Healthy changes to holiday meals

A UCHealth chef and dietitian team up to provide tips on tackling this year’s food season and provide healthy alternatives to traditional Thanksgiving recipes.
Nov. 20, 2019

First, there is the Thanksgiving feast. Then, Christmas treats followed by New Year’s parties and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.

chef pointing to cooking instructions in front of a classroom of Aspen Club members.
Chef Matt Wallwork, general manager of Nutrition Services at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital, talks to Aspen Club members recently about healthy changes to holiday meals. Photos by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

It’s “food season,” the time from Thanksgiving to Easter.

“This is when people usually gain 1 to 5 pounds,” said Kimberly Jordan, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at UCHealth Longmont Clinic. People often struggle to shed the added weight because it’s gained so slowly and too much time passes before healthy eating habits return.

Jordan, along with chef Matt Wallwork, general manager of Nutrition Services at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital, teamed up to provide northern Colorado residents with a sample of healthy meals for Thanksgiving and tips for the journey though “food season.”

Tips for healthy holiday eating:

Try a smaller plate. Our actual plate size today — about 12 inches in diameter — is several inches larger and holds about double the potential calories (1,900 compared to 800) than plates used in the 1960s. Try using a salad or kid’s plate at your next meal.

registered dietitian speaks about healthy changes to holiday meals while hospital check looks on.
Kimberly Jordan, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at UCHealth Longmont Clinic, talks about healthy changes to holiday meals along with UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital chef Matt Wallwork during a UCHealth Aspen Club event at Longs Peak Hospital.

Fill up with the good (for you) foods. Eat a salad first, or fill at least half your plate with vegetables.

Give yourself time.  It takes about 15 minutes for your stomach to let your brain know you are full, Jordan said. So if you scarf down your meal in only 5 minutes and then head back for seconds, you’re not giving your body enough time to see if it’s even satisfied by your first bites. Try giving yourself at least 10 minutes before you go back for seconds.

Eat mindfully. Think about the BASICS of mindful eating.

B – Breathe and belly check for hunger and satiety before you eat.

A – Assess your food.

S – Slow down.

I – Investigate your hunger throughout your meal, particularly halfway through.

C – Chew your food thoroughly.

S – Savor your food.

More talking, less drinking. Alcohol is an appetite stimulant, so cutting consumption will help you cut the munching, Jordan said. By talking with others, you’re spending less time with food in your mouth.

Bring your own healthy dish. Double bonus: You’re not showing up empty-handed, and you know there will be at least one item you can eat guilt-free. Jordan enjoys the recipes she finds at Diabetes Food Hub.

Dish hummus next to a dish of cranberry chutney
Pumpkin sage hummus and cranberry chutney. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Take a walk. Get out with your guests, your kids, or your dog for a walk — before you eat, after you eat, or both. Holiday treats can contain hefty calories. To burn off the calories from one slice of pecan pie, for instance, you’ll need to walk for at least 90 minutes. One ounce of fudge will take about 19 minutes to burn. But don’t be discouraged and think you have to carve out a two-hour window for a walk — any walk is better than none.

Another key to remember: “Holiday eating is about how much and how often (not necessarily the what),” Jordan advised.

Here are some tips Wallwork shared about cooking:

  • Applesauce can be a substitute for a fat (such as butter) in a recipe. Also, try apple cider instead of water to add extra flavor in your dish.
  • Brine your turkey for great flavor. You don’t have to put tons of butter inside and out. Instead, try a mixture of olive oil and herbs above and below the skin.
  • Make your table decor edible. A bell pepper can be cut and stuffed with salad greens to make a nice decor and edible salad, or stuff a small roasted squash with berries and add sage leaves.
  • To accommodate your vegan and vegetarian friends, mushrooms are a great substitute for sausage in stuffing.
    chef cuts a pomegranate in quarters.
    Chef Matt Wallwork, general manager of Nutrition Services at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital, shows a secret to enjoying a pomegranate.
  • Does your recipe call for pomegranate? The secret is to quarter the fruit and then put it in water as you peel it apart. The seeds float to the top for easy gathering.
  • Gravy is all about how you build it. Use all the flavor from drippings so you’re not having to add extra fat. (But if you do need extra fat, Wallwork uses canola oil rather than olive oil because the flavor doesn’t need to be in the oil in this case.) Wallwork uses his extra cooked veggies, adds flour to the base, and then adds liquid. He leaves the veggies in for a chunky gravy and strains them out for a smoother gravy. Think 1:1 fat to flour to make a rue, then add 4 to 5 cups of liquid.
  • Wallwork said he always conducts a “test run” when using any new substitute to make sure it works before relying on it.

