10 Ways to Cut Calories From Your Holiday Recipes

Simple adjustments trim sugar and fat without quashing the festivities

Family traditions are part of what makes the holiday season such a special time of year, and many of those traditions are centered around food and drink. Sadly, those deliciously festive holiday gatherings can add up to tens of thousands of extra calories from November to January, leaving you the unsavory task of whittling away unwanted pounds in the new year.

But what if you could preserve your traditional tastes and keep the festive spirit flowing while lightening the calorie burden?

Here are 10 recipe tips, broken out by category, that can help you do just that:

Cookies and Other Baked Goods

1. Cut the sugar and butter/oil by a quarter (or more). I’ve been doing this for years and have found that most recipes taste and bake virtually the same with a quarter less sugar and/or fat. That said, before you change Grandma’s time-honored recipe, you may want to bake a test batch ahead of time.

If you want to cut more of those empty calories by reducing the sugar or fat beyond a quarter, substitute other ingredients rather than simply cutting them out. Read on to see how you can add flavor and substance back into your baked goods at a fraction of the calorie cost.

2. Swap fruit for fat. Unsweetened applesauce, mashed ripe banana or another fruit puree can be substituted at a 1:1 ratio for butter, margarine, shortening and vegetable oils.

The fruit flavor from a half cup of puree should be pleasantly subtle. But if your recipe calls for more fat than that, you may end up with a cookie or cake that tastes somewhat strongly of the fruit. In that case, simply substitute for half the fat rather than all of it.

3. Use erythritol. Sugar alcohols, packaged and sold in liquid or sugar-like granule form, deliver all of the sweetness of sugar at only a tiny fraction of the calories. According to the American Diabetes Association, they also affect blood glucose less than sugar does, but some of them can cause gastric upset.

Luckily, studies have found erythritol to be a safe, low-calorie sweetener that does not cause the gastrointestinal side effects of xylitol and other sugar alcohols]. There are many commercial brands available online (Swerve, Health Garden and Now Real Food are a few) and some are popping up in the baking aisles at major grocery stores.

4. Put the sweet stuff on top. If you’ve reduced the amount of sugar in your treats and don’t find them sweet enough, there’s a simple remedy. By drizzling or sprinkling a small amount of melted chocolate, icing, turbinado (raw) sugar or other sweet confection on top of your baked goods, your treats will still have that satisfying sweetness, but with far fewer calories.

The Holiday Feast

5. Make your protein lean. Leaner cuts of meat and poultry, like top round roast or turkey breast, can cut calories by one-third over more traditional, fatty cuts like prime rib, roast duck or rack of lamb.

Save even more calories by going plant-based: try putting a hearty bean-based stew or mushroom-lentil loaf at the center of your table this year.

6. Skip the drippings in your gravy. You can cut loads of fat and calories with a broth-based gravy. Don’t worry, it’s not the thin, watery stuff you may have tried before. This delicious, savory stand-in uses a roux to achieve the rich, thick consistency a good gravy should have.

The best part? The Good Gravy recipe at the end of the article barely tips the scale at just 40 calories per half-cup serving.

7. Serve clean sides. There’s no need to drown those green beans in high-calorie hollandaise sauce or add sugar and marshmallows to your sweet potato casserole.

Capitalize on the simple, clean flavors of your holiday sides by squeezing a little fresh lemon juice over beans or asparagus, bringing out the natural sweetness in yams and beets by roasting them or adding a bit of pizazz to your kale salad with a sprinkle of dried cranberries or cherries.


8. Say no to the nog. Commercial egg nog brands range from 320 to 360 calories per 8-ounce serving — and that’s before you add a shot of alcohol.

To put this into perspective, a 150-pound person would have to run for 30 minutes at a 10-minute-mile pace to burn the calories in one little cup of unspiked egg nog. Do half the damage or less by opting instead for a simple mug of spiced wine, a hot toddy or one of the other options in tips 9 and 10.

9. Try a festive tea. Even if you abstain from alcohol, traditional holiday beverages like spiced cider are high in sugar and calories. But you can go calorie-free and still enjoy the flavors of the season by serving up a hot cup of spiced tea.

There are many commercial varieties available during the holidays, or you can make your own by steeping some fresh sliced ginger root, a few whole cloves and a large cinnamon stick in a pot with a few bags of your favorite tea.

10. Pair classic spirits with calorie-free mixers. The classic martini, a cosmopolitan and a whisky with club soda all have fewer than 150 calories. Once you start adding mixers and sweeteners, however, your cocktail calories will add up quickly. Regular tonic has 10 calories per ounce, and simple syrup packs in 37 calories per tablespoon. Soda, fruit juices and other sugary mixers can be even worse.

If you crave more flavor in your cocktails, look for naturally flavored sparkling water (like LaCroix or Hint); add a squeeze of real lemon, lime or orange or muddle a few raspberries or fresh cherries into the mix.

If you absolutely need some sweetness in your spirits but want to skip the extra calories, then enjoying the occasional splash of stevia-sweetened or artificially flavored mixer in your cocktail won’t kill you. Your best idea, though: skip the extra calories and the hangover by drinking in moderation. As I tell my clients during the holiday season, “Keep your cocktails clean, and drink plenty of water in between.”

Good Gravy Recipe

(Adapted from VegWeb.com’s I Can’t Believe It’s Vegan Gravy)
Makes eight 4-oz. servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup flour (any flour is fine)

4 cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon yellow mustard

3 tablespoons nutritional yeast (your store probably has this – just ask!)

Sage, salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and stir it into a thick paste. Slowly add the vegetable broth, whisking constantly until it is all incorporated (to keep the flour from clumping). Add all remaining ingredients and increase the heat, whisking continuously until the gravy begins to bubble. Stir for another two minutes, until the gravy is thickened.

By Rashelle Brown
Rashelle Brown is a long-time fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of bylines in print and online. She is a regular contributor for NextAvenue and the Active Network, and is the author of Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RashelleBrownMN.

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