Six guilt-free ways to eat, drink and be merry this Christmas

Take a cue from mulled wine and add Christmassy spices to tea or porridge.
Take a cue from mulled wine and add Christmassy spices to tea or porridge. Photo: Eddie Jim

The flood of silly season indulgences can leave us feeling sluggish and uncomfortable in our tightening pants. But there are foods and drinks that can help, too - those that dish up Christmas comfort in a better-for-you way, or allow you to pace yourself to help you get through the season both happily and healthily.

1. Spiced tea

A hot cup of tea hits the spot when you are not truly hungry but crave a little something, a pick-me-up or a break any time of year. Each sip slows you down a bit, allows you to exhale and, if the tea has caffeine, gives you a gentle energy boost. With so many flavour options, it is also a delightful taste experience.

During the holidays, a brew of spiced tea such as chai, or any blend with warm flavours such as cinnamon, ginger or peppermint, gives you the essence of the season on top of all that. Unlike a mug of mulled cider or hot cocoa, it's kilojoule-free (unless you add sweetener, of course, but even then a teaspoon of honey is just about 84 kilojoules). Steep tea at home in a decorative pot for an extra-special effect, and stash a few tea sachets in your bag or at work for some holiday flavour whenever you need it.

Pumpkin-spiced porridge (or try bircher muesli, smoothies etc).
Pumpkin-spiced porridge (or try bircher muesli, smoothies etc). Photo: Edwina Pickles

2. Pumpkin puree

Pumpkin has an off-the-charts warm-and-fuzzy factor, and infuses everyday foods that might otherwise feel humdrum with a cozy, comfort-food essence.

The overly sweet pumpkin-spice seasoning that contains very little of the actual vegetable might be an American fad, but real pumpkin puree spiked with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg is here to stay, providing old-fashioned heartwarming goodness, plus vitamins, fibre and antioxidants. You can roast and puree pumpkin yourself or get it from a can, which is just as nutritious.

Stir it into oatmeal, add it to smoothies or use it to flavour your yoghurt, along with those warming spices and, perhaps, a drizzle of real maple syrup.

Neil Perry's king prawn and asparagus gazpacho.
Neil Perry's king prawn and asparagus gazpacho. Photo: William Meppem

3. Vegetable soup

Hardly a week goes by where I don't make a big pot of vegetable-based soup - chilled ones in the summer and hot the rest of the year. It gets my family through the busy workweek, making for an easy, nourishing snack in a mug or as a full dinner in a bowl with a hunk of whole-grain bread.

But there is no time I rely on my big pot of vegetable soup more than during the holiday season. It is easily made ahead and reheatable in minutes in any portion size, so after a day racing around in the Christmas shopping crush, I know I have a crowd-pleasing dinner on hand for however many hungry people show up.

Keeping the soup vegetable-based means it also fills in the gaps from all the holiday parties where produce usually takes a back seat to sausages, cheeses and sweets, if it gets any play at all.


4. Prawn cocktail

Cooked, chilled jumbo prawns hugging the rim of a cocktail glass or arranged on an elegant platter is a classic that immediately spells c-e-l-e-b-r-a-t-e. When you see it served at a Christmas get together, get it while you can, because it usually goes fast.

It's one of those rare party foods that is both festive and healthy in equal measure, packed with lean protein and essential minerals and satisfying with few kilojoules(just don't be too heavy-handed with the creamy dressing).

Keep a stash of mini candy canes for when sugar cravings hit.
Keep a stash of mini candy canes for when sugar cravings hit. Photo: Marco Del Grande

The same goes for other shellfish, including crab claws and oysters. Pile your plate with those and automatically shift the balance in a healthier direction without feeling the least bit deprived.

5. Sparkling water

Sparkling water, which has become the new "it" beverage over the past few years, could be your new holiday party BFF, helping you maximise flavour and fun, while keeping your wits about you. Poured into a wine or cocktail glass with a twist of citrus, the effervescent beverage feels extra festive.

Seek out summery fruity flavours such as passionfruit and raspberry - and consider bringing a six-pack of that to the party to share - or add a splash of cranberry juice to plain sparkling water for a beautiful blush beverage. You could drink that all night or alternate a glass of sparkling water with each glass of wine or a cocktail to help you pace yourself and stay hydrated.

6. Mini candy canes

When Bing Crosby and Michael Buble are crooning in the background, you naturally want some holiday treats to complete the picture. Homemade tree-shaped cookies and fruit-studded cakes abound, but if you've had your fair share of those and are still hankering for more, a mini candy cane or two could stop you from going back for seconds and thirds. Keeping a couple in your pocket could also help at a crowded shopping centre, taking the edge off your sugar craving enough to steer you away from gigantic doughnuts.

The classic red-and-white swirled peppermints are a joyful symbol of the season and make you feel like a kid again. They also take a while to eat, so by the time they've melted in your mouth, your sweet tooth - and your urge for nostalgia - will probably be satisfied.

Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author.

The Washington Post