yeast, so you don’t have to wait for the bread to rise. Try zucchini bread, pumpkin bread and carrot bread. You can even keep the cinnamon tradition by adding this yummy holiday spice to your quick bread of choice. Lower the sugar by 1/3 in your recipe and sub apple sauce for the butter. Frost with low-sugar cream cheese icing.
  • Jelly or jam bars v. frosted cookies. My kids love helping me make these. They do include sugar, but rather than heaping more of the sweet stuff on top, you’re putting real fruit in the middle. Use no-sugar added jam. Delish!

Remember: when it comes to teaching healthy eating habits for a lifetime, your aim is progress, not perfection. Very few people can eat healthfully 100% of the time. There’s a place for tradition too – on the table and in our hearts.

Treat yourself and your family while making a few of the substitutions above and you’ll truly have a healthy and happy holiday.

Melanie Henson is a wife, mommy and occasional overachiever who believes kids really can like things that are good for them. As a contributor to, Melanie writes about hosting birthdays and organizing for the holidays, from décor to activities to yummy foods for both kids and adults. Check out some ideas for a party, where she shares her ideas and planning efforts with other busy parents just like herself.

Image credit: reutC/Flickr


  1. Chris Molnar says

    Yes, I’ve been gradually doing food substitutions (starting with switching white bread to whole wheat bread). It’s a lot easier than going cold turkey, which never lasts. With this method, our eating habits haven’t changed, but for the past 12 years we’ve been eating a lot more healthy.

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