9 Ways to Cut Calories From Your Favorite Holiday Dishes

This article originally appeared on Livestrong.com.

’Tis the season for casseroles, mashed potatoes, cocktails, pies … and calories. Yep, I went there, but I’m also not telling you to deprive yourself of all the good stuff. Making a few small changes in your holiday recipes can allow you to enjoy yourself without the unwanted weight gain. Check out these nine ways to shave calories from your favorite holiday dishes. You’ll end up with healthier dishes that are still big on flavor — a win-win in my book.

1. Add non-starchy vegetables. Adding non-starchy vegetables, such as cauliflower, zucchini and carrots, to holiday dishes can significantly cut calories. “Replace part of the meaty, creamy or starchy ingredients with non-starchy vegetables. This can add color, flavor and nutrition while keeping portions the same,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.” “Prepare ‘mashed potatoes’ with equal parts boiled potatoes and cauliflower. For creaminess, use a lower-calorie plant-based milk, such as unsweetened coconut milk instead of regular milk or cream. Then pump up the flavor with roasted garlic, scallions or flavored salt, such as truffle salt,” suggests Newgent. Check out my favorite pasta recipe with caramelized cauliflower to reduce the calories and carbs.

2. Use low-calorie, flavorful liquids. For extra moistness in a savory recipe like stuffing, a low-calorie, flavorful liquid can help cut calories while maintaining flavor. “Consider using low-sodium vegetable broth; carrot or other vegetable juice; unsweetened green tea; or a splash of apple cider vinegar in place of some butter or oil,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN. As a gravy alternative, Newgent recommends buying a pureed vegetarian soup based on non-starchy vegetables. Store-prepared options include organic cashew carrot ginger soup; organic red pepper and tomato soup; and organic creamy butternut squash soup. “Use this as an intriguing and colorful gravy,” says Newgent.

3. Get sweet on the right sugars naturally. Use natural sugar alternatives to help you cut the amount of refined sugar (and therefore calories) typically found in holiday fare. For example, mix dried fruits, such as raisins, apricots or cranberries, into baked goods. Not a fan of dried fruits? You can even use pureed dates or bananas. And instead of adding store-bought mixers to cocktails, use fresh-squeezed grapefruit or lime juice instead. “In dishes like sweet potato casserole, you can usually reduce the amount of sugar in the typical recipe by half and use a less-refined sweetener like maple syrup instead of white sugar. This way you get more flavor, and you wind up with way fewer calories,” says Ellie Krieger, M.S., RDN.

4. Sip smarter. Holiday beverages like eggnog and apple cider can add a lot of calories to your diet, even if they are nonalcoholic. Spritz up by diluting 50 percent of whatever you are drinking — wine, juice or a cocktail — with sparkling water and immediately cut the calories in half. The other side of the coin with alcohol is that not only does it add calories, it also reduces inhibitions and can increase hunger — making that fourth chocolate-chip cookie impossible to resist. Do yourself and your guests a favor by offering a simple assortment of alcohol choices like wine and beer and avoiding sugary cocktail mixers. Also have sparkling and flat water available, and don’t forget some seasonal juices (cranberry, apple or pomegranate juice) to add a splash of flavor and color.

5. Roast or grill. A simple, low-calorie cooking style, roasting or grilling meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables is a wonderful way to bring out the natural sweetness and flavor in foods. Roasted sweet potatoes with cinnamon or fresh herbs and a little butter can be a delicious substitute for traditional calorie-laden casseroles. Roasted pork chops with roasted mushrooms makes for a tasty, lower-calorie substitute for a traditional pork chop dish slathered in a mushroom cream sauce. For dessert, cut calories by opting for grilled or baked apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon and a drizzle of honey instead of traditional apple pie.

6. Extract the calories, not the flavor. Extracts and spices offer a ton of flavor with very little to no calories. This makes them ideal for lightening up holiday dishes. “Make smart use of pure vanilla, coconut, chocolate and almond extracts in sweet and select savory dishes. They provide virtually zero calories while replacing or enhancing more caloric ingredients,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN. “Cut sugar by up to 25 percent, such as by using three-fourths of a cup of sugar instead of one cup. Then add the essence of extra sweetness by using a little additional flavor extract, such as a quarter of a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract plus a pinch of a ‘sweet’ spice, such as cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice.”

7. Lighten up desserts. Rather than making large pieces of calorie-laden treats, focus on smaller portions with a lighter twist. For example, instead of chocolate cake, go for chocolate-dipped strawberries. If you want pie, choose or make a healthier pie using nonfat evaporated milk and seasonal fruit. Greek yogurt is a healthy (and tasty) substitute for oil, butter and cream cheese in baked goods. And if you’re making a cheesecake, simply substitute one cup of Greek yogurt for one cup of cream cheese. You’ll cut down on loads of fat and calories but still keep the creamy and delicious taste. For best results, allow the yogurt to reach room temperature before using in recipes.

8. Use foods that are naturally lower in fat. Instead of using artificial ingredients and processed foods that deem themselves low in fat, substitute with foods that are already naturally lower in fat. Applesauce and nonfat plain yogurt are good fat substitutes in most recipes. To maximize flavor and texture, swap out no more than half the amount of the fat listed in the recipe. For example, if a recipe calls for a half-cup of butter, substitute a quarter-cup of applesauce in place of half the butter and shave 400 calories off the recipe. Also, mashed ripe banana works well as a fat substitute in banana bread, carrot cake or muffins, while prune puree works especially well in chocolate, carrot or spice cakes.

9. Build in portion control. Regardless of what you eat, how much you eat will make or break your best eating intentions. “One of the easiest ways to cut calories from favorite holiday dishes and still satisfy your craving is to simply take a smaller portion and savor every bite,” says Ellie Krieger, M.S., RDN. To not overdo it, try using smaller plates and bowls; putting your fork down between bites; and drinking water before and after your meals. Knowing what a healthy portion size is (for example, when it comes to meat, poultry and fish, a serving size is the size of the palm of your hand) and pre-portioning foods can also help. “Serve casseroles or other rich sides in individual ramekins. This helps keep serving size (and calories) in check. It also seems extra special since everyone gets their own,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN.

Do you look for ways to lighten up your holiday favorites? Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you!