Holiday Eating Does Not Need to Lead to Stretch Pants

It's nearly Thanksgiving again and if there's anything that is prevalent in this season, it's food. From office parties to family dinners, decadent food is everywhere and it can cause a lot of dietary pitfalls. Even if you're not trying to lose weight, the holidays can be rough on your body - so much fat and sugar everywhere you look and it's all so delicious. More than delicious, though, it's also very representative of this time of year, with fond memories built into every spiced bite of dessert or stuffing, and that makes it all the harder to resist.
My opinion is that you don't really need to resist, as long as you're willing to put in a bit more effort to make healthy versions of autumnal fare. With a little tweaking, even the richest meal or side dish can be made to be healthy and still absolutely mouth-watering at the same time. Here are some of my favorites!

Pumpkin cake
Credit: wikimedia commons

Pumpkin Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting

Sugar Free, Gluten Free, Lower Carb

This cake is a wonderful alternative to the traditional pumpkin pie. With the mingling of smoky spices throughout the rich cake topped with silky cream cheese icing, you'll find that most guests will not complain about missing the old holiday standby of unimaginative pumpkin pie. The recipe is gluten free and lower in carbs, and it could be tweaked to be vegan fairly easily, substituting flax "eggs" for the chicken eggs and using a simple glaze (also found below) instead of the cream cheese frosting.

First, the dry:
1 cup granulated xylitol (you can use stevia blends like Truvia, but I would use a bit less, as stevia tends to be sweeter)
2 cups almond flour
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp baking soda
1-2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp nutmeg

Then the wet:
8 eggs
1/4 cup coconut oil
2 cups pumpkin puree
1 tsp vanilla extract

Finally frosting!
12 ounces cream cheese (softened)
1/2 cup bakers/powdered xlitol or powdered sugar-substitute
1-2 tsp vanilla (I like more)
1 stick of butter

- Preheat the oven to 350.
- Mix the pumpkin, coconut oil, eggs, vanilla, and xylitol together until well-blended.
- Mix the remaining dry ingredients in a bowl and then gently fold the wet into them until it's all incorporated smoothly.
- Pour the mixture into a greased 9x13 pan and pop into the oven for about 45 minutes. Start checking it around 40 minutes by poking in a toothpick and checking for it to come out clean. If it's still gooey, keep checking it every five minutes. The almond flour and oven differences can cause bake times to vary.
- For the cream cheese icing, beat the cream cheese and butter together until creamy and well-mixed, then blend in the vanilla and powdered xylitol/sugar-substitute of your choice.
- When cooled, ice away! If you're using a glaze instead, I like to poke holes with a toothpick all over the cake and then pour the hot glaze on while it's still kind of warm. This way you get that sweetness throughout the cake. You can also choose to add additional toppings, such as chopped almonds or pecans. Actually, you probably should do this, since it takes this cake to another level entirely.

If you're going the glaze route:

1 1/2 cups powdered xylitol or Splenda for baking
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 tsps warm water

- Vigorously mix the powdered sugar substitute in the water with the vanilla. Pour over the top of the cake, and chill, allowing it to set before you cut into the cake.

- If you're going to try the vegan variety, a flax egg is simply:

  • 1 tbsp water to 2.5 tbsp ground flax seed. Stir together well and let sit for five to fifteen minutes and use like a poultry egg. Easy!

This is easily one of my favorite fall recipes, but I love to make it anytime, because it's really, really good.


Fall Squash Chili

Sugar Free, Gluten Free, Low Carb, Paleo

I love chili, particularly in the fall when it's getting cold. I also really love this dish in the fall because of the easy access to inexpensive butternut squash, which I absolutely adore for all sorts of applications.

This is a dish that speaks to autumn's flavors, and is loaded with healthy protein, fat, and veggies.