While preparing traditional Thanksgiving meals to be a bit more nutritious, Wallwork noted that changes to the traditional recipes were to main dishes, not desserts.

dish of holiday cookies
Maple Brown Sugar Cookies. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“Desserts are so good the way they are, so enjoy them just the way they are — just take a smaller portion,” said Julie Adams, manager of volunteer services at Longs Peak Hospital.

Julie helps manage classes hosted at LPH through the Aspen Club, a program that provides health education, screenings, hospital discounts and social opportunities to residents ages 50-plus. A free membership allows access to events in Longmont, Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley.


Here is that recipe and more to enjoy this holiday season.

Thanksgiving Holiday Menu

Pumpkin Sage Hummus
3 15 oz. cans chickpeas, drained but reserve 3/4 cup liquid from can
3/4 cup aquafaba (reserved bean liquid)
1 cup tahini
1/2 cup pureed pumpkin
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
4 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp. sage
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup olive oil

1. Add all ingredients to high speed blender and blend on high for up to 5 minutes. Pause as often as needed to scrape down the sides.
2. Blend until hummus reaches desired consistency. If for some reason it’s too dry, add more reserved chickpea liquid in 1 tbsp. intervals.
3. Serve with a drizzle 3 of olive oil, fresh sage and pomegranate arils.
This makes a large batch of hummus and is meant to serve a crowd. If making for yourself or a smaller group, we suggest halving the recipe.

Stuffed Acorn Squash
1 ½-2 cups cooked wild rice (cook per package directions)
½-1 tsp kosher salt (divided)
4 small acorn squashes, halved, stems removed, and seeded
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped (may use ½ large yellow onion, finely chopped)
4 large garlic cloves, minces
16 oz. baby bella cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
½ tsp black pepper
1 can garbanzo beans
(15 oz), rinsed and drained
½ cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup toasted peptias or chopped pecans
1-2 Tbsp. fresh thyme

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Brush baking sheet with olive oil. Brush the acorn squash with olive oil (inside and outside). Salt and pepper flesh sides to taste.  Place squash scooped sides/flesh down.
3. Roast for 25-30 minutes until desired tenderness. Cover and set aside until ready to stuff with rice mixture.
4. Heat 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil in large sauté pan over med-low heat. Add shallot and garlic, cook until softened and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add mushrooms, pepper, and pinch of salt. Cook until mushrooms are softened and browned. Add garbanzo beans, cranberries, pepitas, thyme, and cooked rice and stir through.
5. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
6. Stuff each acorn squash evenly with rice mixture. Top with goat cheese and serve.
Store leftovers in airtight container for up to five days.

Roasted Turkey with gravy

• 2 cups kosher salt
• 1 cup packed brown sugar
• 5 fresh sage leaves
• 1 fresh thyme sprig
• 1 fresh rosemary sprig
• 2 quarts water
• 2 quarts cold water
• 2 large turkey-size oven roasting bags
• 1 turkey (14 to 16 pounds)
• 2 cups butter, softened
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1 cup packed fresh parsley sprigs
• 1/3 cup fresh sage leaves
• 1/3 cup fresh rosemary leaves
• 1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves
• 2 garlic cloves
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon pepper

TOTAL TIME: Prep: 35 min. + marinating Bake: 3-3/4 hours + standing YIELD: 14 servings.
1. In a stockpot, combine the salt, brown sugar, sage, thyme, rosemary and 2 quarts water. Bring to a boil. Cook and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from the heat. Add cold water to cool the brine to room temperature.
2. Place a turkey-size oven roasting bag inside a second roasting bag; add turkey. Carefully pour cooled brine into bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible; seal bags and turn to coat. Place in a roasting pan. Refrigerate for 12-24 hours, turning occasionally.
3. Drain and discard brine; rinse turkey and pat dry. Tie drumsticks together. Place the remaining ingredients in a food processor, cover and process until smooth. With fingers, carefully loosen skin from turkey breast; rub half of the butter mixture under skin. Secure skin to underside of breast with toothpicks. Rub remaining butter mixture over skin.
4. Place turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Bake at 450° for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325°; bake 3-1/4 to 3-3/4 hours longer or until thermometer reads 180°, basting occasionally with pan drippings. Cover loosely with foil if turkey browns too quickly.
5. Remove turkey to a serving platter; cover and let stand for 20 minutes before carving. 

