Healthy swaps for your holiday favorite foods (and drinks)

The holiday season is here! Every year I look forward to the downtime with friends and family and of course, the food. For many people, the holidays can also be a source of anxiety and fear of getting off-track with their healthy eating plan. In general, I’m not a fan of meal plans that are so rigid, we feel like we’re either “on” or “off” them. For me, successful healthy eating is more about finding the balance where I can enjoy the foods I love without compromising my health.

One way I stay on top of my diet during the holidays is by looking for those sneaky foods (and beverages) that are higher in calories than I’d imagine. Once identified, I can either choose to have them in moderation or swap them out for a healthier option as needed.

Here’s my guide to the sneakiest holiday culprits we should be aware of:



Soup season is my favorite time of year. A good, hearty soup will warm your soul and your bones. If you’re not careful, soups can also be a source of extra calories. When eating out, skip the cream-based soups for clear broth-based soups. Bread bowls are a hard-pass, as they easily double the calories of a soup. When cooking, you can skip the butter or cream and instead use a smaller amount of olive oil.

Cocktail parties and dinners out come with their own particular challenges. Appetizers can be the sneakiest place for calories, even when choosing more vegetarian-based options. Spreads like hummus or spinach & artichoke dip have a small serving size. Keep it to two thumb-sized portions of dip on the plate or swap out for a lower calorie dip like a yogurt-based sauce.

Probably the biggest culprit for extra calories at holiday parties are the cheese & cured meat plates. I could live on a good cheese plate, but we can also quickly overdo the portion sizes. Try to load up your appetizer plate with mostly veggies and keep the meat or cheese to only 2-3 ounces for a better balance. If it’s a thin sliced meat or cheese, a 1-ounce serving will be about the size of your palm. If cubed, a 1-ounce serving is about the size of your knuckle.


Holiday Drinks

The holidays can be a very boozy time of year. One way to cut back on the alcohol calories without cutting back on the fun is to know which drinks to watch out for. I’m looking at you cocktails! In general, mixed drinks are laden with juice, sugar and other added sweeteners which can double or triple the calories. Instead choose a more consistent calorie drink such as a glass of wine or a 5-6% alcohol beer (either drinks are about 100 calories each).

If choosing liquor, use zero calorie mixers like seltzer or soda water, fresh lemon & lime juice. You can find a great list of low-calorie holiday cocktails from SELF.

Other holiday drinks that may spike your calorie intake include spiked punch and eggnog. Either of these drinks can contain close to 400 calories per glass. Swap punch for a wine spritzer with fresh fruit. Eggnog can be made with lowfat milk for a lower calorie option. Skinnytaste has a lower fat eggnog recipe that won’t disappoint.


Hot Coffee Drinks

Alcoholic drinks are not the only beverages that are sneaking calories into our diets. Even bigger contributors are those hot beverages that we may be consuming on a regular basis including flavored lattes (yes, even the pumpkin spice or caramel lattes). Some of our favorite holiday drinks at Starbucks can really pack a calorie punch.

A grande pumpkin spice latte with whip is 420 calories and a grande salted caramel mocha with whip is 500 calories. Swapping out the whole milk for almond or non-fat milk and skipping the whip takes hundreds of calories off the total. Asking for a “skinny” version can knock off even more calories. During the holidays, I love to get my pumpkin spicy fix by simply adding a dash of pumpkin spice to my coffee in the morning. It’s a zero calorie option to start the day off on a festive note.


Veggie Side Dishes (that are too good to be true)

It’s easy to assume that the vegetarian/veggie side dishes on the holiday table are the lower calorie options, but that’s not always the case! Some traditional sides that are actually high calorie include sweet potato sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows, corn casserole or mac & cheese. If you’re just a guest at the table, try to choose a smaller portion of these items and instead load up your plate with other non-starchy veggies like greens, broccoli or salad.

If you’re cooking, swap the sweet potato casserole for whole baked sweet potatoes instead. The natural buttery sweetness of the baked sweet potatoes really comes through when baked for a long time, eliminating the need for added sweeteners or butter. Corn casserole is traditionally made with cream, sour cream butter and cheese. I love this Pickled Plum corn casserole recipe that is not only delicious but swaps out those fats for lighter options.

Mac & cheese is my all-time favorite side dish (and main entree). Although I’d rather have a little bit of the real-thing, if you’re looking for a healthier swap-out, try this homemade mac and cheese recipe by Skinnytaste. By adding in non-starchy veggies like broccoli, it’s also a great way to sneak more veggies onto the table.


By choosing the healthier swap and minding portions sizes, you can absolutely have a happy AND healthy holiday season. Cheers!

Photo credit (Stefanie Mendez): a dash of pumpkin spice in my morning coffee, a low-calorie option good enough to have every day!

By: Stefanie Mendez, MS RD CDN

Nick VanMeter