Healthy Holiday Traditions That Can Last All Year

The holiday season is the time of year most associated with traditions. It makes sense that many of our favorite traditions would form and flourish when we are most likely to be spending the most time with close friends and family. And while the holidays are not the only time when families come together and traditions are formed, many of our longest-lasting and most memorable traditions revolve around food. 

It starts with Halloween — the candy. Next comes the Thanksgiving smorgasbord. Then more holiday food enters the picture throughout December with a grand finale on New Year’s Eve. When your holiday traditions involve making foods like cookies, cakes or breads, simple tweaking can turn cooking into a healthy holiday activity. Taking some time to identify and test recipes that have been modified to meet your dietary requirements will allow you to enjoy your holiday goodies without feeling restricted. Trying healthy new recipes is also a fun way to expand your baking or cooking repertoire. 


  • Instead of butter, substitute equal parts applesauce, vinegar or even avocados (the latter is great for chocolate dishes).
  • Instead of whole or heavy cream, substitute low-fat or condensed milk.
  • Instead of using only white flour, use half white and half whole-wheat flour.
  • Instead of adding chocolate chips or candies, use dried fruit like cranberries or cherries. If you're feeling super experimental, black bean brownies are nutritious and delicious, and the beans take on the characteristic of actual chocolate chips!
  • Use extracts like vanilla, almond and peppermint to add flavor, instead of sugar or butter.


  • Use vegetable oils such as olive oil instead of butter (use light olive oil when you don't want to impart any flavor — I even use light olive oil for baking sweets!). 
  • Use herbs and spices, like rosemary and cloves, to flavor dishes instead of salt.
  • Use whole-grain breads and pastas instead of refined grains. For a great example, see the heart-healthy stuffing recipe below.
  • Bake, grill or steam vegetables instead of frying (invest in a grill pan and I am certain you will not regret it!).
  • Certain dishes can be blended with puréed vegetables such as half cauliflower-half potato for a savory-yet-nutrient-dense Thanksgiving side dish.


  • Limit adding sugar to mixed drinks and opt for 100-percent juice (with bubbly water) or use freshly squeezed juice, like lime.
  • Instead of using sugar to sweeten cider, use spices and fruit such as cinnamon, cloves and cranberries.
  • Mix alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks with bubbly water instead of super sweet, sugar-laden mixes. 
  • Spiced rums, though high in calories, if used sparingly can actually replace the sugar called for in many eggnog recipes.

So, whether you're in the mood for a dash of cinnamon or a good, old-fashioned meal with the family, give yourself permission to keep these healthy holiday traditions going throughout the year. Your mind, body and spirit will thank you for it.

Savory (and Versatile) Whole Grain Stuffing

Recipe developed by Andrea Teresa Roche, MS, RD, LDN

Serves 8

This stuffing has never seen a box! This savory side dish also begs for your creativity — mix and match different types of whole grain breads, veggies, nuts and herbs. It can also easily be made vegan/vegetarian-friendly by swapping vegetable stock for the chicken stock. I also love to use this recipe as a stuffing for peppers, tomatoes (add some gruyere for a lovely Tomatoes Provencal), or for stuffed zucchinis.

1 loaf whole grain bread toasted and cut into ½-inch thick cubes (be creative and mix whole grain breads with rye)
1 can chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh, chopped sage, rosemary and thyme

3 shallots chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

3 stalks celery, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

¾ cup mushrooms finely chopped
¼ cup toasted pecans

Salt and pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 375ºF.
  2. Sauté shallot, celery and the carrot in the olive oil.
  3. When the shallots become translucent, add the garlic, mushroom and herbs.
  4. After about 2 minutes, pour the stock/broth into the pan, season with the cayenne and salt and pepper as needed, and let the mixture sauté for 1 to 2 more minutes.
  5. Toast sliced bread for a slightly sweeter taste, then tear or cut bread into approximately ½-inch squares and place in a 2 ¾-quart casserole dish. If using old bread, there is no need to toast.
  6. Remove the mixture from the stove and pour it over the bread. Add pecans. Mix well and bake uncovered at 375ºF for about 45 minutes to an hour. For best results, stir at least once (but only once — you don't want goo!).
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Andrea Teresa Roche
Andrea Teresa Roche, MS, RD, LDN, is a research dietitian specializing in maternal and child health and the treatment of disordered eating. Her research extends beyond the clinic to the culinary scene. You can follow on her website, The Research Kitchen.