Christmas as we all know is a time for families, giving and receiving gifts, and eating great food.
And, for many, it’s also a time to relax our nutritional inhibitions a little by drinking and eating perhaps a touch more than we normally would (or should) and dealing with the consequences later on (heartburn medication at the ready).
But eating healthily and enjoying a good Christmas spread are by no means mutually exclusive concepts.
Following on from our recent article exploring the calorific content of Christmas dishes from around the world, we thought it might be interesting to hear from of a couple of experts on what you can do to make the most wonderful meal of the year a healthier one.
So we got back in touch with Sarah Coe, expert nutritionist from the British Nutrition Foundation, to get her advice on the little changes you can make to reduce your calorie intake on the day itself.
We also spoke to internationally renowned chef Michel Roux Jr (that’s right, the Michel Roux Jr with two Michelin stars). He was kind enough to provide us with four recipes (one starter, two sides and a dessert) which serve as less calorific (but just as tasty) alternatives to the old favourites.
A Nutritionist’s Take
Q: Some have said that on average we eat up to 3000 calories more on Christmas Day than we do on a normal day. Do you think this is exaggerated or somewhat accurate?
Sarah: ‘There were claims in the media last year that the average Briton consumes in excess of 6,000 calories on Christmas Day, which some might think sounds sensational.
But in truth, eating this amount isn’t outside the realms of possibility; a traditional Christmas lunch alone (including a starter and dessert) might contain well in excess of 3000 calories per serving.
On top of this, you've got alcoholic drinks, snacks, sweets and nibbles, and the tradition of turkey sandwiches for supper. It can add up to well over the 2000 calorie recommended daily intake for women, and the 2500 calorie recommended daily intake for men.’
Q: Where do the majority of these extra calories come from?
Sarah: ‘The fat used to cook the meat and trimmings of a Christmas meal is one source. Many households cook their meat and roast potatoes in duck or goose fat, whereas others choose lard or butter. This increases the calorie count in this meal considerably.
Desserts are another significant source. Christmas pudding for instance, is traditionally served with brandy butter or cream; two very calorific dressings for an already calorific dish.
Of course, alcohol plays a significant role too. Someone enjoying three large glasses of wine or three pints of strong beer on the special day will bump up their calorie count by about 700, which is roughly the equivalent of a main meal.
But perhaps more than anything, it’s the occasion itself which spurs Christmas diners on to consume food in much higher volumes than they normally would. Like the saying goes, Christmas only comes once a year; and many see this as the one occasion where they can overindulge guilt-free.’
Q: What alterations can those cooking a traditional Christmas lunch make to their preparation methods, in order to reduce the amount of calories and saturated fat content in this meal? Do you have any table-side tips for someone who has had christmas dinner prepared for them, who wants to keep an eye on their calorie count?
Sarah: ‘There are several calorie busting tricks you can use to make Christmas lunch a healthier meal, without sacrificing taste:
- The skin on a roasted turkey or goose is the fattiest part of the cooked bird, so try skipping it.
- Roasted dark meat contains slightly more calories than roasted light meat, so if you can, opt for a breast over a leg.
- When chopping your potatoes for roasting, don’t make them too small. Bigger potatoes will absorb proportionally less fat from the pan.
- Use skimmed milk to make your bread sauce, and reduce the amount of salt you use by squeezing in some garlic for added taste.
- If making gravy with turkey juices, pour this into a jug on its own first. The fat should rise to the surface, enabling you to skim it off with a spoon before mixing into your gravy.
- A sprinkling of lemon zest and some herbs is a healthier dressing for your vegetables than a blob of butter.
- With Christmas pudding, try serving a low-fat Greek yoghurt or custard made with skimmed milk. Both are healthier alternatives to cream or brandy butter.'
Q: Christmas is a time when most people enjoy a tipple. What would you recommend to someone who wants to enjoy a christmas drink, but who doesn't want the excess calories?
Sarah: ‘Most alcoholic drinks contain a lot of calories, something that many people are not aware of.
A pint of strong beer will set you back almost 250 calories, a large glass of wine (250ml) about the same.
A 25ml measure of spirit will typically contain fewer calories than a glass of wine (around 60-70 kcal), but diluting this with a mixer will drive the calorie count up to the high 100s; low-calorie soft drinks, or even water, are less calorific mixer choices.
Besides the calorie content of the drinks themselves, another factor to consider is that alcohol has the potential to loosen your food-based inhibitions; meaning you’ll eat more at the dinner table.
So the less you overdo the Christmas drinks, the less likely you are to overdo the food.
Our advice is to measure what you’re having, whether it’s wine or spirits; don’t freepour.
If you’re at home Christmas Day or out on the town the night before, alternating alcoholic drinks with water or low-calorie soft drinks will help you to prevent dehydration, and stop you from drinking too much.’
You can find out more about the British Nutrition Foundation and the work they do on their website.
A Chef’s Take
Q: What alterations can those cooking a traditional Christmas lunch make to their preparation methods, in order to reduce the amount of calories and saturated fat content in this meal?
