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How to Eat Healthier Over the Holidays

Given that food and drink go hand in hand with celebrations, it's difficult to know how to eat healthier during the holidays. But if you’re hosting a party or preparing meals, one of your jobs is to make sure your guests don't leave suffering from unwanted aftereffects, such as feeling stuffed on rich goodies—or worse, feeling sick. The secret to better morning afters is to make smart choices when planning and prepping the food you serve. Here, experts show you how to eat healthier over the holidays.

Make the Right Grocery Buys

Serving a delicious, healthy holiday meal begins at the grocery store, but the choices can be confusing. The trick is to know which food labels are meaningful.

Look for meat labels that matter. Whether your menu calls for turkey, beef, or pork, consider buying meat that’s organic or raised without antibiotics. Experts (including 90 percent of the doctors surveyed in a Consumer Reports poll) are concerned about using antibiotics for disease prevention or growth promotion in animals because it contributes to antibiotic resistance. Organic practices also call for only organic feed and no growth hormones.

Pick the best produce. Organic? Conventional? Local? The right choices will be based on availability and your personal preferences, concerns for the environment, and your budget. Local produce can be healthier; nutrients may degrade if the trip to the store takes too long. Even in colder parts of the country, locally grown apples, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are available during the holiday season. Organic produce is grown without the use of most pesticides or chemical fertilizers and isn't genetically engineered. Washing conventional fruits and vegetables in running water and rubbing them hard will reduce pesticide residue (you don’t need special washes), as will peeling. Still, some pesticides can remain on surfaces and some are systemic—they get into the produce flesh and can’t be washed away.

Spice it up right. “Sodium is used as a preservative in many canned and packaged foods,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida. “So they have much more than if it was added just for taste.” Look for low-sodium products; they contain 140 mg or less per serving. To avoid added sugars, use canned fruit packed in its own juice (no sugar added) and consider making cranberry sauce by boiling fresh or frozen berries with just enough orange juice and sugar to take the acidic edge off.

Prepare It All Safely

In the frenzy of meal prep, we often neglect the basic rules of kitchen safety. “This is especially true during the holidays, when you have several people in the kitchen,” says Shelley Feist, executive director at the Partnership for Food Safety Education. Consider these reminders:

Plan ahead. “I always recommend cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer before you shop, because you’re going to need all that room,” says Marianne H. Gravely, M.S., a food-safety specialist with the Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods in your shopping cart, grocery bags, and fridge.

Thaw in the fridge.Food-poisoning bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature, and in 2 hours they can reach dangerous levels and develop toxins that can’t be killed with cooking,” Gravely warns. It takes one day of thawing for every 5 pounds of turkey. Keep it in a shallow roasting pan with sides high enough to contain any juices that might leak out.

Don’t rinse the bird. A Drexel University study found that rinsing poultry caused bacteria from the surface to splatter all over.

Clean carefully. Cross contamination goes beyond rookie mistakes such as using the same plate for raw and cooked meat and forgetting to wash your hands before you start food prep. For example, a Kansas State University study found that kitchen towels were the most contaminated with bacteria of all the surfaces tested. That’s because people often use them to wipe the counter or dry their hands after rinsing them (as opposed to using soap and water). And using your cell phone or tablet can be an unexpected source of contamination. “Every time you touch something during food prep is an opportunity to introduce contaminants into your food,” Feist says. “So if you take a call, wash your hands again after you set the phone down.”

Get meat up to temp. To kill bacteria that may be present, cook beef and pork roasts and fresh ham to 145° F. For turkey, that magic number is 165° F. “Test turkey’s temperature in three areas—the breast, the thickest part of the thigh, and the wing,” Gravely says. It’s also safer not to stuff the bird (and stuffing extends cooking time), but if you do, make sure the stuffing reaches 165° F before you take the turkey out of the oven.

Enjoy those leftovers. Be sure your fridge is set to just below 40° F (use a refrigerator thermometer to check). Get leftovers into the fridge or freezer within 2 hours of cooking. Pack food in small, shallow containers (to cool it more quickly). Never store turkey on the carcass because it will take too long for all of the meat to chill.

Serve It Up Smartly

“No one wants to feel like they’re depriving themselves, especially at the holidays,” says Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., R.D., an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. But you can feed everyone well without putting them (or yourself) into a food coma. “You don’t need to think about eating less,” Young says. “Just think about balance.”

Downsize your dishes. “When using a 9½- to 10-inch-diameter plate, people typically serve themselves 20 percent less than they do on an oversized plate,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of “Slim by Design” (William Morrow, 2014). And replacing large serving spoons with regular-sized kitchen spoons results in a 14 percent reduction. “You’re going to take two or three spoonfuls of stuffing, regardless of spoon size,” Wansink says.

Rethink what goes on the table. Serving everything family style is undoubtedly more festive, but research has shown that it also results in people eating about 20 percent more than they would if they had to get up—rather than just reach for—for seconds. One solution: Load the table with serving bowls of the healthiest foods in your feast and place the more indulgent ones at least a few feet away.

Focus on the foods you love the most. There’s a lot of pressure at the holidays to eat everything. But don’t feel you have to load up on your sister’s special casserole unless you love it. Sample a small amount and be sure to rave about it. If you're going to indulge, do so with the foods you wait all year for.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2016 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

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