Family Health: Holiday cooking for people with chronic conditions

Who doesn’t love the traditional holiday dinner? Turkey or ham, mashed potatoes and stuffing with gravy, pumpkin pie – it’s a meal that says family, contentment and a full belly. For some people, though, many of the traditional holiday foods deliver a different message – Caution: health risks ahead.

While everyone should be smart about what they eat, it’s especially important for people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and celiac disease. Eating the wrong foods can worsen their condition, and in some cases cause a health crisis.

Watching your diet can be tough during the holidays. If you’ll be cooking for someone with one of these conditions, you can make their life easier by serving dishes they can feel good about eating. These foods can be delicious, and they are good for the rest of your guests as well.

Follow these tips to ensure there’s plenty of healthy food to eat for everyone, including those with the following conditions:

Heart disease. People with this condition need to reduce saturated fat, which contributes to unhealthy cholesterol levels. Avoid fatty meats such as ham or pork roast. Turkey breast without the skin is a good choice, but consider offering baked or grilled salmon too. It’s low in saturated fat and high in Omega 3 fats, which can lower bad cholesterol. So can almonds and walnuts, so put some out for snacking.

These folks limit their salt intake to help control blood pressure, so go light on salt when you cook and let guests add it at the table. Vegetable dishes are great because they contain fiber, and also phytochemicals that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Without the creamy sauces, they are also low in saturated fat and calories, which can help people with heart disease control their weight. Check out heart-healthy recipes from the American Heart Association at

• Diabetes. People with diabetes must watch their diet carefully, especially regarding sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods. Make sure you provide some fresh and cooked veggies – dark green and deep yellow vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach and bell peppers, are best. Adding a fish option – salmon or other fatty fish, such as halibut – is a good idea for these holiday guests too, since healthy fats don’t raise blood sugar levels.

People with diabetes can have treats on occasion, if they forgo another carbohydrate as a trade. Cover the bases by offering options such as fresh fruit with whipped cream, baked apples with cinnamon, or even a pumpkin or single-crust, low-sugar apple pie. A pitcher of water infused with fruits and herbs (try mint, berries, lemon, lime or cucumbers) or an unsweetened iced tea ensures your guests have a beverage that won’t raise their blood sugar.

And try not to serve the meal late – people with diabetes should avoid long periods of time between meals or snacks. Look for recipes from the American Diabetes Association at

• Celiac disease. For people with this condition, foods with gluten are strictly off limits. People with gluten sensitivity also try to avoid these foods, which contain wheat, rye or barley. Luckily, you can buy gluten-free pastas, sauces, baked goods and many other items for the holiday table. If you bake or use flour in other dishes, use a gluten-free flour.

Potatoes are naturally gluten free, and so is rice – choose brown, black or wild rice for whole-grain nutrients. Popcorn is a tasty, naturally gluten-free snack. And cornbread stuffing, made with no wheat flour, makes a good option. It’s best to skip boxed mixes, which can have hidden gluten.

Also be cautious about cross-contamination in your own kitchen – even a small amount of gluten can be dangerous for a person with celiac disease. You can find great recipes from the Celiac Disease Foundation at

• Obesity. With about 70 percent of Americans either overweight or obese, odds are you’ll have at least one guest who is watching his or her weight. You can help that person – and most everyone else as well – by serving some dishes that are low in fat and sugar. Steamed, grilled, or roasted veggies are always good choices, and slice some raw carrots, cucumbers and peppers for snacks.

Skip the canned cranberry sauce, which is high in sugar, in favor of a homemade or deli cranberry dish. Trim the fat from turkey or ham slices on the platter, and serve low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Have some sugar-free drinks on hand, including water with a lemon slice. Offer fruit for dessert, and cut pies and cakes into small slices to make it easy for people to take a small portion. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has advice for holiday cooks at

It’s a good idea to point out any gluten-free foods, since it may be hard to tell them apart. And feel free to brag about serving foods that are low in saturated fat and calories and high in nutrients and fiber. You can be proud that you’ve cooked up a healthy holiday meal for every guest.