9 Healthier Versions of Traditional Holiday Side Dishes

The seasonal trimmings you know and love, with less fat, sodium and calories.

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The holidays aren't quite complete without Mom's famous mashed potatoes and Grandma's green bean casserole. Sure, these sides are made with love, but they're also typically loaded with salt, fat and calories. No wonder it's so easy to pack on a few extra pounds by the season’s end!

But not all your holiday dining has to be unhealthy. Create a menu that mixes in some of your beloved side dishes with a few healthier options. Even your family's staunchest health food haters are sure to enjoy these dishes.

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Skinny cranberry stuffing

Helpful hint: You don't have to load your plate with every side dish. Skip the foods you’re not crazy about. Instead, just choose your favorites. “Make sure you're leaving room for the things that you really want,” recommends Auburn Fowler, a clinical dietitian with Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

If you have healthier options, like Fowler's sinless stuffing, you can even go back for seconds.

  • In a sauce pan over medium heat, saute three medium stalks of chopped celery and one diced yellow onion with a tablespoon of canola oil until softened, about five minutes.
  • Add in a ½ cup of fresh, chopped cranberries, 8 ounces of bread crumbs and 4 to 6 ounces of low-sodium chicken broth, until you get the desired stuffing consistency. Stir in a pinch of salt and pepper.
  • Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray and spoon in your mixture.
  • Bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

Most supermarkets carry fresh cranberries around the holidays, but if your produce department is lacking, you can pick up a frozen bag. Just thaw your fruit before you toss it into your pan.

Enjoy a half-cup serving for just 188 calories; the recipe makes between 8 and 10 servings.

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Lighter green bean casserole

Casseroles are some of the biggest offenders at the holiday table. Typically made with heavy cream or condensed soup, a single serving of traditional green bean casserole contains more than 200 calories.

Fowler's suggestion is to lighten casseroles by adding more veggies, without altering the other ingredients. This way, you'll fill up on vegetables, and still enjoy the same flavor you know and love. Build your casserole in an oven-safe dish with a lid the night before and toss it in the oven the day of to save yourself some time.

You can even skip the baking altogether with this recipe:

  • Steam 1 pound of trimmed green beans on the stovetop until tender, about three to five minutes.
  • Season with salt and pepper, ¼ of a teaspoon each.
  • In a skillet over medium heat, combine 3 tablespoons of butter with two minced cloves of garlic. Add a ½ cup of whole wheat bread crumbs, and stir until crispy.
  • Toss your green beans with the breadcrumb mixture and top with 3 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese.

A serving of this delicious side—about 3/4 of a cup—contains just 108 calories. The whole casserole makes about five servings.

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Better-than-canned cranberry sauce

Canned cranberry sauce is a holiday staple, but despite its fruit content, it isn’t all that healthy. A thin slice—about one-eighth of the can—contains 90 calories but is loaded with almost 22 grams of sugar.

Some of this sugar comes naturally from the cranberries, but a good portion also comes from high fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners. According to the American Heart Association, women should limit their added sugar intake to 25 grams a day, and men should stick to under 36 grams—meaning a slice of the canned stuff is nearly at your limit.

Prep this no-sugar-added sauce the night before your get-together.

  • In a saucepan, combine 12 ounces of fresh cranberries—about 3 ½ cups—with a ¼ cup of water, a ¼ cup of unsweetened applesauce and 1/3 of a cup of unsweetened pineapple juice.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Let your sauce simmer for about 15 minutes, until the berries begin to explode.
  • Grate in the zest of one orange and simmer for another 15 minutes.
  • Store the dish in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

One-fourth of the batch contains just 58 calories and fewer than 8 grams of natural sugar. To make it sweeter, add a sprinkle of cinnamon and a touch of honey, but only a modest amount. Cinnamon is virtually calorie-free, but honey contains 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar per tablespoon.

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Sautéed garlic and herb mushrooms

Add more veggies to your holiday table! This dish is packed with flavor.

  • Destem, wash and slice 1 pound of mushrooms, like white button, shiitake or portabella.
  • Add to a heated saute pan with a tablespoon of olive oil, two cloves of minced garlic and ¼ cup of diced white onion.
  • Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, before adding a tablespoon each of fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano, a dash of salt and pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

In about 20 minutes, this recipe makes four servings, with only 68 calories each. Mushrooms also contain potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure and promotes muscle health.

Mushrooms shrink up during cooking, so you may want to double—or even triple—the recipe if you want leftovers.

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Maple roasted sweet potatoes

This recipe has all the candied flavor of a classic sweet potato casserole, without the extra calories and unhealthy ingredients.

Skip the marshmallow topping, which adds 80 calories and 14.4 grams of sugar per ½ cup—and add some natural sweetness, instead.

  • Wash, peel and slice 2 ½ pounds of sweet potatoes, about eight or nine spuds.
  • Toss with 1/3 cup of maple syrup, 2 tablespoons of melted butter, 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and a dash of salt and pepper.  
  • Arrange coated potato pieces on a baking pan, cover with foil and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until tender and golden. Total cook time should take about 45 minutes, but give your potatoes a toss every 15 minutes or so.

