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Targeting Healthier Holidays

November 10, 2021

by Rosemary Weaver, MPH, RDN, LDN, NCH Registered Dietitian

With the holidays approaching, perhaps you’re wondering how you can embrace holiday rituals – like potlucks and cookie swaps – without putting yourself or your loved ones at risk of overeating and especially because we’re still in a pandemic.

Covid-19 Prevention/Safety First:

Per the CDC, the best way to minimize the risk of spreading Covid-19 is by making sure you and your guests are vaccinated prior to the gathering. Those with weakened immune systems or who are not vaccinated should consider wearing a mask, and people from mixed households or who are traveling from different parts of the country should consider additional precautions, such as taking a COVID-19 test or avoiding crowded indoor spaces when traveling. Other recommendations include hosting smaller gatherings, frequent hand washing, and avoiding touching your face. And be sure to include in your invite, “If you don’t feel well, please don’t come.”

Beyond COVID safety, here are some strategies to help insure potlucks and cookie swaps are food-safe, nutritious and calorie-smart:

Potluck Strategies:

Food Safety:

Remember to keep hot foods hot (140 degrees F or above) and cold foods cold (40 degrees F or below). Follow the two-hour rule: food should never be left out for more than two hours – from prep time to after-serving storage to protect everyone from foodborne illness. For safe food storage, store leftovers in shallow containers and place in the refrigerator promptly within that time period.

Lighten it Up:

Don’t arrive at the event overly hungry. Include a healthy, moderate breakfast and lunch that day. Before you hit the party, try eating a small snack with protein and fiber. Good choices: a small apple with a bit of peanut butter, some raw veggies with a little hummus or a small yogurt.


Be wary of appetizers that are “C’s”: Creamy/Crispy/Cheesy. Go very easy with anything you dip or munch that is rich in fat, deep-fried or loaded with cheese. Save the calories for your meal instead.


  • Bring a healthy dish to the potluck that you’re excited about. You are sure to generate interest, and you’ll have a guaranteed meal option to enjoy.
  • “Palm-size-it” for eye-balling portion control. A woman’s palm is approximately the portion of three ounces of a protein food, ½ cup of rice or pasta or a small potato serving. Men can consider a small, single portion of a protein or starchy food comparable to their own palm size.
  • Don’t forget to hydrate. Water does it best. Drink water instead of soda, alcohol, punch, cider or juice. Calorie-containing drinks can add 800 or more calories to your meal if you overdo it. A glass of water a few minutes before a meal can help curb your appetite.
  • Be wise with alcohol. Pre-plan and set a limit on your number of drinks for safety as well as calorie control. Alternate an alcoholic beverage with a low-sugar, non-alcoholic one.
  • Be choosy about starchy carbs. Select protein and vegetable items first. Then limit yourself to moderate portions of the starchy foods you really feel are “worth the calories.”
  • Green-it-up. Load half your plate with salad and/or cooked vegetables. Go easy on veggies in cream sauces.


Offer a lighter dessert option:

  • Festive fruit bowl: In a clear serving bowl, mix: red and green apple chunks, halved red and green grapes, raspberries, peeled and sliced kiwi and pomegranate seeds with a splash of orange juice and a tbsp. of honey for a naturally sweet treat.
  • Rice pudding made with golden raisins (or dried cranberries) and skim milk and sprinkled with fresh-ground nutmeg is a heart-healthy version of a popular Danish dessert.
  • Crustless, mini pumpkin tarts are delicious topped with a spoonful of vanilla yogurt or light whipped cream.

Cookie Swap Strategies:

COVID-19 Preventions/Safety First:

  • Limit the number of holiday cookie exchange participants to a small handful of friends.
  • Have guests bring baked treats for each household in the cookie swap already pre-packaged, in clear plastic bags or containers – eliminating the need for guests to handle multiple cookie samples. Be sure to wash your hands before you package your cookies at home.
  • Consider offering individual drink containers for coffee, water or other beverages in lieu of a common dispenser that everyone will touch.

Lighten it Up:


  • Dilute apple cider with an equal amount of brewed, cinnamon apple spice tea to cut calories and sugar in half.
  • Lighten up hot cocoa, using lower sugar varieties or make cocoa with skim milk or unsweetened almond milk vs. whole milk.
  • If you drink, consider a wine spritzer vs. wine. Choose light beer over regular varieties.
  • Offer a variety of flavored, sugar-free sparkling water options vs. sweetened carbonated beverages.


Offer a light “soup and salad” meal to your cookie-swap guests.

Soup ideas to consider:

  • Turkey, wild rice and vegetable soup
  • Curried sweet potato & peanut soup
  • Winter lentil soup with kale
  • Try our recommended Chicken, cabbage and chickpea soup (recipe courtesy of Sodexo):
    This flavorful soup is a good source of protein, moderate in calories and rich in vitamins C, A and potassium. Serve with a slice of crusty, whole grain bread and a crispy salad.

Salad options to consider:

  • Simple red/green salad: Mix Romaine lettuce or spring greens with pomegranate seeds and add white wine vinaigrette dressing.
  • Honeycrisp salad: Toss together sliced honeycrisp apples, baby spinach, arugula, pecans, dried cranberries and feta; drizzle with apple cider vinaigrette dressing.
  • Italian chopped salad: Mix iceberg lettuce, radicchio, red onion, cherry tomatoes, roasted chickpeas, pearl mozzarella, provolone cheese, dried oregano, pepperoncini and lemon vinaigrette dressing.
  • Blood orange and spinach salad: Combine fresh spinach with seeded blood orange sections, chopped shallots, coarsely chopped walnuts, a little finely shredded blood orange zest and white wine or champagne vinaigrette dressing.


  • Savor just a few cookie treats. Peruse the options and choose only your favorites. (Well, try at least!)
  • Want to limit added sugars? Offer individual mini cups of assorted holiday nuts mixed with a little dried fruit. For a vintage twist, serve roasted chestnuts alongside sliced fresh clementines