It's five hours until her holiday dinner is to be served, and Evelyn Tribole's gargantuan kitchen is already cluttered and humming. Every pot and pan she owns is out, sharing space on the countertops with enough food to feed an army. Wearing a cobalt blue apron, she's ready to work her magic.
By 3 p.m., if this holiday dinner is typical, she will serve the 30 guests she routinely expects, and the meal will look like many of those traditionally served in any other home. But Tribole has a secret: Her fare is festive but not overly fattening.
A longtime dietitian and cookbook author, Tribole has learned to make holiday dinners with a fraction of the fat and calories of many holiday menus, without ruining the taste or making her guests feel deprived. In fact, according to her, most have been unaware of her culinary sleight of hand. She says she can't recall any scrunching their noses and asking, "Is this one of those low-fat dishes?"
If you've had guests skeptical of eating holiday food that's been "healthified" (read: ruined), there may be hope. Most cooks try too hard to eliminate calories from holiday dinners, Tribole says. "They try to get out all the fat." That's not the goal, she says. The key is modifying with moderation -- and maintaining the perspective that holiday meals should be special.
To learn more, WebMD asked Tribole and two other dietitians to tell us more about their holiday menu strategies.
The Tribole Plan
Stick with your favorite holiday dishes, Tribole suggests, but change one fattening ingredient to reduce fat and calories. "If you change one ingredient and don't like the result, you'll know what the problem is," says Tribole, MS, RD. For instance, if she makes quiche, she may substitute evaporated skim milk for cream.
She cautions not to go overboard, however. While substituting low-fat ingredients can work, resorting to nonfat foods can spoil the taste of a dish. "I will use light butter instead of regular," she says, to top off dishes and at the table. For a fruit mold, she often uses sugar-free gelatin. "You can't tell," she promises. "I use light cream cheese instead of regular, but I never use fat-free cream cheese alone. It's too blah. I might mix fat-free with light cream cheese for a dessert."
For twice-baked potatoes, she uses nonfat milk, light butter, and light cheese (never fat-free cheese, she says). For more healthful gravy, she uses nonfat milk and skims the fat off the meat juices with a fat separator. She uses cornstarch instead of flour and butter to thicken the gravy. And for her vegetable side dish of asparagus, she drizzles some olive oil over it. "My goal is not to end up with zero fat."
The Hampl Strategy
Jeff Hampl, PhD, RD, an assistant professor of nutrition at Arizona State University in Mesa, cooks Christmas dinner for family and friends and knows all about substitution, too. He suggests replacing oil with an equal amount of applesauce when baking cakes. "No one can tell," promises Hampl, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
Spreading out the high-fat foods over the course of the dinner is another strategy. "It's a shame not to prepare [some traditional] foods," he says. "Modify the recipe as much as you can." Then just don't serve them all at once. His main course, for instance, is goose -- high in fat. A 3.5-ounce serving with skin has 305 calories and a whopping 21.9 grams of fat. But he limits the damage by using a turkey baster to remove the fat from the pan every 45 minutes.
The Ayoob Approach
For a decade, Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has flown from New York to San Francisco each year to prepare a holiday dinner for at least a dozen family members and friends. He has several techniques for preserving flavor without tipping the fat scales.
Take old favorites and give them a nutritious and interesting twist. For instance, instead of fixing sweet potatoes with butter, he slices the potatoes into three-quarter-inch thick chunks and cooks them covered in apple or pineapple juice. He starts the meal with a huge salad of vegetables. And he serves steamed (green) broccoli with red peppers, giving the meal a seasonal flair. "Combine foods for color," says Ayoob, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, and the result is a lot of eye appeal.
Like Tribole, he aims not for zero fat but less of it. "I rub the inside of the turkey with a bit of butter, but I also use herbs and garlic," he says. For the dressing, he combines onion, celery, garlic, chicken broth, and seasoned bread cubes. And he uses fresh herbs whenever he can.
Indulge the family's love of traditional favorites. "My Mom is Greek and likes stuffed grape leaves," Ayoob says. "They can be a little high in fat, so she makes them without meat" to reduce the amount.
Offer Options, Keep Perspective
Aware that some holiday diners may be more weight-conscious than others, dietitians suggest giving people many options. "Set up the dinner as a buffet and guests can pick and choose," Ayoob suggests.
And don't be too strict with yourself or your guests. Holiday dinners only come around once a year. Half the fun is eating foods we normally pass up or don't have time to prepare.