11 Secrets to Lightening Up Your Holiday Dishes without Sacrificing Flavor (Tips from a Foodie Dietitian)

What does a dietitian eat during the holidays?  Well, many dietitians are foodies at heart- we love amazing food that makes your mouth water just describing it! A flavor punch, a combination of textures, a perfect bite that hits all the right places on your tongue- this is what get’s us excited and ready to embark on our next food experience.  But many Registered Dietitians, like myself, are also dedicated to sharing how to enjoy these fun and memorable food experiences with a side of moderation and balance.

As you are finishing up your planning and preparations for your holidays, I have some clever secrets to share that will allow you to enjoy your festive food gathering AND comfortably fit into your favorite jeans the next day.


Cut the Butter in Half

Most casseroles and dishes call for 2x, 3x or even 4 times as much oil or butter as is necessary in order to cook the dish.  For example, my mom’s amazing cornbread dressing uses an entire stick of butter to cook the onion and carrot before mixing it with the dry dressing itself! Yes, her recipe is AMAZING and probably one of the most requested dishes in our family, but sauteing that quantity of onions and carrots could be successfully done with half if not a quarter of the butter.

While fat does add a bit of flavor, like butter, it mostly adds mouthfeel (richness).  The thing about it is that every other dish on the table is just as rich as yours, making it less decadent in comparison. Cutting back on the butter won’t dramatically affect the flavor, and in fact, most if not everyone probably will not even notice.  

Try it… just this once…and see.


Reduce the Sugar by a Third

Many desserts and recipes can be lightened up by reducing the quantity of sugar you use without destroying the flavor or integrity of the actual recipe. Of course, some people may actually decide to replace the sugar with a sweetener substitute, but that is usually not necessary if you are simply trying to reduce the sugar and calories.


Include Vegetables in at Least Half of the Dishes on the Table

Many holiday tables include a lot of starches- corn casserole, sweet potatoes, rice, mashed potatoes, rolls, dressing/stuffing…  If you are in charge of planning your family’s special meal OR if you are asked to bring a dish to a gathering you are attending, consider a vegetable.

The USDA and Registered Dietitians alike recommend making at least ½ of the food on your plate vegetables.  Why not try to do this on holidays too? Yes, a lot of vegetable casserole recipes can include loads of butter, creamed soups, and cracker toppings, but they don’t have too!  You can make an incredible recipe that will have everyone talking without loading it up with fat, refined carbs and calories.  Need a few ideas? This green bean casserole is a lightened up version to the traditional.  Or try out this Brussel Sprout Gratin for a new twist on your holiday table.


Use a Fat Separator for the Gravy

This tool is a remarkable invention!  It is really not all that intricate or complex but sometimes simple works best.  I love my fat separator (like this one!) and purchased several years back when I was hosting a big holiday gathering at our home.

This simple measuring cup looking device allows me to pour all the drippings into it and after several minutes, the fat floats to the top and the drippings (where all the flavor is!) sinks to the bottom. Then you simply pour the flavor drippings into the pan you are using to make gravy and you will create the most flavorful, gravy to top your turkey.  Of course, you can still use a bit of the fat to create your roux (the first step in gravy making) but you get to decide how much!  If you don’t have one, YOU MUST, every turkey baking person needs a Fat Separator!  It might not sound glamorous but get one anyway!


Focus on Quality vs Quantity

We have all been to a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or holiday gathering where the number of dishes takes up an entire dining table and buffet… and then the host sets up a card table for the elaborate spread of desserts.  So many dishes, but how much is enough?

Do we need 13 unique side dishes to choose from?  Do we need a spread of 9 different desserts to satisfy our sweet tooth?  Think about this- what are the most favorite, requested items?  Choose to prepare those this year.  That’s it.  If there are too many, rotate each year doing half one year and half the next.


Use Lower Fat Dairy and Mayo

Often, using low-fat instead of full-fat is not detectable, especially when it is incorporated into a casserole or dish.  When a recipe calls for sour cream, cream cheese, yogurt, mayonnaise, or creamed soup, try using the lower fat or light version of it.


Try Using Greek Yogurt in Place of Sour Cream and Mayo

The benefits of yogurt are touted all over the media, but we don’t have to limit consumption to a snack or as your morning breakfast. Yogurt is a great replacement for sour cream and mayo in dips and casseroles and it contains more protein!  

You can replace half and in some recipes, all of the sour cream or mayo, called for with yogurt.  The yogurt can be easily incorporated and bakes well into casseroles, but as a forewarning, it does not do well simmering in a sauce on the stovetop.  Yogurt is also the perfect ingredient to use in dips, which may be something you put out with some veggies for snacking with until ‘Tom’ is perfectly brown and carved.

