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How healthy is your Christmas dinner?

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Published: November 9, 2021 at 11:43 am
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Can you have your Christmas lunch and eat it too? Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens discusses the nutritional value of a turkey dinner, and gives her top tips for making it healthier.

It’s the main event – the one day of the year when you pray all your efforts in the kitchen come together. But, how does your Christmas dinner rank in the health stakes? We asked registered nutritionist, Kerry Torrens to reveal all.

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What is a traditional Christmas or Thanksgiving meal?

For many, Christmas dinner features roast turkey with all the trimmings, including pigs in blankets, stuffing, roast potatoes, bread and cranberry sauce, all finished off with a generous serving of gravy. If you’re one of those people who tucks in with careless abandon, then good for you – sadly, for many of us, a plate piled high means tallying the calories and working out the number of gym sessions we’ll need to work it all off.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could forget all that and replace it with enjoying nourishing food alongside friends and family? The good news is you can, because your Christmas plate might be a little healthier than you thought.

We’ve broken down a traditional turkey dinner to highlight the pros and cons of what’s on your plate. Follow our guide and you could be enjoying a healthier Christmas this year.

How your festive plate shapes up

Turkey

Still the most popular choice on Christmas Day, with 87% of British people claiming it wouldn’t be Christmas without a roast turkey. It’s also a healthy option – it's low in fat and richer in protein than chicken or beef, and is a lean meat that's ideal for those looking to reduce their fat intake or wanting to establish some balance on their plate.

It’s also a fabulous provider of the B group of vitamins, including vitamins B3, B6 and B12, which are needed to help power us through a busy and often stressful Christmas Day.

Top tip: opt for a mix of dark and white meat. The dark meat is richer in minerals like iron, while the white meat is lean and rich in protein. Be aware that some turkey joints may be basted or brined, which may add fat and salt to your serving.

Cooking for a smaller gathering? Enjoy a more manageable festive meal with our slow cooker turkey breasts with wine & bacon.

Fully Christmas dinner on a plate and a jug of gravy

Ham

A popular addition to the Christmas table and classic cold cut on Boxing Day, ham is a useful source of minerals, including selenium, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and iron. These are critical for a whole host of functions, including that of our immune system.

Don’t forget that ham is high in salt, making it unlikely to be suitable for those following a low-salt diet. The process of curing and smoking meat may result in higher amounts of carcinogens, too. The World Health Organisation suggests moderating our intake of processed meats like ham, as well as bacon and sausages.

Top tip: in the lead up to Christmas, reduce your intake of these processed meats so you can enjoy moderate amounts on the big day.

Cooking for a crowd? Check out our glazed ham recipes.

Pigs in blankets

This popular Christmas addition also falls into the red, processed meat category, which we are advised to moderate. However, you can make them healthier by creating our clever combo of two all-time classics: pigs in blankets and devils on horseback.

Top tip: the addition of dried fruit to your ‘pigs’ adds sweetness and fibre, which works perfectly with the salty, savoury flavours of the meat.

Stuffing

Typically, stuffing is a mix of savoury and sweet ingredients such as breadcrumbs, sausagemeat, onions, herbs, nuts and fruit, all bound together with a little egg. It probably comes as no surprise that stuffing isn’t the healthiest addition to your Christmas or Thanksgiving plate, but that’s no reason to omit it.

When making a homemade stuffing, choose nutrient-dense ingredients that complement other elements of your meal. Increasingly, stuffing recipes are vegetarian, making use of dried fruit, nuts and other ingredients to add texture, flavour and interest. It can be a great way to add more fruit and vegetables to your plate and increase fibre, which helps fill you up. Try our vegan triple-nut & apple stuffing balls for a nutritious and healthy alternative.

Top tip: although lower in fat, being predominantly cereal-based, shop-bought dehydrated stuffing tends to be high in salt, so avoid adding any extra. Use water to rehydrate and unsalted butter or vegetable oil during baking.

A plate of stuffing next to a bowl of red cabbage

Roast potatoes

Who doesn’t love a roast potato? Cooked well, they add texture with a satisfying crunch and soft, fluffy centre. How you prepare and cook potatoes will impact their nutritional value. Cooking your potatoes whole in their skins retains fibre and some important nutrients, like potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. That said, when you’re aiming to achieve the perfect golden roastie, peeling and cutting into manageable chunks is typically the way to go.

As well as being a good source of fibre, some of the starch in potatoes is especially good for gut health. This is because it is ‘resistant starch’, meaning it's resistant to our digestion but can be broken down by our gut bacteria, providing them with the fuel they need to function and thrive. When we cook and cool potatoes, such as parboiling before roasting, the starch granules lock together, making them even more rich in this resistant, gut-friendly fibre.

Top tip: why not save time on the big day and boil your potatoes the day before? This will increase the ‘resistant’ starch, which is good for your gut bacteria, while also helping manage your waistline. Check out our step-by-step guide for the best ever roast potatoes.

Brussels sprouts

Not everyone’s favourite, but a clear winner in the health stakes. You may be surprised to learn that brussels sprouts are a good source of protein, with over 20% of their calories derived from this crucial macronutrient.

