How to Enjoy Holiday Side Dishes Without a Side of Regret

Vanessa Raymond Fact Checked
Mashed sweet potatoes with bacon
© Darren Muir / Stocksy United

Creamed onions, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams or all of the above?

Most families have favorite side dishes that grace their tables come the holiday season. There’s a reason why we call these family faves comfort foods: Along with their high calorie count, they’re high in nostalgia and sentimental value, too.

You have good memories of eating Aunt Mabel’s sweet potato pie year after year, and clinical dietitian Judy Simon, M.S., R.D., who practices at University of Washington Medical Center–Roosevelt, is not about to advise you to stop.

But Simon does have tips for enjoying holiday side dishes minus the regret that can often accompany them.

Enjoy your favorites in moderation

“If Christmas always comes with buttery sour-cream-and-bacon mashed potatoes on the side, then by all means, have the buttery sour-cream-and-bacon mashed potatoes. Don’t pretend that cauliflower mash is an acceptable substitute,” says Simon. 

Instead Simon advises that you opt for a dollop-sized portion instead of, say, the more mammoth-sized helping that might be your usual m.o. 

And surround that buttery, bacony mound with vegetable-heavy options on every side because…

Variety is the spice of any table or plate

“Even people who really enjoy family food traditions are usually willing to try new additions as long as the old ones don’t immediately go away,” says Simon.

By strategically interspersing vegetable-heavy side dishes with the calorie bombs, you’ll not only enliven the presentation but encourage people to fill their plates with veggies without them even realizing it. 

“Salads can tend to go by the wayside come holiday dinner, but who doesn’t want to try a colorful, textured green salad with interesting toppings like pomegranate seeds or whole-grain artisan bread croutons?” says Simon. 

You don’t have to avoid high-calorie items altogether: Scattered sparingly as a garnish, nuts, seeds, cheeses and dried fruit can add further texture, color, crunch and variety to dishes that are straight out of your Salad Samurai cookbook.  

“A buffet, loaded with a variety of colors and textures, can also whet your appetite for healthier foods. Remember that we eat with our eyes, too,” says Simon.

Lighten up appetizers to make room for favorite sides 

Since you’re about to eat a meal that is larger than an average day’s calories, you don’t need fat-laden cheeses as a starter. And unless your family has a cheese whisperer, chances are they won’t even notice when you replace the pressed curds and empty-calorie crackers with olives, roasted red pepper hummus, baba ganoush and other healthier more vegetable-centric appetizers.

“Most families have traditions that center around the meal itself or dessert, whereas appetizers tend to be interchangeable,” says Simon.

You’ll be sneaking in some healthier foods and leaving room for those decadent side dishes that just wouldn’t be the same without a heavy dose of cream and butter. Or lard. Or duck fat. Or, well you get the idea…

If you really can’t go without the crackers and cheese, opt for lighter cheeses like feta instead of the triple-crème brie and replace the butter crackers with melt-in-your-mouth thin wafers instead.

“You don’t want to spend 600 calories on appetizers before you even get to all your favorites,” says Simon.

Pace yourself for the meal at hand, and the season 

You can skip the app and the calculator, but as any good gourmand knows, you need to keep an approximate count of calories in versus calories out, and pace yourself accordingly.

Here’s how it works. Remember the cream that you avoided by eliminating brie as an appetizer? You’ve got a cream allotment coming that you may want to “spend” on twice-baked scalloped potatoes.

By keeping a very rough tab of your fat and calorie consumption — and using some internal math to square that against your calorie expenditure — you can still enjoy yourself without ending up uncomfortably full.

“Absolutely do have your all-time favorite high-calorie foods or you’ll feel deprived. Just keep in mind that if this is the first party of the season and there are 17 more coming, you can’t go all out like you might for just one special occasion,” says Simon.

Make a nutrient-dense version of a family favorite

Take the green bean casserole. Let’s say your family’s favorite is the classic version: canned green beans mixed with canned mushroom soup and topped with fried onions and bacon bits.

Challenge yourself to create a healthier version of a classic favorite like this and take the nutrition level up a notch in the process.

“If you use fresh, local green beans, make a fresher sauce from scratch with vegetable broth or wine, and include fresh herbs, people might like it even better,” says Simon.

The internet is full of the classic recipes you grew up with reworked to maintain their deliciousness while improving their nutritional value. And you can always make both the classic version and the new version for starters — until the family not only accepts but prefers your new and improved take.

If the green bean casserole recipe is sacrosanct, focus instead on reworking auxiliary dishes that people are less likely to notice.

Eat local and make your food from scratch

When in Potato Land, eat potatoes. And if you live in Washington state — news flash — you not only live in Potato Land but Apple Kingdom, Green Bean Valley and Brussels Sproutsville, too. Using fresh, local ingredients is a wonderful way to encourage consumption of fresh produce because locally grown fruits and vegetables are as tasty as they get.

“When you make food from scratch using high-quality ingredients, the flavor will end up rich even though the calorie count is low,” says Simon.

Drizzle seasonal vegetables with olive oil and fresh herbs, shallots and garlic, and no one will miss the cheese-heavy casserole this dish replaces.

“People will also enjoy that you put effort into making a special homemade dish instead of bringing something out of a box that is only mediocre,” says Simon.

Schedule your meal for 2 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.

You’ve heard the real estate mantra: location, location, location? Simon has a similar mantra for your holiday meal: timing, timing, timing.

That’s because by having your holiday meal midday, you leave lots of time to digest your food and even burn some calories off before bedtime. It also gives you a chance to integrate activities other than food consumption into your holiday tradition.

Maybe your family can enjoy ice skating at Seattle Center or the garden lights at Bellevue Botanical Garden as part of your traditional holiday festivities. Even something as simple as a walk around the neighborhood is an improvement over table time.

“It’s an easy way to take the focus off of food only and make the holiday more about enjoying all the sights, sounds and experiences that create meaning for any get-together. Every gathering can benefit from traditions that extend beyond the table,” says Simon.

Keep the holiday spirit in mind

Healthy side dishes can be delicious holiday side dishes, but remember that what matters more than the nutritional content of your meal is the experience of the holiday itself.

“Every food choice doesn’t have to be about health only,” says Simon. “There’s something to be said for eating those special holiday dishes that really nurture the heart and soul.”