1 medium onion, diced
1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes and the juice
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 cups cubed butternut squash (about 1"x1")
1 lb beef stew meat
1/2 pound ground beef or lamb (lamb is ideal for the difference in flavor and texture)
3 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
Coconut, olive, or avocado oil, for cooking - about 6 tbsp total

Pour the cubed squash into a large bowl and add 1 tbsp of chili powder and 1 tbsp of cinnamon, a pinch of salt and pepper, and 2 tbsp of oil and toss to coat. Heat a tbsp of oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the squash, cooking it for about 12 minutes. The goal here is to caramelize the squash a bit, not cook it into mush, so stir it up periodically. Turn the heat off and cover, making sure you've stirred the squash so it doesn't stick.

In a large dutch oven, start by sauteing the onion and garlic in the oil over medium-low heat, until fragrant - about 4 minutes. After this, add in the ground lamb, 2 tbsp chili powder, and 1 tbsp cumin, and brown, about 6 minutes. Remove the ground meat and onion/garlic and add in the stew meat and brown on all sides - this should take about five minutes.

Add the squash to the meat in the dutch oven, and then add in the tomatoes and liquid, and simmer over medium-low heat for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how much time you have. Alternately, you can put the whole thing, covered, into a 225 degree oven for 1-2 hours. Just be sure to check periodically that the liquid isn't burning off, and give it a stir so that nothing burns.

Your house will smell amazing and you will find that the squash adds the perfect hint of sweetness to the typical chili you'd expect, while also adding a dash of color and a nice dose of vitamins and minerals. Top with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream and get ready for a hearty, fall meal.



Cranberry Apple Spice Muffins

Cranberry Apple Spice Muffins

Paleo, Can Be Modified To Be Low Carb, Gluten Free

This recipe is a great way to get the taste traditional fall flavors in a grab-and-go breakfast or snack, but in a way that won't fill you up with needless sugars the way a classic muffin would. Packed with protein and healthy fats from the almond flour and coconut oil, as well as some delicious seasonal fruit, you'll probably want to make a couple pans of these scrumptious muffins - they'll go quickly!


1 large apple, preferably something sweet, like Fuji or Pink Lady, grated and peeled
3/4 cup fresh or frozen cranberries (thaw if frozen), chopped fine

1 cup almond flour
1/2 cup coconut flour
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice (you can sub the three spices for store-bought apple pie spice to save some effort)
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup honey (or stevia for baking, if you want to do low carb)
1/4 cup coconut oil
3 large eggs

  • Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 12 cup muffin tin with coconut oil or butter.
  • Mix the eggs with the honey/stevia.
  • In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients, except the spices, and slowly turn into the honey and egg mixture, scraping down the sides and ensuring everything is combined well.
  • In another bowl, toss the fruit with the coconut oil and the spices, and mix until well-coated, at which point you'll fold the spiced fruit mixture into the rest of the ingredients and combine.
  • Once well-combined, divide between the 12 muffin tins and bake for about 20 minutes, then check them. If a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffins doesn't come out clean, bake them for another five minutes and check again.
  • Pull them out and try to let them cool for 10 or 15 minutes before extract and devour them.
  • Enjoy! These freeze reasonably well, too, so you can toss extras in a freezer bag. They should keep up to a month or two, depending on the temperature of your freezer. Just pop them into a 300 degree oven for five minutes to warm them back to an edible state.


Brussel Sprouts and Bacon

Brussels Sprouts And Bacon Stuffing

Paleo, Low Carb, Gluten Free, Sugar Free

This is one of my favorite side dishes, and though I usually break it out for Thanksgiving, it's delicious all year round. It's very easy and you'll find even the pickiest eaters are going to come back for seconds.

