One of the most joyous aspects of the holiday season is gathering with family and friends to share a bounty of seasonal foods — especially all the indulgent snacks and rich side dishes. But for people who are trying to eat healthier, a table filled with holiday dishes high in fat, salt and sugar poses a challenge.

Fortunately, with a few creative recipes and simple substitutions, most holiday dishes can be lightened up without sacrificing flavor. Best of all, sneaking in some healthy substitutes can make you feel better about dishing up a serving of the foods you really crave.

Getty Food Diary
Registered dietitians help us figure out food.

Learn more

“Food is awesome! It’s a big part of our lives and an important part of celebrating, especially during the holidays,” said Monica Nedeff, a registered dietitian at CoreLife Novant Health - Highland Oaks, in Winston-Salem. “So I’m all for having an appropriate portion of that special food you really want — sitting down and really savoring it, in the midst of all the wonderful holiday vibes.”

To show how simple it is to create modern, healthy versions of some holiday staples, Nedeff offered the following tips and recipes. From a party-worthy appetizer to a holiday treat that makes a wonderful hostess gift, she’s got you covered.

A special snack (and wonderful gift)

Easy spiced walnuts

This spiced walnuts recipe is a healthier version of candied nuts, which are popular snacks and gift options around the holidays. I called it spiced instead of candied, because it’s much lower in sugar. Instead, my version offers just the right amount of sweetness and highlights all the spices and the rich nutty flavor of the walnuts.

They’re inexpensive to make, so you can cook up a big batch and package them in jars with ribbon bows for holiday and hostess gifts. But you can also leave them in little candy dishes around the house for nibbling — or even toss them on a salad or on your morning oatmeal to add some protein, healthy fats and a little sweetness and crunch.

Recipe: Monica Nedeff’s easy spiced walnuts

  • 3 cups raw walnuts
  • 1 egg white
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice


Preheat oven to 325.

Whip the egg whites in a bowl until they’re foamy and add the walnuts, stirring to coat completely. Remove nuts into a clean bowl.

Mix the sugar, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and salt together. Sprinkle over the egg-white coated walnuts and mix well. Add the orange juice and mix well.

Spread the coated walnuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 20 minutes, turning the walnuts after 10 minutes to make sure they are evenly toasted.

Remove walnuts from the oven and allow to cool on the baking sheet. Note: They will be soft immediately after baking, but will harden and crisp up as they rest on the counter.

Nutrition per serving (recipe yields 12 servings): 212 calories; 9 grams carbohydrates (5 grams sugar, 2 grams dietary fiber); 5 grams protein; 19 grams fat (2 grams saturated); 103 milligrams sodium.

An elegant appetizer

Pomegranate and pistachio crostini

This is a beautiful, festive appetizer! And it’s also loaded with nutrition.

Crostini are slices of toasted bread that are small in diameter. Using a whole wheat baguette is perfect, because it provides lots of fiber to help you feel full longer. The recipe also offers healthy fats from olive oil, and antioxidants and other nutrients from pomegranate seeds, pumpkin seeds and pistachios.

I often encourage people to use fresh herbs and spices for flavoring, which allows you to cut down on added sugar and salt. Of course, if you have trouble getting fresh herbs, it’s fine to use the dried versions. Either way, they’ll provide great health benefits.

Recipe: Pomegranate and pistachio crostini

  • 36 slices (1/4 inch each) of whole wheat baguette
  • Olive oil
  • 4 ounces mild, soft goat cheese
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds)
  • 1/2 cup pistachios, chopped


Preheat oven to 400.

Set goat cheese out to soften.

Meanwhile: Place the whole-wheat baguette slices (crostini) on a baking sheet. Put 1/4 cup of olive oil into a small bowl and use a pastry brush to brush it onto each slice. Place in oven and toast until golden. Set aside to cool.

When cheese is soft enough to work with, mix in honey. Spread the sweetened cheese evenly across the crostini. Carefully top with pomegranate arils, pistachios and tiny sprigs of fresh rosemary. Arrange on a platter to serve.

Nutrition per serving (recipe yields 8 servings): 170 calories; 20 grams carbohydrates (4 grams sugar, 2 grams dietary fiber); 7 grams protein; 7 grams fat (3 grams saturated); 181 milligrams sodium.

Adapted from:

Side dishes that should have a starring role

Sweet potato bites

The idea behind this sweet potato recipe is to create a healthier version of the traditional casserole by decreasing the amount of added sugars and fats, and making portion control a little easier. You’re still getting all the great nutrition and fiber sweet potatoes offer, along with some healthy fats from the pecans.

