Skip to main content
Family of four plays at the beach with coastline in background

Create a new traditional meal this holiday season

December 21, 2021 | Kristina Lindgren
Holiday shrimp paella with peas and brown rice
Holiday shrimp paella is a crowd-pleaser that is light on the waist line and the wallet.

Family traditions are strong when it comes to Christmas meals. But the rest of the winter holiday period through New Year's day offers plenty of opportunities to try out new flavors while enjoying healthy, satisfying and palate-pleasing dishes.

These delicious recipes are rich in nutrients, fiber and antioxidants that support heart and brain health, eyesight and your immune system, says Katie Rankell, RD, director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.

Even the dessert, an easy-to-make bark of dark chocolate, cherries and nuts aim to please. 

This month's recipes were created and photographed by Chef Jessica Van Roo, assistant director of Culinary Recreation & Experiential Programs at UC Irvine, who teaches students and others how to cook healthy, low-cost meals with fresh ingredients. 

Mushroom Lentil Paté Appetizer

Serves 6-8 (Total cost:$6.77/$1.12 per serving)
Calories per serving: 253

Mushroom and lentil paté

This dish is the perfect starter to whet the appetite while delivering multiple health benefits. Mushrooms are a low-calorie source of fiber and they are rich in the antioxidant selenium, which protects cells from damage that can lead to chronic diseases.

Lentils are food gold. Their low cost makes them a very accessible form of high quality protein, not to mention fiber, iron and folate for people around the world. Their high fiber content can lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as protect against heart disease. Plus they are extremely easy to cook.

Give this delicious vegan appetizer a try at your holiday parties!


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 
  • 2 French shallots or 1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic, about 3 cloves  
  • 1 cup button or baby Bella mushrooms, sliced (about 3.5 ounces) 
  • 2 cups cooked lentils, preferably green (about 14 ounces)
  • 1 cup toasted walnuts or pecans
  • 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon soy or tamari sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh sage or flat-leaf parsley, minced
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper


  • Heat pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add olive oil and butter, reducing heat as needed to prevent butter from burning, and cook until butter melts.  
  • Add garlic and diced shallots or onions, cook until onion or shallots turn translucent.
  • Add mushrooms, cook until they release their moisture and turn brown.
  • Remove from heat and set aside.
  • Combine lentils, nuts, cooked mushrooms and onions with the remaining ingredients in a food processor and mix until smooth.
  • Taste, and adjust seasoning as needed.
  • Serve with crackers or bread

Holiday Shrimp Paella

Holiday shrimp paella with peas and brown rice

Serves 6 (Total cost:$16/$2.67 per serving)
Calories per serving: 207

This is a colorful dish you can enjoy guilt free!

Shrimp is a low-calorie, low-fat, high-quality source of protein. Eating shrimp can promote heart and brain health because they contain omega-3 fatty acids. They also are a rich source of astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant found in salmon and trout that also improves heart and joint health.

Rice is, of course, a staple of traditional paellas. When you substitute brown rice for white, you boost the fiber content of this flavor-rich meal, which leaves you feeling full longer.


  • 1½ cups short grain brown rice
  • 1-2 tablespoons avocado oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic, about 2 large cloves
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper diced
  • 1½ tablespoon hot Hungarian paprika
  • 1½ tablespoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon saffron, soaked in ¼ cup water (optional); you can also use safflower, but double the amount.
  • 3 cups chicken stock or seafood stock, add more as needed
  • 1 pound large shrimp
  • 1 cup frozen green peas
  • Parsley to garnish (optional) 


  • Rinse and soak rice at least 30 minutes. 
  • Heat a deep pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, coat with oil and sauté onions and garlic until onions turn translucent, about 1 minute. 
  • Add tomatoes and bell pepper and cook until peppers and tomatoes begin to soften, about 1-2 minutes.
  • Drain rice, add to pan along with paprikas, saffron and saffron water and mix well.
  • Add stock to pan, cover and cook over low-heat for 45 minutes, adding more water or stock as needed. 
  • Remove lid after 45 minutes, scatter shrimp and peas over the top of the mixture, replace lid then cook 8 more minutes.
  • Uncover, garnish with parsley and serve with a fresh green salad on the side.

Quinoa Zucchini Meatballs in Harissa Sauce

Zucchini and quinoa meatballs in harissa sauce

Serves 4 (Total cost:$5.49/$1.37 per serving)
Calories per serving: 253

Go meatless with this delectable dish that delivers big time on health benefits. The meatball base is quinoa, a gluten-free, whole-grain carbohydrate that is considerably higher in fiber than most grains. Better yet, it is also a whole protein source, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids.

Add in zucchini and you are loading up on many essential nutrients, especially vitamin A, which helps support your vision and immune system. This versatile green squash is also extremely low in calories at 17 per cooked cup.

Top these meatless morsels with a sauce made from harissa — a spicy and peppery condiment popular in north Africa — and your guests will be clamoring for more!


For meatballs (makes about 16)

  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • ¾ cup diced onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup grated fresh zucchini
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ cup whole wheat breadcrumbs or quick-cook oats

Harissa sauce

  • 1 14.5 oz. can finely diced tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons harissa paste or as desired
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. 
  • Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, add onions, garlic and zucchini and cook until onions soften. Remove from heat and cool for at least 10 minutes. 
  • Pour onion-zucchini mix in a bowl, add cooked quinoa, Italian seasoning, tomato paste, egg and breadcrumbs.
  • Mix well and form round tablespoon-size meatballs (makes about 16) and place on baking sheet.
  • Bake for 10 minutes, flip and bake 5 more minutes then remove from oven. 
  • While meatballs bake, combine all sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.
  • Serve meatballs in the sauce or with sauce drizzled on top.

Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark

Ancho chili-cinnamon chocolate bark

Serves 8-10 (Total cost:$8.26/$1.03 per serving)
Calories per serving: 492

This tasty dessert is both sweet and tart, satisfying all your taste buds.

The ancho chili powder gives it a unique kick. In addition, ancho chilies have capsaicin, which has anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit people with arthritis or diabetic neuropathy.

The variety of nuts in this recipe also make it a dessert that is rich in protein and monounsaturated fats, which are better for heart health.

Sweetest of all is the dark chocolate, which is also rich in antioxidants.


  • 1 tablespoon ancho chili powder 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground fennel
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅔ cup almonds, chopped
  • ⅓ cup cashews, chopped
  • ⅓ cup pistachio meat, chopped
  • ½ cup dried dark cherries or cranberries 
  • 12 ounces dark, bittersweet chocolate, cut into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt


  • Mix chili powder, fennel, cloves and cinnamon in a small bowl. 
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a 13-inch by 9 1/2 baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Scatter nuts over the parchment paper and toast for 5-8 minutes, checking at 4 minutes to stir the nuts.
  • Melt chocolate with coconut oil in a double boiler and mix well. 
  • Remove nuts from the oven, reserving 1/3 of toasted nuts in a separate bowl.
  • Scatter dark cherries around nuts on baking sheet, then pour melted chocolate on top.
  • Scatter the remaining nuts on top of the chocolate, then sprinkle sea salt on the chocolate.
  • Refrigerate bark for 45 minutes or until set, then break into pieces and serve. 

More holiday recipes