1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
1 pound thick cut bacon
1 1/2 cups medium button mushrooms, sliced
1 cup pecans, whole or halves
1 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
4 tbsp butter or ghee
3/4 tsp sea salt/kosher salt
Black pepper to taste
Shaved romano cheese (optional)
Chopped cranberries (optional)

  • Preheat over to 425 degrees.
  • Start by trimming off any brown on the sprouts and then halve them. If they're particularly large, you can quarter them further.
  • Melt three tbsp of butter and toss it with the Brussels sprouts, garlic powder, salt, and pepper, then spread them out evenly in a single layer on a cookie sheet.
  • Put that in your preheated oven for 30-45 minutes, until they start to toast a bit on the outside.
  • Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a frying pan on medium heat, until it starts to get crispy. We don't want it extremely crispy, so keep any eye on it. Remove the cooked bacon to a paper towel on a plate and cover, retaining about half the bacon fat. You should probably save the rest of that for cooking things later, because bacon grease is culinary white gold!
  • Add the sliced mushrooms to the bacon grease and cook over medium heat until they start to brown, about ten minutes.
  • Once the mushrooms are done, remove them from the pan, and add the last tbsp of butter. As it melts, toss in the pecans and toast over medium heat for about 7-8 minutes until they become fragrant.
  • Chop the bacon into rough pieces, and toss with the sprouts, mushrooms, and pecans, and serve. Buttery romano cheese or tart cranberries can be added to enhance this already savory dish.


Apple Cobbler With Sweet Cream

Quick And Simple Apple Cobbler

Lower Carb, Gluten Free, Can Be Paleo

Apples are seemingly everywhere in the fall, and they're so healthy and delicious that there's no reason to skip using them as much as possible. This is a very easy and yummy dish that comes together quickly and is comprised of a lot of stuff you probably already have in your pantry.

For the filling:

3 cups peeled apple (about 4 medium apples) - I recommend something sweet, like Fuji or Pink Lady
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp Truvia or non-calorie sweetener of choice (you can use honey or maple syrup here, too, if you want it to be Paleo)
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg

For the topping:

1 cup almond flour
1/2 tbsp Truvia - I don't recommend using a wet sweetener here, so if you're doing Paleo, I would just omit it if you're not using something granulated
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup chopped pecans

  • Begin first by coring the apples. If you have a mandolin slicer, get them sliced about 1/8 of an inch thick. If not, cut them into rings and then again in half. They should be like crescent moons.
  • Toss the apples with the cinnamon and nutmeg to coat. Add the 2 tbsp butter to a pan over medium heat and then add the apples, stirring occasionally. After a few minutes, add your sweetener and let them cook down, about 8 minutes total.
  • Take the apples off the heat after they've softened and caramelized a bit, and put them on the bottom of a greased 9x9 inch pan.
  • Melt the remaining 3 tbsp butter and mix it in with the chopped pecans, almond flour, and Truvia, and mix until it has a consistency similar to wet sand.
  • Sprinkle this topping over the apples evenly, making a loose crumb cover, and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 10 - 15 minutes, or until the topping starts to brown.

From here, let it cool down for about 15 minutes - that inside will be nearly nuclear. You can add your favorite Paleo ice cream or a low carb equivalent (Breyer's Carb Smart is very good, and only about 4 carbs per serving). I personally prefer it with ice cream and served hot, but cooled and set is always good, too. Additionally, if I don't have ice cream on hand, I like to pour a bit of heavy cream (maybe a 1/8 cup) into a shallow bowl and put the cobbler on top, and mix that together. It gives a similar experience to ice cream and has far less carbohydrates.

This dish is lower in carbs than an equivalent cobbler, but because of the high sugar content of apples, it's only suitable for people who have more wiggle room in their low carb diets in terms of ingested sugar. Other than that, it's a delicious alternative to the starchy, sticky sugar-fests you would traditionally see with this fare.


Cheesy Chicken Bake

Twice Baked Spaghetti Squash Gratin

Low Carb, Gluten Free

During the fall, I love having cooked spaghetti squash on hand in the fridge because it's fairly inexpensive and it can be heated quickly to then be dressed in a variety of ways for a healthy, whole food dinner. I love this recipe in particular, because it's very, very easy and it's filled with vegetables and cheesy goodness:

4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 large spaghetti squash
1 jar (12 oz) artichoke hearts
1 large tomato, sliced about 1/6 inch
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup shredded cheddar or colby
1 jar, (6-7oz) basil pesto. You could make your own pesto, and by all means do so if you have a great recipe, but this is a quick and easy recipe we're doing here. I recommend the Priano brand from Aldi. It's delicious and wallet-friendly.
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
3 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch of roughly chopped fresh basil, about 1/2 cup total