But never fear — sweetened with maple syrup and topped with marshmallows, it’s still absolutely delicious! This crowd-pleaser is easy to assemble, looks beautiful and would travel well, making it the perfect side dish to bring to a holiday party.

Recipe: Sweet potato bites

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 (10-ounce) bag marshmallows
  • 1/2 cup pecan halves


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Peel sweet potatoes and slice into rounds 1/4-inch thick.

In a large mixing bowl, toss sweet potato rounds with melted butter and maple syrup, then arrange in a single layer on baking sheet. Season with salt.

Bake, turning once halfway through, for about 20 minutes or until tender. Remove baking sheet from oven and set oven to “broil.”

Top each sweet potato round with a marshmallow and broil until marshmallow is puffed and golden. Remove from oven. Immediately press a pecan half into each marshmallow and serve.

Nutrition per serving (recipe yields 6-8 servings): 127 calories; 13.4 grams carbohydrates (9 grams sugar, 0.8 grams dietary fiber); 1.1 grams protein; 8.4 grams fat (2.3 grams saturated).

Adapted from:

Healthy green bean casserole

In many families, the holidays wouldn’t seem complete without green bean casserole on the table. In this updated version, you’re still getting all the creamy rich flavor, with much less sodium and saturated fat than a traditional recipe. And choosing whole grain breadcrumbs boosts the dietary fiber content, which helps you feel full and keeps your digestive tract healthy.

It uses fresh green beans, onions and mushrooms for great flavor and texture. And instead of heavy cream or creamy canned soup, it calls for reduced fat milk and a little Greek yogurt, which adds protein and a rich sour-cream-like flavor. Best of all, you can prepare the green beans and sauce the day before to save time on the big day.

Recipe: Healthy green bean casserole

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs (like Panko, or if you have leftover whole-grain baguette from the pomegranate and pistachio crostini, you can make your own in a food processor)
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, plus additional for garnish
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 1/2 pounds green beans trimmed
  • 1 medium onion very thinly sliced
  • 8 ounces “baby bella” (cremini) mushrooms sliced (avoid using plain white mushrooms, as they have much less flavor)
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups reduced fat (2%) milk
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 7 ounces reduced fat (2%) Greek yogurt


Place a rack in the upper third of your oven and preheat to broil. Lightly coat a 2-quart, broiler-safe baking dish with nonstick spray.

In a small bowl, stir together the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Set aside.

Blanch the green beans: Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Prepare an ice water bath in a large pot or bowl and set out a large, clean kitchen towel. Place the beans in the water and cook for about 3 minutes, just until crisp-tender. Plunge them immediately into the ice bath to stop the cooking, then drain and transfer to the towel. Lightly pat dry.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, wide saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and mushrooms. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and golden and the mushrooms brown and have given up their liquid, about 15 minutes.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle the flour over the top and continue cooking and stirring for 1-2 minutes, until the flour is entirely golden. Slowly add the milk a few splashes at a time, stirring between each addition to prevent lumps from forming.

Increase the heat to medium high. Stir in the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook and stir, allowing the sauce to bubble, running a wooden spoon or spatula along the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking and stirring until the sauce reduces and thickens to resemble a creamy gravy, about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the Greek yogurt.

Transfer half the green beans to the prepared baking dish. Spread half the sauce over the green beans. Add the remaining green beans and top with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the top.

Broil, watching closely, until the casserole is bubbling and beginning to brown on top, 1-3 minutes, depending on your broiler. Let stand for 10 minutes prior to serving. Garnish with additional fresh parsley.

Note: The green beans can be blanched and the sauce prepared one day in advance. Store them separately in the refrigerator, and gently reheat the sauce on the stove (thinning it out with a little milk, if necessary) until steaming before combining with the green beans.

Nutrition per serving (recipe yields 10 servings): 169 calories; 19 grams carbohydrates (9 grams sugar, 4 grams dietary fiber); 8 grams protein; 8 grams fat (2 grams saturated).

Adapted from:

Struggling to lose weight? Want help with healthier eating? Or maybe you need a hand with Type 2 diabetes? Novant Health doctors and other specialized clinicians are ready to help.

  • CoreLife: CoreLife Novant Health offers you a way to get to a healthy weight and address medical conditions that keep you from living the life you want.
  • Bariatrics and weight-loss surgery: Click here to reach team members who will contact you to discuss your needs or schedule an appointment.
  • Registered dietitians help us make smart choices. Find one today.
  • Diabetes: Whether you are trying to prevent diabetes, learning how to live with it, Novant Health is here to help.
  • Primary care providers: Not sure where to start? Book an appointment with your doctor to begin the journey.