Michel: ‘Try and use alternatives to saturated fats, such as olive oil, wherever possible – and sparingly! Using a chestnut or fruit-based stuffing rather than meat-based is another great alternative as chestnuts are high in complex carbohydrates in the form of fibre and starch, and also virtually fat free.
But it is Christmas after all, so do treat yourself. Wine is fine but don’t forget the water. All in moderation!
There’s actually nothing wrong with turkey. It’s very lean, full of protein and low in saturated fat, so your Christmas dinner staple can stay! It’s packed full of vitamin B, selenium, and potassium. If you’re watching the calories then you can skip the skin and don’t use any thickeners for the gravy.
A little trick to remove excess fat from the gravy is to drop a couple of large ice cubes into the gravy. The fat will solidify, stick to the ice cubes and can easily be lifted out, but don’t let the ice melt!
More often than not, it’s the carb-filled sides that will leave you bloated and falling asleep on the sofa post-lunch, so my advice would be to keep your sides light.
I’ve included a couple below, alongside a healthy recipe for a festive starter and dessert.
Starter: Chestnut and Apple Soup with Rosemary
- 1kg fresh chestnuts
- 1 litre water
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 4 apples, Coxes or similar
Score the chestnuts with a sharp-pointed knife to prevent them exploding in the oven while roasting. Lay them out on a roasting tray and cook in a hot oven, 230°C/gas mark 8, for 12 – 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the outer shells and then the skin.
Keep 12 perfectly shaped chestnuts for the garnish and put the rest in a pan with the water. Bring to the boil, season, then add the maple syrup and sprigs of rosemary and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the rosemary, blend the soup until smooth and return to a saucepan. Peel, core and finely dice the apple and add to the boiling soup. Leave to cook for 3 minutes before pouring into hot bowls and garnishing with the whole peeled chestnuts.
Main Course Sides:
Savoy Cabbage and Grain Mustard
- 1 Savoy cabbage
- 1 medium onion
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
- 1 tbsp peppery olive oil
- Juice of 2 lemons
Peel and thinly slice the onion and garlic. Remove the dark outside leaves of the cabbage and cut it into four. Remove the core from each piece and thinly slice. In a wide, heavy-based pan, lightly caramelize the onions with the olive oil. Add the garlic and cabbage and cook over a moderate heat, stirring occasionally. Season well, partially cover and cook for 12 – 15 minutes until just tender. Pour in the lemon juice and fold in the mustard. Serve hot or cold.
Braised Celery Hearts
- 6 celery hearts (about 200g each)
- 1 medium onion
- 2 large carrots
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 bunch of curly parsley, chopped
- 800ml of vegetable stock
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tbsp olive oil
Peel the onion and carrots. Cut the onion on four then slice across. Slice the carrots into 3mm discs and set aside. In a pan wide enough to take the celery hearts heat a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook the onions until lightly coloured, add the carrots and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for another 3 – 4 minutes. Place the celery hearts on top of the onions and carrots and sprinkle with the chopped parsley, bay leaves, salt and a generous amount of pepper. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover loosely and simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, turning occasionally.
Before serving, remove the vegetables from the pan with a clotted spoon and boil the remaining liquid until it is reduced by half. Add the lemon juice, pour the liquid over the vegetables and drizzle with the remaining olive oil.
Dessert: Poached Pears with Bitter Chocolate Almond Sauce
- 4 William pears or similar
- 500ml water
- 350g caster sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out
Put the sugar, scraped vanilla pod and seeds, and water in a pan. Bring to the boil. Peel the pears and remove their cores from the base and place in the simmering syrup. Cover with greaseproof paper. The cooking time depends on the ripeness of the pear – a knife should easily pierce the pear when cooked. Leave the pears in the syrup to cool slightly.
Chocolate Almond Sauce
- 40g extra-bitter chocolate, broken up into pieces
- 60g unsweetened cocoa powder
- 120g caster sugar
- 250ml water
- 30g unsalted butter
- 60g almonds, toasted and chopped
Boil the water with the cocoa and sugar, whisking vigorously all the time. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the butter and chocolate. When the mixture is cool, add the almonds. Serve warm with spiced bread crisps.
Spiced bread crisps
Take a loaf of spiced bread and remove the crusts. Slice the loaf as thinly as possible. Lay the slices flat on a baking tray, dust with a little icing sugar and dry in an oven at 130°C/gas mark 1, until crisp. This should take about 30 minutes.
Put a pear in each bowl, pour over some sauce and top with some spiced bread crisps.
All recipes have been taken from Michel Roux Jr’s The Marathon Chef (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
A Doctor’s Take
If there’s one time of year where we’re permitted to indulge ourselves a little, it’s Christmas.
But letting this indulgence go too far can take its toll on the body and land you with more to do at the gym in January; and perhaps ultimately, lessen your appreciation of the occasion itself.
The single most crucial moral to keep in mind then? Moderation. Not just for your health, but for your enjoyment too.