Holiday Foods Face-Off: Which Is Healthier to Eat?

We compare seasonal favorites to see which ones give you a nutritional edge

Apple pie and pumpkin pie Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to healthy eating success, vowing to give up your favorite foods never works, and that’s doubly true around the holidays. A better strategy is to acknowledge that you will eat what you like, but will do so in the context of a healthy diet. That means taking a second to check in with yourself to see if a holiday treat is really something you want, or something that you’re just reaching for because it’s there. It also means being conscious of portion sizes, balancing out the sugar with some veggies, and when you choose to eat a treat, focusing on it so you fully enjoy it.

Another tip is to choose a seasonal specialty that has a nutrition advantage over another. We aren’t talking about eating an apple instead of having a slice of apple pie. Rather, when you’re deciding between two similar foods, consider picking the one that gives you a nutrient boost or is healthier in other ways. Here, we have some guidance for seven holiday pairings.

Ham or Roast Beef?

Spiral ham is lean—supplying 126 calories, 4 grams of fat, and less than 1 gram of saturated fat in 3½ ounces. The calorie and fat content of roast beef depends on the cut. For instance, bottom round roast has 169 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat in 3½ ounces cooked. The same size serving of bottom sirloin (tri-tip) roast has 193 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 4 grams of saturated fat; top sirloin has 173 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat. Rib eye roast has 307 calories, 24 grams of fat, and 10 grams of saturated fat.

So while the ham might look like the healthiest option, beef is better if you choose a lean cut. Spiral hams are cured, which means they contain nitrates and nitrites, which, when they interact with protein, create compounds called nitrosamines—which may cause cancer. Plus, ham is very high in sodium: 986 mg in 3½ ounces. (You should get no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.)

Better pick: Roast beef

Pumpkin Pie or Apple Pie?

Though you may try to convince yourself that any food that contains pumpkins or apples is a healthy choice, pie is still a special occasion dessert. Calories, carbohydrates, and fat are realities either way. Pumpkin pie, though, will have about 100 fewer calories per slice than apple pie, primarily because it has only one crust, says Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a professor of nutrition at Boston University. More crust means more calories and saturated fat from the butter or shortening used to make it. (Or try CR’s Crustless Pumpkin Pie recipe.)

Better pick: Pumpkin pie

Cheese and Crackers or Chips and Dip?

These two starters have a lot in common, starting with the fact that they’re both easy to overeat, as foods that are high in carbohydrates and sodium tend to be. Cheese and dips both pack a lot of sodium, and—unless you’re talking about vegetable- and bean-based dips like salsa, guacamole, or hummus—saturated fat.

Calorie-wise, the choices are even. Five Ritz crackers with two cubes of Swiss cheese or an ounce of potato chips with 2 tablespoons of onion dip provide about 200 calories.

But with cheese and crackers, you get a decent amount of calcium, says Lona Sandon, PhD, an associate professor of nutrition at UT Southwestern. Two cubes of Swiss cheese have 267 mg of calcium, about a quarter of the daily value (1,000 mg). The cheese also supplies 8 grams of satisfying protein. And if you choose thin slices of cheese and eat them sandwiched with pieces of fruit like apples or pears in place of crackers, you’ll get filling fiber and loads of flavor.

Better pick: Cheese and crackers

Mashed Potatoes or Sweet Potato Casserole?

Both sweet and white potatoes are “ridiculously rich in a lot of nutrients,” says Salge Blake. Both contain vitamin C and potassium, a blood pressure-lowering nutrient that most Americans fall short on.

More on Healthy Holiday Eating

Of course, we’re not exactly comparing potatoes to potatoes here—your choices are white potatoes mixed with butter and cream vs. sweet potatoes made even sweeter with marshmallows. But the sweet potato casserole gets a slight edge because those potatoes have a wider range of nutrients, including the antioxidant beta carotene, than do the white ones.

Better pick: Sweet-potato casserole

Parker House Rolls or Cornbread?

Ounce-for-ounce, both have roughly the same number of calories and grams of carbohydrates. While cornmeal has some vision-protecting lutein and zeaxanthin, neither option provides a ton of nutrients, and that’s okay. “Not every item on the plate has to be a superfood,” says Debbie Petitpain, RD, CEO at Synergy Health Technologies. Cornbread can be enjoyed plain, however, while a roll will probably be slathered with butter or drowned in oil, Salge Blake says.

Better pick: Cornbread

Sugar Cookies or Snickerdoodles?

The recipes for these cookies share the same basic ingredients list, in similar proportions. The major difference is the addition of cream of tartar to the snickerdoodles, which give them a softer texture than sugar cookies—and doesn’t affect nutrition. But a crisp, hard sugar cookie is a better vehicle for colorful holiday icing, which only adds more sugars.

Better pick: Snickerdoodles

Champagne or a Cocktail?

All pure alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and little other nutritional value. But that’s just the beginning of the story. Bartenders may add intrigue in the form of mixers like pomegranate or cherry juice, which make some cocktails sound like wellness tonics. But the juices still add extra calories.

What’s more, mixed drinks can include far more alcohol than you realize, which can make all of your other thoughtful decisions about what to eat go out the window. With champagne, you know exactly what you’re getting, says Salge Blake. Better to opt for the drink where you can see how much alcohol you’re sipping. Whatever your choice, though, stick to one drink and enjoy it.

Better pick: Champagne

Rachel Meltzer Warren

Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RD, is a freelance writer based in the New York area who contributes to Consumer Reports on food and nutrition topics.