If you feel a bit of anxiety when thinking about the holiday food landscape, sadly, you are not alone. The pressure to “eat healthy” can turn holiday joy to holiday dread. It’s true that many holiday favorites are richer — higher in fat and sugar — than what we might choose for our day-to-day eating, but it’s surprising how many traditional holiday foods are quite nutritious, and rightly deserve a place in our meals and snacks outside the holiday season, as well. Here are my top picks.
Brussels sprouts. These cute little sprouts, which look like tiny cabbages, beat out the other common members of the cruciferous vegetable family (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage and mustard greens) for total amounts of glucosinolates, the phytochemicals that give this family their anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Roast or sauté them, or shred them for a festive holiday slaw, perhaps tossed with some dried cranberries and chopped pecans.
Cranberries. The beauty of these berries is one of the very reasons they’re nutrient powerhouses — their bright red color is the outward sign of the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer phytochemicals that lie within. Cranberries, much like other berries, are among the richest sources of antioxidants — just keep in mind that you don’t get the same benefit from jellied cranberry sauce that you do from eating the whole berries. While Wisconsin and Massachusetts are the biggest producers of cranberries in the U.S., they’re grown in the Northwest, too.
Pears. Pears have similar health benefits as apples and are rich in fiber — one pear has about 20% of your daily needs — and a variety of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C and potassium. Pears, especially red varieties, also contain an array of health-promoting phytochemicals. Pears don’t ripen on the tree, so allow them to ripen at room temperature until the neck (stem) end yields to gentle pressure. Note that pears do not change color as they ripen. Most pears in the grocery store come from the Northwest, and are good for snacking as well as for desserts both elegant — like poached pears in red wine — or more rustic, like a pear crisp. Or, add sliced pears to a holiday salad with walnuts or pecans and some blue cheese.
Pecans. All nuts are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, protein and fiber, but pecans are unique in that they contain multiple forms of vitamin E, and are especially rich in gamma-tocopherol. Gamma-tocopherol has been shown to inhibit oxidation of bad LDL cholesterol — important, because oxidized LDL contributes to inflammation in the arteries and is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pecans also have the distinction of being the only tree nut truly native to the United States. Make some spiced nuts to serve with cocktails, or sprinkle chopped pecans on oatmeal or add to pumpkin bread.
Sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes, with their vibrant orange flesh, are one of the best food sources of the antioxidant beta-carotene, the plant form of vitamin A, which is important for healthy eyes and healthy skin, among other things. They are also rich in vitamin C and anti-inflammatory antioxidants and phytochemicals. Although including some fat in your sweet potato recipe helps your body absorb all of that wonderful beta-carotene, many holiday sweet potato recipes are high enough in fat and sugar to count as dessert, so consider whether your old standard recipe could use a little tweaking.