It can be hard to eat healthy around the holidays.

Really hard.

Turkey, ham, stuffing. Mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole. Cookies, caramels, pies, jellos … The tasty temptations abound, splayed out across tables at family Christmas gatherings (and some families have a few of those), work potlucks and other group functions.

For a lot of folks, the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year is a time of food. A time to satisfy that sweet tooth, indulge those savory cravings, and get good and full — or, as is often the case, overfull.

It creates a real challenge for people who are trying to eat healthy, or who need or want to follow a special diet. Dietary restrictions are becoming more and more common, with a growing number of people discovering they have food allergies, or needing or choosing to follow a gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian, low-carb, or Keto diet, among myriad others.

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Staying “on the wagon” with these diets isn’t always easy — especially around the holidays.

Alexa Stelzer, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Essentia Health St. Mary’s in Detroit Lakes, said the biggest thing people can do to keep their food intake in check is to change their mindsets about the importance of food. To think about food less, and loved ones more.

“For all people, whether on a special diet or not,” Stelzer said, “make the focus of the gathering be about connecting with and spending time with people, not so much about food … Focus on having great conversations, rather than circling back to the food table. That can be really helpful.”

In her role at Essentia, Stelzer works with clients one-on-one and in group settings, in both the hospital and clinic. Around the holidays, she commonly talks to them about how they can stick to their usual eating patterns in this unusually bountiful season. Some have strict guidelines they absolutely must stick to at all times of the year, such as a diabetes diet or a peanut allergy, while others are just trying to make gradual, healthy lifestyle changes.

“I feel like more and more people are needing to follow special diets,” she said. “And I think a lot of people are becoming health conscious and … are trying to follow diet patterns and eating patterns that they recognize can make them feel better in the long term.”

Yes, Virginia, there is a healthy way to celebrate the holidays. (File Photo)
Yes, Virginia, there is a healthy way to celebrate the holidays. (File Photo)

Her recommended diets vary from person to person, but no matter what, she always tells her clients to develop eating plans they can realistically continue for years to come.

“There are pros and cons to most any way of eating, but for a diet to be successful long-term, it has to be a diet that you can stick with,” she said.

This can be trickier to do around the holidays, not only because of the tempting foods all around, but also because of the extended duration of the season.

“It's pretty easy, if you're following a diet, to stick to it over one day,” Selzer said. “It's when we have multiple parties that we're going to, and we're continuing to not follow our eating plans over a longer period of time (that we run into trouble).”

To avoid the pitfalls of overindulgence and unhealthy eating, she suggests people fill their holiday plates half-full with vegetables before adding any other types of food. This ensures a sizable portion of low-calorie, low-carb, fiber-rich, nutritional foods, and leaves less room on the plate for less healthy options.

Also, she recommends leaving leftovers at the party, instead of offering to take them home. Or, for those who host, sending leftovers home with guests who want them.

Probably the most important thing anyone can do, though, at any time of the year, is pay attention to every morsel that enters their mouth.

“One of the most common things that I talk about this time of year, with holiday eating, is practicing mindful eating — whether you’re following a special diet or not,” Stelzer said. “Mindful eating is being really conscious of what and how you're eating. With mindful eating principles, you really slow down and savor the foods as you're eating them.”

By tuning in to the smell, sight and taste of the foods you eat, she explained, you become more aware of the act of eating, and more easily recognize when you’re satisfied and have had enough.

“That's something I work with people on a lot — being aware of hunger and recognizing that full feeling in your body, and remembering that if you continue to eat, you're going to get really uncomfortable,” Stelzer said.

If you practice mindful eating, focus on family over food, stack your plate with veggies first, and leave the leftovers for someone else, “you don’t have to completely derail your diet over the holidays,” she added. “A number of people put their healthy patterns on hold through the holidays and then try to 'catch up' afterward. But … it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing sort of thing.”

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

Dealing with a special diet? Follow these tips for happy holiday mealtimes

Alexa Stelzer, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Essentia Health St. Mary’s, says planning is the key to successful holiday meals for those who are on a special diet, whether it’s vegan, low-carb, gluten-free or any number of others out there.

Stelzer offers the following tips for those who want or need to stay on the wagon:

  1. Give the host a heads up. The host wants everyone at the party to have a good time and have options available for food, so a heads-up is usually appreciated. If they seem receptive, provide a little education about which ingredients to avoid and how to minimize risk of cross-contamination. Don’t expect everything to be compliant with your diet, but the host can often make some modifications, such as cooking turkey and stuffing separately (to keep the turkey gluten-free), or making the salad a build-your-own option rather than mixing all the ingredients together ahead of time.

