Extension has advice on healthy, low-cost holiday meals

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 19, 2009 – Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy a good meal with family and friends. Virginia Cooperative Extension has tips for families and individuals who want to continue their traditions without sacrificing good nutrition or dipping into their savings.

“When preparing a holiday meal, be sure to include foods from all of the major food groups,” said Sarah Burkett, senior family and consumer sciences agent and unit coordinator for the Pulaski County Extension Office. “Many people lack a sufficient amount of milk, fruits, and vegetables in their diets, so don’t forget about these foods during the holidays.”

Before Thanksgiving arrives, make a meal plan that includes a variety of foods. Different colored foods often have different nutrients. Some recipe substitutions can also make a holiday meal healthier. For example, use egg whites and skim milk, eliminate unnecessary salt and butter, and limit piecrust to one layer. Consider serving sweet potatoes or baked potatoes, which have more nutritional value than mashed potatoes, and remember that beverage calories count, too.

Smart meal planning also cuts costs. With the economic downturn, many families will be looking for ways to save during the holidays. Karen Munden, family and consumer sciences agent and unit coordinator for the Virginia Beach Extension Office, explained that planning a meal before the trip to the grocery store usually reduces unnecessary purchases. She also encourages families to take an inventory of the food items in their cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer and develop creative meals with the food already there.

“Many families have a tradition of preparing an overabundance of food for the holidays, especially Thanksgiving,” Munden said. “Assign friends and family members items to bring that will go along with the meal, such as bread, drinks, ice, paper products, or their special dish. Do not cook more food than your family could possibly eat, and take full advantage of the leftovers the following day.”

According to Munden, preparing homemade food usually costs less than buying a prepackaged or precooked alternative. It is also cheaper than eating out or ordering from a restaurant. Many grocery stores have sales on traditional holiday foods this time of year. Check local newspapers for sales notices and coupons, and consider buying the generic food brands over specialty brands because they often contain the same ingredients. Also, compare the size and price of food items; what looks like a sale might not always be a bargain.

Preparation methods are just as important as the foods themselves. A roasted turkey, for example, is much healthier than a deep-fried one. On the big day, pay attention to the amount of food on the plate. Fruits and vegetables should comprise half the plate, with protein and whole grains each filling about one fourth of the plate. Most individuals should consume about 5 ounces of protein a day, choosing meats with little additional fat. Try serving food in smaller containers or on smaller plates than usual to prevent overeating.

“If you are going to a buffet or potluck, eat a snack before you go or take a healthy entrée with you,” Burkett added. “Do not expect that others will provide healthy options.”