Being a member of the brassica family along with kale, cauliflower and broccoli, these edible ‘buds’ look like mini cabbages, and are loaded with nutrients such as protective glucosinolates. In fact, despite their small size, brussels sprouts provide significant amounts of these cancer-protective compounds, making them well worth space on your plate.

Top tip: convert even the most ardent brussels sprout hater with our tasty sizzled sprouts with pistachio & pomegranate.

Brussel sprouts and pomegranates on a plate

Carrots

It’ll come as no surprise, given their name, that carrots are rich in plant compounds called carotenoids. These offer lots of benefits, including maintenance of a well-functioning immune system, skin health and ageing, as well as supporting the integrity of our mucosal membranes in areas like the respiratory system.

When we roast, bake, griddle or microwave carrots, we can improve or at the very least maintain their carotenoid content.

Top tip: purée carrots and enjoy them with a little fat or oil to increase your ability to absorb these beneficial carotenoids. Alternatively, embrace new flavours at Christmas and try our cumin-spiced roasted carrots.

Parsnips

These sweet, earthy roots are a traditional side to a Christmas roast. One serving (80g) provides a fifth of your recommended intake of vitamin C, an important nutrient for our immune defences. That’s not all: parsnips are rich in protective plant compounds like quercetin, kaempferol and apigenin, which also help fight off infection.

Top tip: boil your parsnips before roasting to avoid them becoming dry and chewy. Our honey roasted parsnips are a sure winner.

Red cabbage

You get a double helping with this Christmas classic: first, as a brassica, you’ll be benefiting from those good-for-you glucosinolates, but the deep red colour also tells us that the cabbage is rich in compounds called anthocyanins, which have many benefits, including being heart protective.

Top tip: lightly braising cabbage helps release beneficial phyto-nutrients like carotenoids, while adding whole fruit like apples naturally sweetens the dish. Don’t forget that when you add ingredients like sugar or certain types of alcohol, you’ll be increasing free sugars, the type we are advised to cut back on. Our red cabbage with Bramley apples & walnuts is a great combination of subtle sweetness with gentle spices.

Chestnuts

Whether you enjoy them roasted on an open fire, sprinkled over sprouts or stirred into stuffing, chestnuts add texture, flavour and nutritional goodness to a dish. High in fibre, chestnuts may help curb your appetite and they trump other nuts because they are lower in fat and calories.

Top tip: chestnuts are definitely one to include this Christmas! For a healthy festive centrepiece, try our butternut squash, chestnut & lentil cake.

Butternut squash, chestnut and lentil cake

Gravy

Traditionally made from the roast juices collected during cooking, this classic flavour-packed sauce tends to be high in fat and sometimes salt. If you do choose to make a traditional gravy, skim off any obvious fat before use – a soup spoon is good for this job because it has a wide mouth.

More and more of us, however, are choosing to make a gravy using stock rather than meat juices. This way, you minimise fat levels while still enjoying a full-flavoured sauce. The secret lies in the choice of ingredients: pick the right ones and you can add rich, intense flavours without the need for high levels of fat or salt.

Top tip: check out our healthy turkey gravy for flavour-boosting ideas.

Cranberry sauce

The classic way to top off a Christmas roast is a generous dollop of cranberry sauce. These luscious little berries contain plant compounds that have protective antioxidant properties. However, because cranberries are very tart, most commercial sauces are heavily sweetened. Making your own may sound like madness when there are so many other things to do, but it does mean you can use some clever additions to help tweak the sugar levels.

Top tip: our Persian cranberry sauce is a case in point – this recipe uses allspice for a delicious festive undertone as well as orange and balsamic to minimise sugar levels.

A bowl of cranberry sauce, a bowl of bread sauce and a jug of gravy

Bread sauce

In the UK, this thick sauce is a Christmas classic. Traditionally made from breadcrumbs soaked in milk that's been infused with onion, cloves, nutmeg and sometimes cream, there’s no denying it’s a fat- and carb-heavy accompaniment. But, if you’re looking for a lighter version, you could use skimmed milk and omit the cream.

Top tip: for a gluten-free sauce, simply use a gluten-free bread.

Check out our traditional bread sauce recipe.

Nut roast

No longer reserved for the vegetarians in the family, nut roasts can be full in flavour and nutritionally rich. A loaf of cooked nuts, fruit and vegetables flavoured with herbs and spices, there’s no end of ingredient combinations that work well. Festive options include chestnuts, cranberries, sage, onion and parsnips.

Rich in fibre, carbs and protein, they can be lower in fat and salt than your classic festive meat. However, this does depend on the ingredients – most nuts are high in fat, although it is the healthier unsaturated variety that's good for the heart.

Top tip: looking for a vegan version? Check out our delicious vegan nut roast.

Festive findings

With a few shrewd choices, combined with some savvy preparation and cooking, it is possible to enjoy your Christmas or Thanksgiving meal this year safe in the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be unhealthy.

For more inspiration check out our healthy Christmas recipes.


This article was last updated in November 2021

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Kerry Torrens is a Registered Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food

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