Teaching Health and Holiday Culinary Traditions

Teaching Health and Holiday Culinary Traditions

Nutrition experts say moderation, not deprivation, is the key

The holidays start with a saucepan of mushrooms — usually portabella, crimini or oyster — sautéing in olive oil. Next, sliced onions sizzle in a bath of bubbling butter and wine until they’re caramelized.


When faced with an array of yuletide treats, dietician Jennifer Kay Nelson advises against “mindlessly grabbing cookies [and] candy … here-there-everywhere.”

This is how Bonita Lillie starts her yuletide feast. Under the guidance of her deft hands, such rank and file produce become mushroom soup. Fresh minced pork and cheddar cheese become a re-creation of her mother’s sausage rolls. She doesn’t measure ingredients, count calories or add flavor-depleting substitutes. Only real food makes the cut in her Alexandria kitchen.

“I go with my gut and what feels right. I don’t use recipes,” said Lillie, a registered dietician and nutrition instructor at Marymount University in Arlington. “If you’re cooking a family dish that you look forward to every holiday and you substitute a fat-free version of something, it won’t taste right and you won’t satisfy your memory of that dish.”


Dietician Bonita Lillie enjoys creating traditional family recipes during the holidays. “If you’re cooking a family recipe that you look forward to every holiday and you substitute a fat-free version of something, it won’t taste right and you won’t satisfy your memory of that dish,” she said.

During a time of year when it is not uncommon to wash down Bûche de Noël with eggnog or to pile one’s plate with slices of crown roast beef drizzled with merlot cream sauce, Lillie and other local nutritionists, food enthusiasts and health gurus say don’t engage in self-deprivations. They emphasize that moderation, minor modifications and keeping it real are the keys to maintaining family traditions in ways that are healthy.

“Fat, per se, is not evil,” said Nichole Ferrigno, culinary director for Tiny Chefs in Great Falls, Alexandria, McLean, Oakton, Springfield, Arlington and Potomac. “It really becomes about the type of fat one is consuming. When we think of … eggnog, peppermint cake and gingerbread, I would tell folks to have just a little bit of the real thing. I do not ever, ever recommend substituting real foods with processed look-a-likes.”

READ LABELS and examine the contents, say experts, or better yet, buy foods that don’t require labels. “[I]t is definitely better to eat real food,” said Joel Martin, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at George Mason University in Fairfax. “Our bodies have been used to eating real food for thousands of years and only recently have artificial ingredients been introduced into our diets. In the long run, regularly eating these substitutes may cause numerous undesirable effects.”

Ferrigno, a former restaurant chef, suggests swapping imitation for moderation. “Even when it comes to holiday indulgences, one can partake and still do so within the parameters of a healthy diet,” she said. “The key … is to stick with whole, unprocessed foods. By consuming the real thing, your body is satiated with just a small amount. When we consume artificial ingredients, it takes much, much longer and many, many more calories to reach the same level of satiety.”

Replacing one natural ingredient with another is a flavor-preserving option. “You could substitute … an alternative sweetener like honey or agave nectar” for sugar, said Lenora Lawson, a chef instructor at The Art Institute of Washington’s International Culinary Schools in Arlington.

In fact, minor ingredient tweaks can pack powerful taste bud punches. “When you’re baking a cake, sometimes you can replace oil with applesauce in some cakes, and often it tastes better,” said Lillie. She cautions, however, that “when you take out the fat in any dish, you have to replace it with herbs or other seasonings so that you don’t lose the taste.”

ESCHEWING LARGE cookie cutters for their bite-sized counterparts and baking pies with graham cracker crusts instead of traditional fat-laden shells are tactics that Vienna-based culinary instructor Christine Wisnewski employs during the holiday season. “There are lots of ways to go about healthy-ing up the holidays,” she said. “If the filling is the star of the dessert, fill and bake individual ramekins for a crust-free dessert and significant calorie and fat savings.” 

Most importantly, when faced with a dizzying array of yuletide treats on a tray or table, think before making a choice. “Be mindful, be appreciative and aware of what you are eating,” said Jennifer Kay Nelson, director of clinical dietetics and an associate professor of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. “Mindlessly grabbing cookies, candy, nuts here-there-everywhere often end up in unexpected pounds.”