Food traditions

Q: Can holiday feasting be healthy?

kids eating pie

A. Many people complain that the holidays end up being such an unhealthy time for everyone, due to the overabundance of food during the holiday season, especially unhealthy foods such as pumpkin pie and other sweets. But the health benefits of the holiday feast can't be measured in grams of fat or servings of veggies consumed. Instead, look at the different ways holiday food traditions help kids develop a positive interest in cooking and a healthy relationship with food — two keys to establishing lifelong healthy eating habits.

During the year, many families report "multitasking" their mealtimes — eating on the go, in the car or in front of the TV. Holiday meals, on the other hand, almost always are eaten family-style, with a table full of food, family and friends. These meals result in more mindful eating patterns because with fewer distractions, we pay more attention to what we put on our plate. When kids appreciate good food with family, they are learning cultural food traditions. Food is the focus of so many holiday celebrations and can offer us a time to eat in a more relaxed and mindful manner, a practice that will hopefully continue throughout the rest of the year.

While turkey and pumpkin pie are commonplace at Thanksgiving, other dishes are more regionally and culturally based. Green bean casserole or macaroni and cheese? Dinner rolls or cornbread? Sauerkraut or cranberry sauce? Cornbread-stuffing or oyster-stuffing? Treasured family recipes that don't get prepared the rest of the year are the centerpiece at holiday meals, a time when food culture is passed down to the next generation. Holidays also are a time when we don't cut corners with ingredients — we prepare dishes from scratch, spend more time in the kitchen, and do whatever it takes to put the best food on the table (something we should strive for everyday).

Unique food traditions such as Aunt Jayne's mashed potatoes, homemade gravy or a special pumpkin pie help to create anticipation for favorite foods and excitement about cooking that will hopefully remain throughout the year. Pumpkin pie is a unique dessert because it is only available during November and December. Even though we can find all of the ingredients for it at the store year-round, we only make it during the holiday season. As a result, pumpkin pie is one of the most seasonal foods in America.

Holiday feasts like Thanksgiving remind us all to be thankful for the foods that have sustained us over the previous year. The holidays also bring out treasured family recipes, unique food traditions and shared family meals. These characteristics of holiday feasts can create memorable food experiences that will hopefully foster a lifetime of healthy eating.

It's easy to overindulge during the holiday season but many traditional holiday foods are exceptionally nutritious. When you reach for seconds, choose sweet potatoes, winter squash, cranberries and turkey.

If you haven't already established special food traditions, try these healthy ideas at your next holiday feast:

  • Eat local — celebrate the farmers who produced each ingredient.
  • Have everyone contribute a dish to the feast — boost cooking skills.
  • Prepare treasured family recipes — appreciate your cultural food traditions.

by Nick Rose, M.S., PCC Nutrition Educator

More about: holidays, nutrition, PCC Healthy Kids

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Nick Rose, M.S.

Nick Rose, PCC Cooks instructor

As a Nutrition Educator for PCC Natural Markets, Nick leads weekly "Walk, Talk, and Taste" classes, where he reveals the seasonal, sustainable, and delicious food choices found at PCC. Before coming to PCC, Nick taught nutrition courses at Bastyr University and his alma mater-Virginia Tech.