How to Stay Healthy During the Holidays

Connecticut mom and marathoner Terry Walters was teaching cooking classes out of her home for years, showing people how to identify unusual grains like amaranth at the grocery store, and make themselves feel better by learning to prepare those grains in tasty ways. Now she has a new cookbook, Clean Food, full of really easy, really healthy dishes that just happen to be vegan. She’s not vegan, but she believes we could all do with more vegetables in our diets. CHOW.com asked Walters for suggestions on how to survive holiday excesses.

How can I be healthier this holiday season? Mother Nature gives us tools to combat holiday temptations. We crave sweet, comforting foods during the dark winter months, and this also happens to be the time when winter squash comes out, which is very sweet. You can get your sweets without craving packaged sweets so much. Also, the thing about the holidays is, we often feel that once we’ve started, we say: “I’m just going to throw in the towel.” The key is moderation. There’s nothing wrong with a splurge if you’re in balance most of the time.

How do you find balance? It’s like skiing: Once you start to lose balance, it’s really hard to not fall down. We do that to ourselves when we don’t eat breakfast, fuel ourselves on coffee and sugar, then crash, and we’re depleted, and we reach for carbs, or holiday fare if it’s the holidays, because it’s a quick pick-me-up. What I’m really into for breakfast is dinner! I have a young family, and if I’m going to cook something like, say, sautéed kale and collards for dinner, I make a ton of it, then warm it up in the morning with some quinoa, or some soup. I love that food in the morning. I feel like it carries me through. So later in the day, if I do end up eating complex carbs, I’m coming into it with more balance and I can handle it better. I don’t feel so terrible.

You eat dinner for breakfast? I do, but I’ll sometimes make brown-rice pudding or sweet potato pie and my kids will even have that for breakfast or lunch. The pie crust is made of chickpea flour. Even the teff cookies from my cookbook—teff is such a small grain that when you grind it, it has nearly the same nutritional value as when it was whole. They’ll think, “Mom rocks because she lets us have cookies for breakfast,” and I feel good because it’s clean fuel.

What should people eat if they’re hung over? I know for myself when I’m hitting that wall, I drink water with lemon. It alkalinizes the body and gives you a cleansing start to your day. The body wants to be slightly more alkalinized than acidic. During the holidays, we become more acidic from eating more meat, complex carbohydrates, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, preservatives, and stress. Diseases start in conditions of acidity.

What’s better: an organic bag of Pirate’s Booty or a bowl of nonorganic broccoli? It’s going to be a different answer for everybody. For the person who’s eating fast food 24/7, the organic Booty is probably much cleaner than what they normally eat. For someone who’s never eaten broccoli, even the kind with pesticides, it’s better that they’re developing a taste for broccoli. If it’s green and you can identify how it’s grown, that’s great, and if next time you think about the pesticides, and maybe question that, great. It’s a process.

How much should people go out of their way to eat organic? We eat local blueberries that aren’t certified organic, but I know [the growers] do not use a lot of pesticides. On the other hand, I won’t touch a nonorganic apple, because I know they are riddled with pesticides. The Environmental Working Group has a website that shows you what’s better or worse to eat nonorganic. So maybe it might be worth it to buy certain things in the organic market, and then it’s OK to buy certain other things from the fruit guys on the street.

Are there any cost-cutting tricks you know of? Seasonal produce is the biggest cost-efficient food. Food that’s in season is going to be front and center in the grocery store, usually on sale. At the farmers’ market this morning, we bought maybe 15 jalapeños, and the guy put it on the scale and said it was $2!

How do you feel about shortcuts? I’m a mom, so I’m all about shortcuts. There’s a recipe in my book called Three Sisters Deep-Dish Pie that I created based on this squash, corn, and bean hash I was cooking on the stove. Now, I knew that if I just left it like that, my family would say, “What’s this going to be?” So I had this frozen gluten-free pie crust in the freezer; I crumbled it on top of the hash and browned it, and it was a casserole! That frozen pie crust absolutely made the difference between my family eating clean and not.

What’s your go-to one-dish meal? Almost every soup in the book is a go-to. If it doesn’t have greens in it, I add it, and it’s complete in my opinion. I also cook rice in a rice cooker and at the last minute put cut-up vegetables on top inside so they steam. Five out of seven days a week I’ll make kale and collard greens. I’ll toss them with rice pasta and beans, and that could be one night’s dinner. Another night, maybe I’ll sauté white beans with leeks.

Do you have any special secret ingredient? Ume plum vinegar. A little bit goes a long way. I use minimal amounts as a seasoning for vegetables, grains, anything. You can get it in a health food store. Also gomashio spice mix, sprinkled on top of things.

Are there any dishes or foods you eat to reduce stress? Theoretically, and this is just me, when I eat greens, I’m doing myself so much good. When I start to feel run-down, I say, “Have you eaten greens?” The first person who told me to eat kale and brown rice, I did it, and it was disgusting. But it was easy to make it taste delicious: Sauté it with garlic. It’s that easy.