Smiling parents holding young children at beach

Festive recipes for your holiday gatherings

December 20, 2022 | Valerie Elwell
gingerbread Bundt cakes drizzled with maple glaze
This sweet and spicy gingerbread Bundt cake is a perfect dessert companion for every holiday gathering. Photos by Jessica VanRoo.

The best way to prevent most chronic diseases is to eat healthy, be physically active and avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol use. But holiday festivities can make it especially difficult to stick to these healthy habits or start new ones.

These holiday-banquet worthy recipes can help you and your loved ones stay on track because they're rich in nutrients, fiber and antioxidants that support heart, brain, eye and immune health, says Katie Rankell, a registered dietitian and program director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.

When you do make the holiday rounds, you can bring one of these festive yet healthy dishes. Other strategies can help, too.

"The best tip I can give for this holiday season is to eat something healthy before heading to a party or gathering," Rankell says. "You'll be less likely to fill up on high-calorie foods if you're not running on empty."

Celebrate the holidays with these unique recipes created by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health.


Butternut Squash Soup with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Serves 6 (Total cost: $16.77/$2.80 per serving)
Calories: 366

Butternut squash soup garnished with pumpkin seeds and Greek yogurt served in a brown bowl.

Butternut squash is an excellent source of fiber, which makes this flavorful soup very filling. You can tell by its vibrant color that it's high in vitamin A, which is great for vision support. Greek yogurt adds a creamy texture along with lots of protein.

Pumpkin seeds are not only tasty, they are one of the best natural sources of magnesium — a vital mineral often lacking in many Western diets.

In fact, nearly 80% of U.S. adults get less than the recommended daily amount of magnesium, which is important for controlling blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease, maintaining bone health and regulating blood sugar levels. It also promotes better sleep and who doesn't need more of that this time of year?

But use these seeds sparingly — each tablespoon has 47 calories.

Ingredients

  • 3½ pounds winter squash such as butternut, acorn, kabocha, etc.
    (3 pounds, if already peeled)
  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil, divided in half
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 sprigs sage, roughly chopped
  • 2 sprigs of French thyme, leaves removed
  • 1 cup leeks, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup shallots, sliced 
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1½ tablespoons honey or agave
  • 6 cups vegetable stock, more if needed
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of fresh nutmeg, grated 
  • ¼ cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon chives or Italian parsley, minced
  • 1 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees, line baking sheet with foil or parchment paper
  • Cut squash into 1½ inch cubes and toss with 1 tablespoon of oil, salt, pepper, sage and thyme, then spread on baking sheet.
  • Bake 15 minutes, remove from the oven to toss cubes, then bake 10-15 minutes more or until golden brown and set aside. 
  • Add 1 tablespoon of oil to soup pot with a fitted lid, then heat on stove. When oil is hot, add leeks, carrots, shallots and garlic.
  • Sauté 2-3 minutes or until onions are translucent. Do not brown.
  • Stir in honey, cook 2 more minutes and add stock, cinnamon, nutmeg and roasted squash.
  • Simmer 10-15 minutes or until squash is tender. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  • Beat mixture until smooth with an immersion blender. You may also use a blender but wait until the mixture cools to room temperature.
  • Ladle soup into bowls then garnish with Greek yogurt, minced chives or parsley, and 1 tablespoon toasted pumpkin seeds.

To toast pumpkin seeds, toss 1 cup pumpkin seeds with 2 teaspoons of avocado oil and desired seasoning. Preheat over to 375 degrees and roast on a lined baking sheet for 7 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

Serves 4 (Total cost: $24.43/$6.12 per serving)
Calories: 325

This pork roast stuffed with spinach and sage is a lean and healthy alternative to the seasonal entree staples of turkey, ham and beef.

Want to break away from the usual holiday entrees of turkey, ham or roast beef? Try this juicy, stuffed pork tenderloin for a change of pace. The fresh herbs, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes in this recipe are a perfect complement to the savory pork — a lean protein that is full of important nutrients.

The sage in the stuffing is an herb that is especially high in antioxidants that may aid brain function as well as lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Just 1 teaspoon packs 10% of your daily vitamin K needs. It also provides small amounts of magnesium, zinc, copper and vitamins A, C and E. Studies show sage also has antimicrobial properties, which may kill microbes that encourage the growth of dental plaque.