The batch yields 16 half-cup servings, each with just 92 calories, and loads of vitamin A, which helps regulate cell growth and plays an important role in the health of your bones and white blood cells.

Baked sweet potato pieces also make amazing leftovers. Add them to warm salads, grain bowls or your morning oats.

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Creamy cauliflower mash

A cup of traditional, homemade mashed potatoes contains about 240 calories. And if your family recipe calls for whole milk, cream, sour cream or butter, calories aren’t the only concern; a single serving can have 9 grams of fat or more.

If traditional spuds are a must for you and your family, Fowler recommends lightening the recipe by replacing whole milk with 2 percent or even 1 percent milk. Swapping whole milk for skim saves about 63 calories and more than 7 grams of fat per cup.

Looking for a lighter option still? Replace your potato base with mashed cauliflower, a swap that eliminates nearly three-fourths of the calories, before any flavorful add-ins.

  • Chop and steam 3 pounds of cauliflower—roughly one medium head—on the stovetop for 10 to 12 minutes.
  • Once the cauliflower is tender, mash with three cloves of minced garlic, a tablespoon of olive oil, a dash of salt and pepper and the herbs and spices of your choosing.

One cup of this smooth mixture contains just 40 calories; the batch makes about 12 servings. Cauliflower is also a great source of vitamin C, which aids in collagen production and promotes faster wound healing.

Cauliflower also makes a great substitution for rice. Most grocery stores sell fresh or frozen riced cauliflower, or you can make your own by grating and sauteing a head of cauliflower. It has just 20 calories per cup, compared to 170 calories in a cooked cup of white rice.

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Roasted Brussels sprout salad

These bite-sized veggies are at their ripest during the fall and winter months.

  • Halve 3 cups of sprouts. Coat with a tablespoon of olive oil and your favorite herbs and spices, like parsley and thyme.
  • Arrange in an even layer on a sheet pan and roast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until tender, about 25 minutes.
  • Plate your sprouts on a bed of fresh arugula and layer on seasonal fruit, like seedless red grapes and crisp apple slices. Start with one chopped cup of each but add more if you’d like.
  • Top with 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with an ounce of creamy goat cheese.

Dish up 10 half-cup servings with just 59 calories each.

You won't have to worry about these veggies going to waste; what doesn’t get eaten can be blended into a seasonal soup, topped with a poached egg or folded into a pasta dish.

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Semi-sweet broccoli salad

Broccoli doesn’t have to be sauteed in garlic, butter and oil to be tasty. This blanched broccoli salad is simple, sweet and helpful for staving off some holiday pounds.

  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add three pounds—four to six medium heads—of broccoli florets. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Immediately transfer your florets to a bowl of ice water.
  • Toss your drained and dried broccoli with a cup of chopped red onion, ¾ of a cup of raisins and ½ a cup of sliced or chopped almonds.
  • Coat your salad in a mixture of a tablespoon of olive oil, two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Sprinkle the batch with salt and pepper.

This recipe makes about 10 cup-sized servings, each with about 110 calories.

If you want to punch up the protein, black beans or chickpeas also make a great addition. You can also sub dried cranberries for raisins.

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Harvest grain salad

Whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa and farro, make a hearty base for a salad any time of year, but especially during the chilly holiday months. This recipe combines a few of the season's freshest veggies and can be served warm or cold.

  • On a lined sheet pan, arrange a cup each of peeled and chopped beets and winter squash, like butternut or acorn. Lay a cup of destemmed and sliced mushrooms on a second lined pan.
  • Toss your veggies with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and a tablespoon of fresh rosemary.
  • Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 30 minutes, or until your veggies are tender. The mushrooms cook up quicker, so pop those in your oven when the beets and squash have 10 or 15 minutes left.
  • In the meantime, add 2 ½ cups of water to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add 1 cup of farro, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 25 to 40 minutes.
  • Once your ingredients are cooked and cool enough to handle, combine in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and a tablespoon each of honey, Dijon mustard and olive oil.

You can either serve right away or store in the fridge to eat cold. This makes 8 servings, each around ¾ of a cup and 124 calories.

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Stay active during the holidays

Cutting down on calories can help stave off weight gain, but so can burning them. Make sure to take time to stay active during the holiday season.

“Most times, people are off from work and have some extra time. Use it to get in extra steps,” Fowler says. You can also take a walk or ride your bike before your holiday event.

You can even burn calories at gatherings. Lend a hand in the kitchen or horse around with the kids to get even more exercise.

In just 30 minutes, a 155-pound person can burn:

  • 149 calories on a leisurely walk
  • 298 calories bicycling at a moderate pace
  • 149 calories playing with kids
  • 93 calories cooking

Need some motivation to get moving? Research suggests tracking your activity can help you get more, and mobile apps, like Sharecare, make it free and easy. Download the application on your iOS or Android device and hit the trail. The automated tracker automatically calculates the number of steps you take each day. You can also log your steps manually. Make it a competition among your family members to see who can walk the most during the holiday season.

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