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Eating Wisely

Family Gatherings & Holiday Celebrations

Lesley Robinson
Cobham, Surrey, United Kingdom
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 6, November-December 2001, p. 226

Holidays are a time for being together with family and friends, for celebrating what we share, and for acknowledging our appreciation of each other. Family gatherings and celebrations are frequently surrounded by large festive meals, full of lovingly prepared indulgences. In many traditions a special holiday is an opportunity to partake of dishes that are out of the ordinary, more plentiful than everyday fare, and perhaps a little extravagant compared with what we would serve for our everyday sustenance. For those of us who pay attention to our family's healthy nutrition, such feasts may contain ingredients which we would not normally use. We may scrupulously avoid excess fat and sugar and strive to keep our family meals as natural as possible, only to have highly processed foods overloaded with sugar and salt presented to our children as special treats. After all, it is not possible to make an English Christmas pudding without sugar, or potato latkes for Hanukkah without frying them!

One response to this dilemma could be to lighten up a little. These are rare occasions indeed and children who are used to eating healthy food may not even be particularly tempted by all those "goodies." When offered choices, children are likely to choose what they are used to. If a family meal takes place at Grandma's or another relative's house, mothers can plan ahead and offer to bring something to contribute to the meal so that healthy, familiar choices will be available.

Of course the best way to have control over the menu is to host the celebration yourself. Even when preparing traditional holiday recipes it is possible to modify ingredients or cooking methods to increase the wholesomeness of the meal. In most baking recipes it is possible to halve the amount of sugar without significantly altering the results. Most people would notice the substitution of whole wheat flour for plain, but a mixture of whole wheat and unbleached flours would make a less noticeable difference and would be agreeable to most palates. If oil is required, remember that certain vegetable oils are not only more healthful substitutes for animal fats, but they are a delicious way to enhance flavor.

Holiday meals can be accompanied by a vast array of vegetables. A large variety of vegetables prepared in as close to their natural state as possible can provide a very healthy meal indeed. Briefly steaming or stir frying vegetables preserves the crunchiness, the vitamins, and even the color. A meal that looks good is likely to be enjoyed by all. Flavoring each vegetable with a different herb or spice can add to the variety and taste of the meal. Try carrots with ginger, green beans with garlic, stir fried cabbage with garlic and cumin, zucchini with basil, potatoes with parsley, or peas with mint or coriander. Fresh herbs, chopped and tossed in with vegetables at the end of cooking, enhance flavor dramatically. Another way of enhancing vegetables is to cook them together in interesting combinations. A ratatouille of Mediterranean vegetables or a mixture of roasted vegetables can bring out the individual flavors delightfully. Roast wedges of pumpkin, diced red onions, bite sized pieces of red, green, and yellow peppers, asparagus spears, and halved cloves of garlic, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil for about 30 minutes at 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Just before serving, toss with salt and pepper, some black olives, and chopped fresh basil leaves.

In many traditions, the centerpiece of festive meals is meat: a special roast, accompanied by stuffings and gravy. For a moist holiday turkey, slow cooking at a low temperature preserves all the natural juices. For added flavor pierce the skin on the legs, wings, and breast and slide in slices or whole cloves of garlic and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Roast covered at 325 degrees F (170 degrees C) for 20 minutes per pound (450 grams) plus 20 minutes. Remove the cover for the last half hour to allow the meat to brown.

For a vegetarian main course for a winter holiday, try a winter vegetable bake. For four servings, take two medium potatoes, half a pound (200 grams) of pumpkin, one parsnip, and one carrot. Peel the vegetables and cut them into bite sized pieces. Cook in boiling water until just tender, then drain and place in an ovenproof dish. Make a white sauce with one ounce (30 grams) butter, one tablespoon of flour, and one-and-a-half cups (350ml) of milk. Add freshly grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper to the sauce and pour over the vegetables. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and chopped, toasted cashew nuts. Bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) for 30 minutes.

The serving of a family holiday meal may be part of the tradition. It may be a father's job to carve the meat from the head of the table. Guests' plates may be filled for them or dishes may be passed for everyone to serve themselves. With a large number of people a buffet style meal may work best. This gives everyone the opportunity to take as much or as little of what they want and mothers can supervise what their own little ones are eating!

Sumptuous desserts are also part of holiday traditions, providing lots of opportunities for indulgence. Traditional English mince pies can be made without added sugar. This "mincemeat" recipe is adapted from The Everyday Wholefood Cookbook, published in Association with La Leche League of Great Britain. It makes a large quantity, so it is best to store it in several smaller containers in the freezer. (In regular mincemeat the sugar preserves the mixture, but the sugar-free version will need to be frozen if it is to be kept long-term.) Take three pounds (1.5 kg) apples, washed and cored, two oranges, one grapefruit, and three lemons, all cut up with the seeds removed, five pounds (2.5 kg) raisins, one-and-a-half pounds (750 grams) of other dried fruit (for example dates, apricots, figs). Leave the peel on the fruit. Mince all the ingredients in a food processor. Add half tablespoon of salt, a half tablespoon of mixed spice, and mix well with 10 fluid ounces (250 ml) of sunflower oil. Use your favorite pie crust recipe and bake either individual or family sized pies with crust on the top and bottom.

Whatever your family tradition, have a happy and healthy holiday season and above all, enjoy being together.

Sesame Sun (Refrigerator) Cookies (Slice and Bake)

Kathy Statham and her friends use this recipe from WHOLE FOODS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY in their seasonal celebrations around the solstice.

1/2 C. butter, softened
1/2 C. honey
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
3/4 C. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 C. rolled oats
1/4 C. wheat germ
1/2 t. baking soda
3/4 C. sunflower seeds
3/4 C. sesame seeds

Cream butter, honey, egg, and vanilla in mixer bowl. Mix dry ingredients together. Add to creamed mixture with seeds; mix well. Shape into 2 rolls about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap in waxed paper. Place in refrigerator for 4 hours or in freezer for 2 hours. Slice 1/4 inch thick; place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees F for 10 minutes or until light brown. Cool on wire rack. Double this recipe and freeze 2 rolls to bake later or give to a friend. Yield: 48 servings.

Approx Per Serving: Cal 74; Prot 2 g; Carbo 7 g; Fiber 1 g; T Fat 5 g; 54% Calories from Fat; Chol 10 mg; Sod 31 mg.

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