Spinach is known to lower oxidative stress and blood pressure while promoting eye health. It's also high in insoluble fiber, which can help cleanse your digestive track. Sun-dried tomatoes offer the antioxidant properties of lycopene, which has been linked to a reduced risk for cancer and heart disease. Tomatoes, themselves, also are loaded with vitamin C, potassium, folate and vitamin K.

Ingredients

Filling

  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil, divided in half
  • 2 shallots, or half a yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped 
  • 5 ounces fresh baby spinach, about 5 cups
  • ⅓ cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ⅓ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, about 1½ ounce

Pork:

  • 1 pork tenderloin, 1½-2 pounds
  • 2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto

Glaze

  • ½ cup dry white wine or extra chicken stock
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Directions

Filling:

  • Heat 1 tablespoon of avocado oil in sauté pan over medium-high heat.
  • Stir in onion, garlic, sage and rosemary, cook until onions begin to brown, about 2 minutes.
  • Add spinach and cook just until the leaves wilt, about 1 minute.
  • Turn off heat, add sun-dried tomatoes and mix well.
  • Remove pan from the burner, then stir in Parmesan.

Pork tenderloin:

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Remove the silver skin from the tenderloin then butterfly by cutting lengthwise, making sure not to slice the meat all the way through.
  • Cover tenderloin with plastic wrap or parchment paper and pound with a rolling pin to until it is about ½ inch thick.
  • Add a layer prosciutto slices, then spoon the spinach filling on the bottom half of the meat.
  • Starting from the end with the spinach filling, begin rolling the tenderloin like a jelly roll.
  • Secure the rolled roast with twine or toothpicks.
  • Season the roast's surface with salt and pepper.
  • Heat a large oven-safe pan over medium-high heat, coat pan with oil then place the season roast in pan and sear.
  • Place pan in oven for 10-12 minutes or until the roast reaches an internal temperature of 135 degrees.
  • Remove from oven, place roast on a platter, tent with foil and allow to rest 10 minutes.

Glaze:

  • Return roasting pan to stove, heat and deglaze with white wine, cooking until the wine is reduced by half.
  • Add stock and bring to a boil.
  • Turn off the heat, stir in lemon juice and butter to taste, adjusting seasoning as needed.
  • Serve with pork tenderloin and, if desired, garnish with extra lemon, finely chopped Italian parsley or chives.

Gingerbread Bundt Cake

Serves 12 (Total cost: $26.95/$0.58 per serving)
Calories: 463

Four gingerbread Bundt cakes displayed on a white plate.

Pull out that Bundt pan and serve up some nostalgic happiness with this classic gingerbread cake. Spiced with ginger, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, this decadent cake also supplies important nutrients. Topped with an elegant maple glaze, this dessert will give any holiday meal a wow factor!

Did you know that ginger has strong anti-inflammatory properties? Studies have consistently shown that 1 gram (¼ teaspoon) or more of ginger can successfully treat nausea caused by morning sickness, chemotherapy and sea sickness.

Despite being a single spice, allspice tastes like cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg combined, or so say the British who named it. It's also rich in antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, including eugenol, quercetin, gallic acid and ericifolin.

A compound called cinnamaldehyde, gives cinnamon its own antioxidant potency, helping to fight inflammation as well as lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides. Where cinnamon really shines is in its effects on blood sugar levels. Studies show it can lower fasting blood sugar by 10% to 29% in diabetic patients. The effective daily dose of cinnamon is typically a ½ teaspoon to 2 teaspoons.

Ingredients

Bundt cake

  • 2¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 4 eggs whisked, room temp
  • 1¼ cups dark brown sugar, preferably monk fruit sweetened
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup molasses

Maple glaze

  • 1½ cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons milk

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, grease and flour a Bundt pan large enough to hold 10 cups.
  • Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, ginger, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg in a medium bowl.
  • Mix eggs, brown sugar, butter, buttermilk and molasses in a separate bowl.
  • Combine wet and dry ingredients, mixing just until it is combined.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan, bake 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with a few moist crumbs.
  • Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan 10-15 minutes, then invert pan onto a cake stand or plate. When completely cooled, lift pan and top with glaze.

To make the maple glaze, combine syrup, powdered sugar and milk and mix well. Drizzle over cake as desired.

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