Entree and Appetizer Tips for a Healthier Holiday Dinner

Feeding your family traditional high-fat holiday dishes or fielding complaints about unappetizing alternatives aren't the only options.

Holiday dinner might just be the best meal of the entire year. The vast array of foods, from savory casseroles to deliciously sweet chocolates and desserts, is pure delight. However, it’s also a time when people tend to overindulge on fattening and unhealthy dishes.

Eating healthy is most likely not at the forefront of many people’s minds when planning to make a holiday meal; after all, most people view the holidays as a time to indulge and celebrate, not to count calories or make sacrifices. Thankfully, healthy food can be appealing and even indulgent when done right. With a few simple tricks and substitutions, you can make both a sumptuous holiday dinner that’s both satisfying and healthy.

Creating Healthy Appetizers

Holiday appetizers are perfect for showcasing your creativity and setting the tone for the rest of a meal or get-together, and they also offer an opportunity to highlight the fact that healthy food can be fun. Here are a few tips that can help you save calories and preserve flavor when planning appetizers.

  • Cheeses
    Cheese is often thought of as artery-clogging and fattening, but that rarely discourages people from incorporating it into a meal. Rather than cutting cheese out of your meal entirely, try opting for a healthier type of cheese instead.

    For example, a Kent State University professor of nutrition and dietetics recommends feta cheese instead of traditional options like Cheddar and American. Feta is lower in fat and calories than most other cheese, and its strong flavor profile allows you to serve less of it without your guests feeling cheated. For a good example of a recipe that incorporates feta cheese, check out this recipe from Cookinglight.com for marinated feta skewers.
  • Chips and Dip
    Chips and dip are a classic appetizer that seems to fit in at any meal. Unfortunately, most chips are loaded with sodium and have little real nutritional value, and the same is true of many dips. Luckily, there are a few simple tricks that can be used to make both your chips and dips healthier.

    First, chips can easily be replaced with fresh, crunchy vegetables such as baby carrots, sliced red peppers, and broccoli. Not only are fresh vegetables healthier than chips, but they also provide more variety, allowing your guests to sample a number of different options.

    Second, skip the store-bought dips in favor of making your own. Not only does it allow you to control what goes into the dip, but it can be a fun activity to share with friends and family. Finally, when making homemade dip, make sure you use low- or non-fat ingredients, and try to go easy on the salt. These simple changes can easily reduce the fat and salt content of your dip by 50 percent. To get you thinking, here is a recipe from Eatingwell.com for a delicious low-fat ranch dip.

Feature Sweet Potatoes in Your Dinner

Whether they are baked, mashed, or prepared some other way, potatoes often feature prominently in a traditional holiday dinner. This year, consider making the switch from regular (white) potatoes to sweet potatoes. According to the Cleveland Clinic, sweet potatoes have fewer calories, more fiber, and fewer total carbs than ordinary potatoes. To incorporate them into your holiday dinner this year, try out this recipe from Eatingwell.com for maple-roasted sweet potatoes.

Strive for Healthy Entrées

There is no single traditional meat choice for a holiday dinner entrée (and, of course, it’s perfectly possible to make a satisfying vegetarian entrée as well). The main course can range from roast turkey to ham to pork chops and beyond — with the only real limit being your personal preference. Here are a few important things to remember when thinking about cooking your main entrée.

  • The skin of turkeys and chickens is the unhealthiest part, adding a lot of saturated fat. Consider making your poultry-based entrée skinless this year.
  • Most meats are high in cholesterol (especially red meats), so try to avoid compounding this by including other cholesterol-rich dishes during the meal.
  • Portion control is one of the most important steps you can take to stay healthy during the holidays. Make sure there is enough food for everybody, but remember that you don’t need so much that you will be eating leftovers weeks later. You may even consider using smaller plates for serving since people tend to not only eat less, but think they are eating more when food is presented on a smaller plate.

For a traditional and satisfying holiday entrée that’s healthy, too, try this recipe from Cookinglight.com for a spicy maple turkey breast with a quick pan sauce.

Enjoy Your Holidays

As the old adage goes, “everything in moderation.” While it would be great to do a complete 180-degree turn and make every holiday morsel as healthy as possible — and certainly there’s nothing stopping you from doing that — some indulgent dishes may seem like must-haves to you and your guests, especially those that are part of family traditions.

If totally revamping your holiday dining habits sounds like too much, start with making one or two healthy changes this year and then make a note in your recipe book about what succeeded and how you can take another step or two in the right direction next year.

Of course, eating habits only form one part of the picture of our health. Physical activity is critical for wellness, too. To that end, consider developing some new holiday traditions that involve getting out of the house and doing something physically active. Find a skating rink to visit, go bowling as a family, take a brisk walk together, go sledding, have a snowball fight, or even just toss a ball around for a while.

Develop a mindset of looking out for opportunities to make healthier choices — both in the food you eat and the activities you participate in — and you’ll surely be able to enjoy happier, healthier holidays for many years to come.


5 healthiest cheeses. (2016, June). Caring.com.

White potatoes vs. sweet potatoes: Which are healthier? (2013, March). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2013/03/white-potatoes-vs-sweet-potatoes-which-is-healthier/