Comparison of Greek Yogurt vs Sour Cream

  Non-Fat Greek Yogurt Low-Fat Greek Yogurt Full-Fat Greek Yogurt Non-Fat Sour Cream Low-Fat Sour Cream Full-Fat Sour Cream
Calories 67 86 108 80 160 240
Total Fat 0 2 6 0 10 20
Saturated Fat 0 2 4 0 8 14

*Based on ½ cup quantity


Use Spices and Extracts to Add Faux Sweetness

Several spices and extracts can add the appearance of sweetness without adding any additional calories or grams of sugar.  For example, enhance the natural sweetness of sweet potatoes or carrots by adding vanilla extract and warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or allspice.  This Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes recipe is ah-mazing (!!) and includes cinnamon, chili powder and a pinch of cayenne for robust flavors without loads of sugar typical in a sweet potato casserole.  This strategy works every time and truly makes the dish taste decadent!


Add Non-Starchy Vegetables to the Potato Mash

Potatoes are a complex carbohydrate that are higher in calories and carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables.  While potatoes and sweet potatoes are not “bad” foods and need not be eliminated from our diets, there are ways to lighten them up, especially on a holiday table where there are several other starches waiting to be devoured.

Instead of mashed potatoes, trying steaming equal parts white potatoes and white cauliflower, then mash and season as you would regular mashed potatoes.  Grab this recipe here to see how simple this can be!  This Loaded Mashed Cauliflower casserole will fool even the biggest potato diehard!  For the sweet potatoes, steam or roast sweet carrots along with the sweet potatoes and then mash and season as you would the traditional dish.  This doesn’t require a lot of extra cooking, just a slight tweak in your planning and shopping a few days before your feast.  See if anyone comments or notices!


Sub the Oil with a ‘Secret’ Ingredient

Did you know that there are over 1900 calories and 218 grams fat in 1 cup of oil!!!  It’s crazy but true!  If you are about to begin some holiday baking, consider easy alternatives to maintain the texture and flavor of the cake without overloading it with fat and calories.

Some oil may be necessary so it is best to begin experimenting with your recipe by replacing ½ of the oil with the substitute.  These are 5 easy subs that will help you lighten up your treats without knocking the flavor!

Savings per 1 Cup of Oil:

Unsweetened applesauce 100 kcals, 0g fat 1800 kcals, 218g fat
Banana, mashed 200 kcals, 1g fat 1700 kcals, 217g fat
Canned Pumpkin 100 kcals, 1g fat 1800 kcals, 217g fat
Low fat (2%) Greek yogurt 170 kcals, 5g fat 1730 kcals, 213g fat
Avocado, pureed 380 kcals, 35g fat 1520 kcals, 183g fat

*Some substitutions work better in different recipes.  If you have some experience experimenting with these substitutions already, choose an option and take a chance!  But if you are uncertain which one to try, spend a couple of minutes online looking up similar recipes and the best substitution to try out that will work in your recipe.


Cut Back on the Higher Calorie Ingredients

Some people don’t want to use lower fat ingredients but they are willing to do just a little bit less…

  • Does your broccoli and cheese casserole call for 16oz of cheese? Maybe you can use 12oz.
  • Does your squash casserole call for 2 cans of condensed cream soup? Maybe you can use 1 or 1 ½ cans.
  • Does your casserole call for 2 sleeves of buttered crackers?  Maybe you can use 1 sleeve.

While it may not seem like a lot, if you cut back just a bit on at least 1 higher calorie ingredient in each of the dishes you make, it will add up quickly!  Don’t think your “little bit” doesn’t matter.  Focus on cutting lots of little bits and you will take a big bite out of your overall calorie intake for the day!

Cheesy Loaded Mashed Cauliflower (recipe here)

Approaching the holidays with some realistic expectations and some kitchen smarts will help you feel good about enjoying some treats and favorite dishes without guilt.  Choose 1, 2 or even 3 of the above secrets to implement and see if you or anyone else notices.

DON’T sacrifice flavor.

DON’T lose the integrity of the dish.

DON’T lose your position as the favorite cook of the family, but…

DO try a few of my secrets and enjoy a smirk when you begin receiving praise for your mouth-watering meal contribution.

TRUTH: All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.  –1 Corinthians 6:12a (ESV)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article was originally posted in November 2016 and updated in December 2017 for accuracy.

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase a product through these links, your cost will be the same but Healthy Inspiration will receive a small commission to help with the operating costs of this blog. Thank you for your support!

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