Quinoa Stuffing
5 ½ cups vegetable broth, divided
2 ½ cups rinsed quinoa
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp ground pepper
4 cups finely chopped kale
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
½ cup dried cranberries

1. Bring 5 cups broth to a boil in a large saucepan. Add quinoa, salt and pepper and return to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the quinoa is tender and the broth is absorbed, 18 to 22 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit undisturbed 5 minutes. Remove lid, stir in kale, cover and let sit.
2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
3. Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often until the onion is very soft and starting to brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Add garlic, sage, thyme and cinnamon and cook until fragrant, 30 to 90 seconds. Add celery and the remaining ½ cup broth, and cook, stirring often until the celery is crisp-tender and the liquid is mostly evaporated, 4 to 6 minutes.
4. Stir quinoa mixture, the celery mixture, walnuts and cranberries together in a large bowl. Transfer to the prepared baking dish.
5. Bake until the mixture is hot, the celery and kale are tender and the top is golden along the edges, 22 to 30 minutes, then serve.

Creamy Green Bean Casserole
Fried Onion Strings:
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 ¼ cup buttermilk
1 ¼ all-purpose flour
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp black pepper
Oil, for frying
Green Bean Casserole:
1 lb. fresh green beans, rinsed, ends trimmed, cut in half
2 Tbsp. butter
½ cup onion, diced
3-6 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1 tsp fresh thyme
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup low sodium chicken stock (or vegetable broth)
½ cup half and half

1. Prep: Place the sliced onions in a medium bowl with the buttermilk. Allow onions to soak for 1 hour. In another medium bowl, combine flour, salt, pepper, onion powder, and paprika. Remove 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture in a separate bowl to thicken the green bean casserole with; set aside.
2. Fry the onions: Heat a Dutch oven or a heavy bottom pot with a couple inches of oil to 375ºF. Working in small batches, place some of the onions from the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture and toss with hands until coated. Fry them in the oil for 3-5 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate, season with a pinch of salt. Repeat until all the onions have been fried.
3. Blanch the beans: Bring a large stockpot of water to boil. While the water is boiling, fill a large bowl with water and lots of ice, set aside. Season the boiling water with a tablespoon of salt and add the green beans into the boiling water and allow to cook for 3-5 minutes or until the green beans are bright green. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in ice water, set aside.
4. Casserole: Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter begins to crackle, add the onions and allow them to sweat for 3-4 minutes, stirring as required. Add the garlic and allow it to cook for 30 seconds before adding in the sliced mushrooms. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Let the mushrooms cook for 5 minutes or until they shrink in size.
5. Finish: Add the 2 tablespoons of reserved flour to the mushroom mixture and stir until all the veggies are coated, let cook 1 minute. Sprinkle the thyme and red pepper flakes. Slowly pour in the chicken stock while using your wooden spoon to stir. Scrape the bottom of the skillet to loosen any brown bits. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the sauce to thicken for 3-5 minutes. When the sauce has thickened a bit, add in the green beans and half and half, stir to combine. Kick the heat up to high and let casserole cook for 2-3 minutes or until it thickens to preferred consistency.
6. Top with fried onions before serving.
To make ahead, the casserole portion can be made up to 24 hours in advance. Reheat by adding the ingredients to a skillet. You may need additional milk or broth to help bring it back to desired consistency. It is not suggested to fry the onions ahead of time. These will taste best when made the day of.

Cranberry Chutney
2 cups fresh orange sections (peeled)
¼ cup orange juice
½ cup cranberry juice
4 cups cranberries, fresh
1 ½ cup honey
2 cups chopped apple (peeled if desired)
½ cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon or 2-3 cinnamon sticks

1. Place all ingredients in crock pot, cook on low for 6-8 hours
2. Chill and serve
You can also combine all ingredients in large saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes or until berries begin to pop.

