5 Holiday Dishes You Didn't Know Were Healthy

by Ashley Martinez, MFN, RDN, LD

The holidays are full of family recipes and food favorites – some considered “healthy,” but many not so much. You might be surprised to find out, however, that certain ingredients in traditional holiday dishes actually provide plenty of important nutrients. From root and cruciferous vegetables to dark leafy greens and red-pigmented fruits like cranberries and cherries, there are many nutrient powerhouses hiding out in your favorite holiday meals. It’s all the additions that can lower the health quality of these traditional dishes: added sugars, saturated fats and sodium, for example. Let’s talk about which holiday ingredients are actually healthy, and how to rework your favorite dishes to ensure they stay that way!

Braised or roasted cabbage

A cruciferous and crunchy vegetable, cabbage is a holiday favorite that’s delicious when eaten alone or in casseroles. Cabbage provides phytonutrients, such as glucosinolates, that contain anti-inflammatory properties. That beautifully purple pigment found in red cabbage is a result of anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid that stimulates antioxidant properties. In some studies, cabbage has been found to reduce cholesterol levels and increase blood antioxidant levels, making it a heart health champion1. A great way to keep the integrity and nutrition of cabbage when preparing it for the holidays is to braise it in low-sodium stock and add fresh spices, herbs and salt as needed. Once cooked and sliced, cabbage can also be used as a good topping for meat.

Apple cider-glazed carrots

Carrots have a solid reputation for supporting eye health, but they also contain beneficial amounts of soluble fiber. Fiber contributes to lower cholesterol by binding to dietary cholesterol in the blood. Additionally, fiber slows digestion which positively effects blood sugar levels. This is certainly beneficial when practicing mindful eating throughout the holidays. Using flavorful apple cider as a glaze brightens this side dish without adding extra sugars or unhealthy fats.

Sautéed collard greens

Collard greens are an excellent source of calcium, which plays a role in cell messaging, muscle contraction for your heart, and strong bones. These dark leafy greens also contain a carotenoid known as zeaxanthin that helps fight free radicals and oxidative stress. Sautéing collard greens in olive oil contributes to the carotenoids being better absorbed overall.

Garlic & herb mashed potatoes

Yes, mashed potatoes are healthy! Just one caveat here: watch the butter and cream! Minimize the amount of butter or replace it with a butter made with a healthy fat, like avocado butter, to better support the overall nutrition of the meal. Potatoes are extremely nutritious, providing potassium (a nutrient that counteracts the effect of sodium), vitamin C and fiber. Try adding fresh garlic to your mash to provide savory aromatics with anti-inflammatory benefits, too.

Cranberry sauce

Chock full of antioxidants and vitamin E to support the immune system, cranberries are a low-sugar fruit commonly paired with many holiday food offerings. Yet, it’s difficult to find a prepared cranberry sauce that is not loaded with added sugar. No need to fear, you can easily make a better-for-you one at home. Simply combine 2 cups cranberries and 1 cup chopped cherries. Add a few tablespoons of maple syrup along with lemon zest for some brightness. Heat ingredients in a sauce pan and allow to simmer for 15 minutes until ready.

Enjoy all the flavors and nutrients the holidays have to offer!


Bacchetti T, Tullii D, Masciangelo S, et al. Effect of black and red cabbage on plasma carotenoid levels, lipid profile and oxidized low density lipoprotein. J Funct Foods. 2014;8:128-137.

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