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Holiday Traditions for a Fun, Festive and Safe Celebration

By: Megan Holdaway, RDN

  • Wednesday, December 9, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read   


The holidays are traditionally a time for friends and family to gather, celebrate, and share in traditions—both old and new. While a healthy eating pattern is encouraged year-round, many of the foods that are associated with the holidays are indulgent, meant to be savored once a year. Balancing healthy foods with tradition and the delicious foods that are an integral part of holiday celebrations is important for health now and in the future.

We asked a few of the Registered Dietitian Nutritionists at Dairy Council of California to share their favorite holiday foods and traditions to highlight what we passionately believe: that cultural food traditions matter, sweet and savory foods fit into a healthy eating pattern and enjoying delicious food during the holidays creates cherished, long-term memories.

Megan Holdaway, RDN
“Two holiday foods are especially meaningful to me—one is a family dish and the other is a new tradition I’ve begun with my two boys. My grandma’s ham and cheese soufflé is a staple at holiday morning meals in my extended family. Its layers of bread, eggs, cheese and milk give it the look and decadence of a traditional French soufflé without requiring technical expertise. The second tradition we’ve looked forward to in recent years is making gingerbread. We prefer gingerbread cookies, and rolling them out and cutting them into shapes is a highlight for my boys. There’s nothing like the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread to bring the feeling of coziness that makes the holidays feel so special.” 

Maria Frye, RDN 
“I’m half-Italian, and food has always been an important part of our holiday traditions. Holiday meals in my Italian family typically consisted of many small meals, as we would eat in courses. We would always start off with a pasta dish including raviolis or farfalle pasta, then salad and garlic bread, followed by the main meal, consisting of some type of meat, starch, and vegetable and of course ending with choosing from a wide variety of delicious desserts. Eating our food in courses allowed us to spend a lot of time together as a family, talking, debating and laughing around the table, and these are memories that I will always treasure.” 

Tracy Mendez, RDN
“One constant in my holidays is trying creating a cozy and welcoming space in my home for people to gather. Soup is one favorite meal that I can make in a big batch to feed a small or large crowd. My mom’s pumpkin soup is a recipe that reflects the savory and seasonal flavor of pumpkin, with pepitas added for a salty crunch and lime for a tasty citrusy kick. Soup warms the body and can also warm the soul when enjoyed with friends and family.”

Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
“My family is Chinese American, so every year for the holidays our spread is a blend of traditional American holiday foods, like turkey, green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, as well as cherished Chinese dishes that have been passed down for generations. One of my favorites is Chinese sticky rice which combines a sticky rice with Chinese sausage, Chinese-style bacon and shiitake mushrooms. My grandma would even use this to stuff the turkey with. To many families the holidays are about traditions and coming together around food, and that is especially true for mine. The blending of traditional Chinese dishes with new American foods is what makes our holiday meals special and connects the multiple generations in our family.” 

Ashley Rosales, RDN
“I love to update my family’s southern recipes with a healthy twist. Traditionally, green beans are cooked slowly cooking in bacon grease. To achieve the same depth of flavor we keep the slow cooking approach, and use a half onion and chicken stock to replace the bacon grease. We still use a piece of bacon to retain the flavor. Even comfort food recipes like mashed potatoes (my husband’s favorite), can be a part of a balanced holiday meal. I like to remember that this recipe begins with real, whole red potatoes. Add some milk, and a little butter and you get a delicious side dish that’s made from real ingredients.” 

Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN 
“On holidays, I plan ahead and put something that I know will smell delicious and inviting into the oven early in the morning to help set the mood for the rest of the day. My parents grew up in the Midwest and I was raised on lots of meat and potato meals. My mom made amazing gravy since she prepared it so often. When I first tried to make gravy on my own, I followed a recipe in a cookbook and it was not good. When I went home, I finally just had to ask my mom how she made it, and of course she didn’t have a recipe. I had to stand by her and learn how to make it by watching how she did it, until it looked just right. I am proud to say that I now make wonderful gravy too that my family enjoys.” 

We hope these stories inspire you to more fully embrace your family traditions, or create new ones with the people in your life. At the close of this difficult year, we are mindful that many families are limited in their ability to access healthy food and invite you to consider donating to No Kid Hungry or your local food bank. We wish you a safe and healthy holiday with your family. Please remember to follow the CDC guidelines to stay safe, while also keeping the joy of food in your celebration.

For more information on healthy eating patterns, subscribe to our YouTube channel or learn more at HealthyEating.org. 

Pumpkin Soup with Pepitas and Cream
Serves 7

Soup Ingredients 
2 Tbs. butter
3 cups onion (finely chopped)
23-29 oz. canned 100% pumpkin
1 cup whole milk
¾ tsp dried red pepper (use less for less spice)
2 ½ cup chicken broth
¾ cup pepitas, toasted

Cream Ingredients 
¼ cup sour cream
¼ cup whole milk
½ tsp fresh lime juice

Melt butter over medium heat in a large pot. Add onions and sauté until translucent/soft (about 10 minutes). Add to pot: pumpkin, milk and red pepper. Stir until mixed then remove from heat. Pour into food processor or blender to puree. Return puree to pot. Add broth and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

To make the cream:
Combine and whisk together sour cream, milk, and lime juice. Cover and chill for 2 hours. Can be made up to one week prior and kept in refrigerator.

To serve:
Scoop soup into individual bowls (or use a hollowed out small gourd). Drizzle cream into each bowl and add pepitas on top as a garnish. Optional: before adding soup, wipe the rim and inside of bowl with lime wedges for additional kick of citrus flavor.

Ham and Cheese Soufflé 


6 eggs
3 cups milk
¼ tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. baking powder
12 slices white bread, buttered and crusts removed
1–2 cups ham, cubed 
½ lb. Monterey Jack cheese, grated 
½ lb. Cheddar cheese, grated 

Preheat oven to 350F. 

Beat the six eggs with milk, onion powder, and baking powder. Place six of the buttered bread slices at the bottom of buttered casserole pan. Layer ham and ½ of the cheeses on top. Repeat, using the remaining ham and cheeses. Pour the milk and egg mixture over the layers. This is best when set all night before baking. Bake until a knife inserted in the center of soufflé comes out clean.


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Ask a Nutritionist is an educational video series developed by Dairy Council of California and hosted by registered dietitian nutritionists for educational and informational purposes only. It does not provide individualized nutrition advice and is not intended to be a substitute for recommendations made by your doctor, registered dietitian nutritionist or other health professional. Always seek the guidance of your health care professionals for any specific questions you may have regarding your health or medical condition. If you wish to seek clarification,  please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Megan Holdaway, RDN

Megan Holdaway, RDN

Megan Holdaway is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the Nutrition Science Program Manager at Dairy Council of California.

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