We're heading into the biggest eating season of the year. And after nearly two years of battling COVID, we are probably all ready for some holiday comfort eating. But what about those who want to step away from the traditional approach to holiday feasting and go a healthier route?

That’s where Kimberly Spatola, registered dietitian at the Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute offered her expertise, and in doing so, helped lead me to four important realizations about holiday eating.

Realization No. 1: Make the time to personally prepare your holiday dishes for optimum quality control.

“When you're talking about healthy holiday meals or anything like that, it’s making sure that you are preparing it yourself,” Spatola said. “Because it's always going to be healthier when you prepare the meal versus having someone else prepare the meal for you.” That’s because processed and convenience foods are typically loaded with more oil, sugar and sodium than what we make at home.

“At the end of the day, the biggest thing you want to make sure of is that you are feeling good with what you're making. If we’re taking time and care to prepare what we're making, we love it better,” Spatola added.

Spatola mug
Kimberly Spatola

Spatola said that every item you make doesn’t have to be the healthiest version, but she advised to not forget a vegetable side dish or a salad with your meal. “Try to get more colorful vegetables in your meal, so you have more a balanced plate,” she said.

Realization No. 2: Holiday decorations shouldn’t be the only colorful aspect of your celebrations. Be sure your plate is just as colorful to ensure balance.

I had an amateur’s idea of what a balanced plate might be, but I was curious as to how she’d explain it.

“I would say, if you take your plate, divide it in half, ideally we want that half of the plate to be really colorful with fruits or vegetables,” she said. “This is where the vegetable side dishes would be perfect. Then, a quarter of the plate being some type of protein source; this could be coming from your traditional turkey, or it could be beans if you're vegetarian. And the last quarter of the plate being some type of starchy item, such as a potato dish, stuffing, rice, pasta or anything like that,” Spatola said.

“If we think about a balanced plate, we have fiber-rich vegetables, some protein and some starches. The key to having a balanced plate is having all of those components.”

Realization No. 3: Be the change you want to see at the dinner table. Just don’t tell your family in advance.

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If your holiday experiences are like some that Spatola has attended, you may need to take the initiative and bring the changes you want to see to the dinner table. For instance, to balance the various heavy dishes and lack of lean meat at past holiday gatherings, Spatola began making the holiday turkey, and, in the process, put a healthy spin on such holiday classics as green bean casserole.

I decided ‘I'm going to change it up.’ I wanted to completely overhaul the typical casserole. So, I got fresh green beans; instead of the cream of mushroom soup, I made a cauliflower “cream” sauce, which was just cooked cauliflower blended up with chicken stock until it got creamy; sautéed mushrooms and onions together, and I still put the crunchy onion strips on top just to keep that holiday aspect,” Spatola said.

“But I didn't tell my family what I did. And after the meal they said ‘Wow, this is the best green bean casserole you ever made!’” (Sadly, she basically wings it every year and doesn’t really have a recipe to share. We’ve asked her to take notes this year. And she better.)

Realization No. 4: A healthier holiday meal is not simply about eating more greens or reducing portions, but rather the ingredient choices we make, the mindset we have about “good” or “bad” foods and our approach to them.

Spatola had a buffet of other good ideas and bits of advice, including:

  • Eat breakfast before your holiday meal: “If you wake up and eat nothing until Thanksgiving dinner, your energy’s depleted throughout the day, you probably will get to the point where you're starving, and your blood sugars are low. You don't want to get to the point where you’re ravenous.”
  • Don’t overdo it: “Give your brain 20 minutes to signal to your stomach that you are full. Eat slower and start out with smaller amounts.”
  • Food guilt: “I never want anyone to feel bad about eating something they enjoy. It's OK to like what is quote-unquote, unhealthy. But it really comes down to your mindset and how you talk about food. In my book, there are no good and bad foods, there are foods.”

With Thanksgiving and December celebrations approaching fast, knowing that you don’t have to deprive yourself from your favorite holiday foods in effort to be “healthier” is definitely information to savor.

In speaking with Spatola, for me, the greatest takeaway was to be realistic about your relationship with food and your intentions.

Having a balanced state of mind will help us make the healthier decisions necessary to build balanced plates such as the kind Spatola described. In my opinion, taking this approach can help us do what’s best not only for the mind, but also the body, and soul.

Below are some delicious examples of holiday recipes she suggested that can help on the journey toward healthier cooking.

Herb-roasted turkey breast


  • 1 (6 lbs.) bone-in turkey breast, halved, skin removed
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage leaves
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


  1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Pat the turkey breast completely dry.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper; rub mixture onto the turkey breast.
  3. Transfer turkey to a roasting pan and roast until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the turkey registers between 165°F and 170°F, or roughly 60 to 75 minutes.
  4. Lightly cover with foil and let rest 10-15 minutes before carving

Calories 173, protein 32.1g, carbs 04.g, fat 3.9g, cholesterol 85mg, sat fat 0.9g, fiber 0.1g, sugar 0g, sodium 142.3mg. Yield: 16 servings. Serving size: 4 oz. cooked.

Kale and Brussels sprout salad



  • 1 bunch of Brussels sprouts
  • 1 large bunch kale, stems removed (about 5 cups)
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Freshly ground black pepper


  1. Trim the Brussels sprouts and cut them in quarters. For the kale, discard stems and finely chop. Add both the sprouts and kale to a large bowl. Set aside.
  2. To make the vinaigrette: mix all ingredients in a Mason jar and shake with lid tightly sealed to combine.
  3. Add to salad mixture and massage the vinaigrette into the kale.
  4. Add cranberries, toss again to combine. Cover salad and place in refrigerator at least an hour and up to overnight for flavors to meld.
  5. Once ready to serve, add almonds and Parmesan to salad and toss to combine.

Calories 147.8, protein 7.4g, carbs 16.5g, fat 7.2g, cholesterol 7.2mg, sat fat 1.7g, fiber 5g, sugar 7.2g, sodium 174.4mg Yield: 6 servings. Serving size: 1/6 salad

Unbelievable chocolate cake

Cake ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup silken tofu, firm
  • 1 1/2 cups low-fat milk (or unsweetened almond milk)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/4 cup canola oil

Icing ingredients

  • 1/4 cup butter, unsalted
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons low-fat milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 6 ounces powdered sugar, sifted


  1. Heat oven to 350° F. Spray either a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish or two 9-inch round pans with cooking spray and lightly flour. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together both flours, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
  3. In a blender or large food processor, puree tofu with milk until smooth. Then add in vanilla, applesauce and oil and blend until smooth.
  4. Pour tofu mixture into bowl with flours and gently fold together until fully combined. Be careful not to overmix.
  5. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow cake to cool fully.
  6. While cake is baking, place butter in medium microwave safe bowl and microwave in 15-second intervals until butter is fully melted. Add in remaining icing ingredients and whisk until icing is completely smooth. If necessary, thin icing with milk, adding in one teaspoon at a time.
  7. Frost cake with icing once cake has completely cooled.

Calories 277, protein 4.3g, carbs 48.2g, fat 8.8g, cholesterol 9.6mg, sat fat 2.9g, fiber 2.3g, sugar 34.6g, sodium 298.8mg Serving size: 1/16 of cake. Yield:16 servings