  • Begin by cutting the spaghetti squash in half lengthwise and roasting it for 1 hour in a 350 degree oven. Once it's cooled, scoop out the spaghetti strands and set aside.
  • In a shallow baking dish, place the chicken and spoon the pesto out over each piece, then top with slices of tomato and artichoke. Stuff will spill over and that's perfectly fine.
  • Place chicken dish in the oven at 350 degrees for about half an hour. After 30 minutes, check with a meat thermometer that the chicken has reached 160 degrees internally and then pull the dish.
  • Place the spaghetti squash in a large casserole dish and mix with the parmesan cheese and olive oil, and then mix in 1 cup of the shredded mozzarella.
  • Place the chicken breasts on top of the squash, and then scoop the errant artichokes and tomatoes back on top. Use the remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella and the 1/2 cup of colby to top the squash and chicken, and place back in the oven, turning the heat to 400, for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and browning a bit.

After this is done, pull it out and let it cool a few minutes before serving. The squash will be very hot, but very delicious!


Paleo Ice Cream!

Banana-Base Pumpkin Spice Ice Cream

Paleo, Lower Carb, Whole Foods, Gluten Free

Brace yourself, because I am about to show you something that changed my life.
Well, okay, it's not reasonable to say it changed my life, but it's pretty darn cool.

If you like bananas, the basic recipe for this phenomenal ice cream is:

2 very ripe bananas, peeled and frozen solid
1/2 cup heavy cream or coconut cream

  • Put the ingredients in a blender
  • Blend them
  • Eat them

Voila! It's delicious, creamy, and has the silky consistency you desire from typical ice cream.

If you love bananas, you can really just stop there because it's about as spot-on as you can get.

I don't want to stop there, though, because it has so many wonderful applications, so let's delve a bit further. I like to buy bunches of very ripe bananas at the store because they're usually really cheap. I take them home, peel them, and stick them in freezer bags and freeze them, and they're great for throwing in smoothies or something similar later on.

If you're interested in the same consistency that frozen bananas give, but not the sugar, you can use green bananas. They're high in resistant starch, which research suggests revs up the metabolism and is significantly harder to break down than other starches, making it less readily available in a way that would add calories or sugar. Basically, they behave more like insoluble fiber. If you use green bananas, though, you'll need to add a 1/2 cup of sweetener or honey (or less depending on your required sweetness).

Now that we have some information down, let's make our holiday recipe. That's why we're here, right?

2 very ripe bananas, frozen
1/2 cup heavy cream or coconut cream
1/2 cup pumpkin puree, chilled but not frozen
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp natural almond butter
1/4 chopped pecans

  • Same as before, throw your bananas and cream in the blender and blend until smooth
  • Add in the pumpkin puree and the spices and blend, then add in the almond butter and blend until mixed well
  • Scoop out ice cream into a container, and then fold in the chopped pecans and serve immediately

I find this refreezes well, but in order to get that creamy, smooth consistency again, you'll need to put in the fridge to thaw just a wee bit, maybe an hour or so, before you eat it later after refreezing. You can obviously experiment with mix-ins and flavors. I like this banana ice cream with 4 tbsp of peanut butter and a 1 tbsp of coconut oil. The mingling of all those flavors is just perfect, but of course your tastes might be different from mine, and I've had it turn out delicious with frozen strawberries, blueberries, and cherries mixed into the base, and I'm sure it's also amazing with chocolate anything.



I hope that these recipes inspire you to try mixing the traditional decadence of holiday cooking with whole foods and a healthy mindset. The holiday season is long and often cold, and three months of rich, sugar-laden indulgence does a number on most people; there's a reason one of the most popular New Year's resolutions is weight loss. Give these recipes a try and go into the new year with a resolve to continue to explore the intersection of delicious and healthy. Your body will thank you!