Christmastime often gets quite a roasting from a nutrition perspective. It’s not the easiest time to embrace healthier foods, especially when you see all the tempting comforting food marketed and advertised throughout the season.
Despite my background, I hope that Christmas can be recognised by everyone as a celebratory occasion. It certainly shouldn’t be a time to feel guilty about enjoying eating mince pies, Christmas cake and, my personal favourite, panettone. Though a walk on Christmas Day wouldn’t do any harm to burn off some calories!
However, if you look at the key festive foods in the UK – Brussels sprouts, parsnips, chestnuts, clementines, turkey – they all have great nutritional benefits, it’s just that they’re typically prepared, cooked and served laden with butter and salt, and this is when the nutritional value can be reduced or depleted. Whatever you cook over the festive period, though, do enjoy it along with all the festivities, and get back to the healthy eating come January.
This is my guide to the top 12 nutritious foods to include on your menu this Christmas, and how to cook them for the biggest benefits:
You either love them or hate them, but they are a great source of folic acid, potassium, fibre and vitamin C, which is important for helping wounds to heal, protecting cells and keeping the immune system working well. However, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and will leach into the cooking water if you cook sprouts for too long, so cook them quickly in boiling water for no more than a few minutes or until tender.
Parsnips are synonymous with Christmas and also a good source of fibre, manganese and folic acid. Folic acid is particularly important for women who are pregnant or are trying to conceive as it helps in the development of a healthy foetus by reducing the risk of neural tube defects. Other sources of folic acid include green leafy veg, brown rice and fortified breakfast cereals. However, if you are trying for a baby, you should take a folic acid supplement to really guarantee you’re getting the recommended daily amount of 400 micrograms.
A great source of vitamin C with over 60% of your recommended intake in 100g – that’s one large fruit. They come into season in November and it’s always good to have a stock of these at Christmas, ready for when you want a break from mince pies or the selection box. As well as being great as a sweet snack (it’s all natural sugar), clementines are great in savoury recipes.
Only really eaten at this time of year, turkey’s a great choice all year round because it’s a good source of protein, vitamin B6 and B12, potassium and zinc – and the flesh is low in saturated fat if you remove the skin. Just 100g of roast turkey provides over 60% of the recommended daily amount of niacin, a B vitamin necessary for providing energy to the body from the food we eat. Jamie has a great recipe for turkey and clementine salad, a useful – and very tasty – way of using up leftover turkey and preventing food waste.
These festive favourites offer a deliciously sweet nutty flavour that sits really well alongside Brussels sprouts, in stuffing, or crumbled over salads and stir-fries at other times of the year. When cooked and peeled, chestnuts are low in saturated fat and a source of fibre – an important nutrient that often gets overlooked at Christmas. A high-fibre diet can help reduce cholesterol, but also help you to feel full and control your appetite, which is a good point to be aware of when food is in full flow at Christmas!
SPICES: CINNAMON & NUTMEG
Cinnamon is my favourite spice, so is well used in my house, especially at this time of year. Cinnamon works well in both savoury and sweet dishes, and both cinnamon and nutmeg work by adding a warming kick to desserts such as strudel, mulled wine and cranberry sauce – perhaps not the healthiest of foods and drink, but perfect at this time of year! Cinnamon is packed with minerals, including potassium, calcium, iron, copper, zinc – it’s a real nutritional powerhouse. The same goes for nutmeg, which is rich in phosphorus, manganese and thiamin.
Cranberry sauce is a traditional accompaniment to turkey, however, the amount of sugar that’s typically added may offset the nutritional benefits of the fresh cranberries. And the same goes for dried cranberries, which have lots of added sugar to counteract the bitter taste. So do enjoy cranberries in an array of Christmas recipes, but bear in mind their nutritional benefits will be limited.
As well as being a staple on the Christmas dinner plate, carrots are a commonly eaten vegetable throughout the year, largely because they’re so versatile and work in many dishes – think soup, salads, hot and cold side dishes, roasted carrots, coleslaw and more. This leftover turkey Banh mi recipe is a great way to use up the last of your Christmas carrots. If you choose to boil your carrots, use the smallest possible amount of cooking water and cook as cook as quickly as possible, as water soluble nutrients will leach into the water. If you can, use this cooking water for sauces and soups so as not to lose out on these important nutrients.
DRIED FRUITS: RAISINS, SULTANAS & CURRANTS
Dried fruit such as raisins, sultanas and currants get a lot of bad press for their sugar content, but a modest 30g serving still counts as one of your 5-a-day. When making up part of your Christmas cake or pudding and served with brandy cream or lashings of custard, the health benefits are significantly reduced… but enjoy it as a treat at this time of year, just keep an eye on your portion size.
Smoked salmon is often associated with parties and celebrations, so it’s no surprise that it’s a firm Christmas fave. It’s an oily fish and a great source of vitamin D, which helps keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. We get vitamin D from sunlight, but it’s great to top up from food, too. However, do remember that it is high in salt, so use it sparingly. This smoked salmon and avocado salad recipe is great as a starter before the main meal on the big day itself. Or try this indulgent brekkie on Christmas morning – potato scones with scrambled egg and smoked salmon – it’ll set you up nicely!
Walnuts are lovely in both sweet and savoury recipes throughout the year, and are great for healthy snacking or crumbling over breakfast for extra protein. They’re a good source of unsaturated fat, help to keep our blood cholesterol healthy, and are even thought to contribute to reducing the risk of heart disease. Walnuts are especially popular at Christmas time and they work well in cakes, stuffing and salads. This recipe for puy lentil, parsnip and walnut salad would make a great Christmas day starter or side dish.
Prawns are low in fat and a source of copper, zinc and selenium (selenium being important for healthy hair and nails). Prawns are a popular starter to the main meal on Christmas day or sometimes saved for Boxing day when you need a break from the turkey! This recipe for a classic seafood cocktail uses low-fat mayonnaise as a way of reducing the fat content slightly. Or you could try these genius quick canapés and make the Marie rose using fat-free yoghurt without compromising the recipe.