  2. Bring a dish everyone can enjoy. Bring something that you absolutely love that complies with your diet. Then even if everything else is off-limits, you’ll still have an option you enjoy and that will satisfy you. Even better if you can bring a main dish and a dessert to make sure you get something hearty as well as something sweet. There are lots of specialized baking mixes that make the dessert side of things easy. And there is always the fresh fruit and veggie tray option, which is safe for most people. If cross contamination is a concern, be sure to bring your own serving utensils.

  3. Prepare for questions. People will likely be curious about why you are eating the way you are. It is helpful to have some basic responses prepared. If you feel uncomfortable getting into details, leave your answers vague and say something like, “I just feel better when eating this way,” or “I need to follow this diet for health reasons.” You may also want to direct the curious to a relevant article or documentary for more information. You have no responsibility to educate and inform people if you don’t want to. On the other hand, avoid educating and informing everyone you meet about the many reasons for your special diet if they aren’t asking or interested.

  4. Express gratitude. Even the smallest efforts people make to provide appropriate dishes for you or to learn more about your special diet are worthy of a genuine “thank you.”

  5. Consider being a host yourself. As a host, you have control over most of the food choices and the way they are prepared. You may want to avoid serving some of the “out there” foods from your special diet if your guests have never experienced them, unless you have an adventurous group. It be more crowd-pleasing to adapt classic holiday favorites to be compliant with your diet. The internet can be a great resource for finding appropriate substitutions, modified recipes, or entire diet-specific cookbooks. If guests want to bring a dish, make suggestions that would be safe for you, or just allow them to bring their favorites so you know they’ll have an option they’re familiar with and enjoy. Be proactive and ask your guests ahead of time if they are following any special diets that you can help accommodate.

Vegan Gluten-Free Shepherd’s Pie

Stelzer describes this as “a wonderful comfort dish.” Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup green lentils
  • 3 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 medium carrot, finely grated
  • 1 heaping tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato puree
  • 14 oz. can chopped tomatoes
  • ½ cup frozen green peas
  • ¼ tsp. red chili flakes
  • A bunch of fresh coriander
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Cook the lentils according to the package instructions. Set aside.

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  • Place sweet potatoes in a pot, season with salt and pepper, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium heat and cook until potatoes are soft. Cool slightly before mashing. Set aside.

  • Fry the onions and garlic in a pan with the olive oil on low to medium heat until just softened. Add grated carrot and cook for a further two minutes. Stir in tomato puree, paprika and chili flakes and cook for a further two minutes.

  • Add cooked lentils into the pan with the onion and garlic mixture and mix well. Stir in chopped tomatoes and peas and cook on medium heat for about five minutes. Take the pan off the heat, add freshly chopped coriander and season with salt and pepper.

  • Transfer the lentil mixture into an oven-proof dish and spread evenly. Top with sweet potato mash (use a fork to spread the mash evenly).

  • Bake for 10-15 minutes or until the mash is starting to turn golden brown.

  • Optional: For extra flavor, add a sprinkle of dairy-free cheese before putting it in the oven.

Submitted by Alexa Stelzer; adapted from fitfoodienutter.com

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

Vegan Gluten-Free Black Bean Brownies

“You wouldn’t know they’re not regular brownies,” Stelzer says. Serves 12.

Ingredients

  • 1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 large flax eggs (or chicken eggs if not vegan)
  • 3 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
  • ¾ cup cocoa powder
  • ¼ tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ heaping cup organic cane sugar (slightly ground or pulsed in a food processor or coffee grinder for refined texture)
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
  • *Optional toppings include crushed walnuts, pecans or dairy-free semi-sweet chocolate chips

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees

  • Lightly grease a 12-slot standard size muffin pan

  • Prepare flax egg by combining 2 heaping Tbsp. flaxseed meal and 6 Tbsp. water in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a couple times and then let rest for a few minutes.

  • Add remaining ingredients and puree for about three minutes, scraping down sides as needed. The final mixture should be slightly less thick than chocolate frosting. If the batter appears too thick, add a Tbsp. or two of water and pulse again.

  • Evenly distribute the batter into the muffin tin and smooth the tops with a spoon or your finger.

  • Optional: Sprinkle with your topping of choice.

  • Bake for 20-26 minutes or until the tops are dry and the edges start to pull away from the sides.

  • Remove from oven and let cool for 30 minutes. Gently remove from pan, using a fork. The insides should be fudgy and moist.

  • Store in an airtight container for up to a few days; refrigerate to keep longer.

Submitted by Alexa Stelzer; adapted from minimalistbaker.com