Mini Pumpkin Pie
1 box store-bought double pie crust
1–15oz can pumpkin puree
1–14oz can sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs
2 tsp pumpkin spice (or 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp ginger)
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 425F and set aside two muffin pans.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, sweetened condensed milk, eggs and pumpkin spice until smooth. Set aside.
3. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the pastry crust to 12″ in diameter. Cut out seven 4″ circles. Fit the pastry circles into the muffin cups. Repeat with the second pastry crust. Reserve the scraps to make pie crust cookies if desired.
4. Fill each pastry cup almost to the top with the pumpkin mixture.
5. Bake for 15 minutes at 425F. Reduce the oven temperature to 350F and continue to bake for another 15 minutes or until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. The filling will puff up during baking and settle back down once cooled.
6. While the mini pies are baking, re-roll the scraps and cut out some holiday shapes for decoration.
7. Once the mini pies are done. Let cool completely in pan. See notes on how to best remove from pan.
8. Bake the cookies at 400F for about 10 minutes or until golden.
9. To make the whipped cream: Beat the whipping cream, sugar and vanilla until soft-medium peaks.
10. When ready to serve, top each pie with some whipped cream and a cut-out cookie.
The best way to remove the mini pies from the pan is to place a cooling rack (upside down) on top and flip the pan over. Then individually flip each pie right side up.

Maple Brown Sugar Cookie
2 and 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (spoon & leveled)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/3 cup pure maple syrup*
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp maple extract
1 cup chopped pecans*
Maple Icing:
2 Tbsp. (30g) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (80ml) pure maple syrup
1 cup (112g) sifted confectioners’ sugar*
pinch salt, to taste

1. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
2. Using a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and brown sugar together on medium speed until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Add the egg and beat on high until combined, about 30
seconds. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Add the maple syrup, vanilla extract, and maple extract, then beat on high speed until combined.
3. Pour the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, then mix on low until combined. Add the pecans, then beat on low speed until combined. Dough will be creamy and soft.
4. Cover and chill the dough for 2 hours in the refrigerator (and up to 3-4 days). If chilling for longer than a few hours, though, allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before rolling and baking because the dough will be quite hard.
5. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Line 2-3 large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Set aside.
6. Roll cookie dough into balls, about 1.5 Tablespoons of dough per cookie. Bake each batch for 12-13 minutes until lightly browned on the sides. The centers will look very soft.
7. Remove from the oven. If your warm cookies look puffy, lightly bang the pan on the counter when you remove it from the oven. That will help slightly deflate the cookies, creating lovely cracks. Cool cookies on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
8. Make the icing: In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and maple syrup together, whisking occasionally. Once the butter has melted, remove from heat and whisk in the sifted confectioners’ sugar. Taste. Add a pinch of salt, if desired. Drizzle over cooled cookies. Icing will set after about 1 hour.
9. Cookies stay fresh covered at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Make Ahead Instructions: You can make the cookie dough and chill it in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Allow to come to room temperature then continue with step 5. Baked cookies, with or without icing, freeze well for up to 3 months. Unbaked cookie dough balls freeze well for up to 3 months. Bake frozen cookie dough balls for an extra minute, no need to thaw.
Ingredient Notes:
Maple Syrup: Avoid “breakfast syrup” which doesn’t have the same robust maple flavor that pure syrup contains.
Pecans: The pecans are optional, but add wonderful flavor and texture. Feel free to leave them out or replace with chopped walnuts.
Confectioners’ Sugar: To avoid any lumps, sift the confectioners’ sugar.

Sweet Potato Toasts with Berries and Cashew 'Ricotta'
12 cooked according to package directions Original CAULIPOWER Sweet PotaTOASTS
1 1/2 cups raw cashews
2 tablespoons plus more for garnish maple syrup
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
for garnish raspberries
for garnish blueberries
for garnish blackberries
for garnish mint leaves

1. In a medium bowl, cover cashews with cold water and let sit at room temperature for 3 hours, then drain.
2. In a food processor, add drained cashew with ½ cup water, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.
Process until a creamy paste forms.
3. Spread cashew ‘ricotta’ over roasted sweet potato slices. Top with berries and mint leaves, then drizzle with more maple syrup and serve.

Sparkling Apple Cider Mocktail
1 bottle sparkling apple cider
1 orange sliced thinly
1 lime sliced thinly
1 grapefruit sliced thinly
large sprig rosemary
sliced into 1 inch long segments

1. Place 1 slice of orange, lime, and grapefruit in a glass, pour cider over fruit. Add small sprig of rosemary to each drink.
2. Serve.
Feel free to use just one type of citrus if that’s easier. Or swap out the
fruit for berries.
Slice up fruit, sprigs of rosemary, and leave a few bottles of sparkling cider on a table with these instructions if you’d like to have this drink at a DIY mocktail table.
Try these other ingredient ideas to add to your sparkling cider: fresh berries, thinly sliced citrus, fresh mint, rosemary, basil for garnish.


About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.