Fromage frais and berry pudding. Have your pudding and eat it too at Christmas ... with a light, fruit-based dessert. Photo: Marina Oliphant
Come December there’s always plenty of advice on surviving festive food without packing on the kilos. But here’s a novel idea – how about dishing up healthier food in the first place?
When families get together the mix of age groups around the table means there’s a good chance someone  is trying to control their cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure or weight – so why plate up a heart  attack? Sure it’s Christmas, but it’s not like we live in a state of treat-deprived, monk-like denial for the rest of the year. Besides, a lighter Christmas doesn’t mean there’s no room for trifle or 32 per cent fat cheese. It’s more about balancing rich foods with leaner foods so you can have your cake and eat it too, and about giving people options. At a friend’s pre-Christmas barbecue recently, dessert came with a choice of cream, ice cream – or natural yoghurt.
So let’s start with nibbles. You can’t argue with nuts - they’re Christmas-y and a great source of heart- healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. All nuts are good but there’s something extra festive about walnuts and pecans - and they’re also among the few plant foods to contain some plant form of omega‐3 fats. Unsalted nuts are best.
A platter of antipasto that includes some cheese, but also sweet grape tomatoes and deli-sourced foods   like stuffed vine leaves, char grilled veg, marinated artichoke hearts, pitted olives and sliced ciabatta, for instance, is healthier than a plate of unrelieved cheese, but doesn’t sacrifice flavour. You’ll also lighten the kilojoule load by deleting any party nibbles packaged in batter or pastry and opting for rice paper rolls instead. They’re simple to make, especially if you use the larger rice paper wrappers – less fiddly than the smaller ones.
Dips are easier on the arteries if you buy the un-cheesy ones based on vegetables and look for those with the least sodium and saturated fat (usually the better quality brands). A food processor makes it easy to whip up your own – think roast beetroot blitzed with cumin and natural yoghurt, or roast red capsicum with chilli and walnuts.
As for what you provide for dipping, a mix of raw veg  and something biscuity is good, but it’s smart to  compare labels to weed out biscuits or grissini that can be deceptively high in saturated fat and loaded with salt. I often think small chunks or slices of grainy or sourdough bread are better for dipping than biscuits – there’s less fat and salt and you get nice textures with rustic breads like Common Ground’s seeded Turkish bread, Brasserie Bread’s Quinoa and Soya loaf or Healthybake’s Organic Ancient Grains Turkish bread. Good bread is also more satisfying than biscuits so you probably end up eating less.  Homemade pesto with sourdough crostini is another healthier option.
As for mains, if it’s Christmas lunch or a barbecue, more vegetable dishes along with the meat, makes it easier to eat lighter - and leave a space to enjoy Christmas pudding without feeling stuffed. The advantage of offering salads is that there’s less cooking and they let you play around with colour – like red radicchio with ribbons of cream and green zucchini, or a mix of red and yellow tomatoes with basil. But skip ingredients like croutons, mayo and bacon that load the salad bowl with extra kilojoules - you don’t need them with a big meal. If there’s a vegetarian at the table, a salad boosted with plant proteins like borlotti beans, chick peas and/ or nuts will keep them happy.
Great salad combinations to please everyone include French lentils and walnuts; couscous with roast vegetables; roast pumpkin with avocado, pistachios and baby spinach Marinated mushrooms tossed with chilli, olives, semi sundried tomatoes and a few leaves are rich and festive.
So lighten up this Christmas – feeling sluggish and overfed is the only thing you’ll do without.
Are you eating lighter this Christmas?