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Tips for a healthier holiday from chef Alain Braux

With big family dinners that include more side dishes than you can imagine, endless piles of cookies and edible gifts galore, it can be difficult to eat healthy during the holidays. If you’re hosting dinner this year, offer your family a healthy option instead of caloric overload. Chef Alain Braux shares his tips on how to have a delicious and healthy holiday meal on a budget.

family christmas dinner

Chef Alain Braux is a renowned French chef, nutritional therapist and author of Living Gluten and Dairy-Free with French Gourmet Food and Healthy French Cuisine for Less Than $10/Day. He focuses on creating recipes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and low in sugar to help people regain their health and their lives. His award-winning recipes and advice will convince you it is possible to eat well without sacrificing flavour — even during the holidays.

SheKnows Canada: What are some easy ways people can make traditional holidays dishes more healthy?

Chef Alain Braux: Say no to GMOs. Avoid all major genetically engineered crops (GE or GMO — genetically engineered organisms): corn (fresh, starch and many more uses), soy (beans, oil and many more), canola (oil), cotton (oil), any dairy products (loaded with bovine growth hormones and antibiotics), aspartame (artificial sweetener created through genetic engineering), beets (sugar), papaya, zucchini and yellow squash.

Buy organic: How and what to buy in this case? Stick to certified organic or certified non-GMO products. Also, buy from your local farmer if you trust that he or she grows your food the old-fashioned way.

SKCA: How can hosts easily accommodate guests with dietary restrictions without having to make drastic changes to their menu?

AB: If you have the time and don’t already know the answer, ask your guests a few days ahead if they have dietary restrictions or absolute no-nos. They may have a list their doctor gave them. Ask them if they can share it with you. It will show them you care enough to ask.

If you have no clue what to do and think it will not interfere with your other guests’ food preferences, ask your special guest if they can give you one of their favourite recipes (or a choice). It may be tasty enough that you won’t even have to tell the other guests it’s gluten-free. When I bring one of my gluten-free cakes to a party, I never tell the other guests until after they have had a piece. Most of the time I hear, “Wow! It’s so good. I would have never guessed it was gluten-free.”

You don’t have to cater to every single guest, but after asking a few, you should get a pretty clear idea of what menu to prepare. You can stay classic but offer gluten- and dairy-free options. Most likely the rest of your guests will not notice.

SKCA: What are your favourite holiday dishes to serve?

AB: Wow! That’s a tough one. Since I cook all day at work, my lady friend helps me out by handling the cooking at home. From work, I’d either bring a GF apple pie (my personal favourite) or a GF pumpkin cheesecake (everyone else’s favourite) or a GF pecan-chocolate pie.

Since we do not have Thanksgiving in France, we serve stuffed turkey for Christmas. Traditionally it is stuffed with marrons (chestnuts) and is served with its own gravy. It is served with an assortment of roasted fresh vegetables (haricots verts, carrots, etc.). My personal favourite is small red potatoes tossed in olive oil, fresh rosemary and coarse sea salt, and roasted for about 20 minutes at 400 degrees F. And to top it off, we serve a buche de Noel — a log-shaped cake filled with buttercream (chocolate, coffee, vanilla or even dark chocolate ganache) and topped with meringue mushrooms, green marzipan holly leaves, red berries and powdered sugar snow.

SKCA: What are your best budget-saving tips for holiday meals?

AB: Avoid prepackaged foods: Buy them in bulk instead. You will avoid paying for extra packaging, and most likely your product will be fresher. If at all possible (not all stores will allow it), ask if you can bring your own container. It will not necessarily save you money, but it will save additional packaging [from] being thrown away (even if you recycle). Another reason is that you get to buy only what you need, not what the producer deems to be the right size, even if you are single. You are less likely to waste food and money that way.

Buy seasonal: It makes sense when you think about. That is when local fruits and vegetables grow in abundance and thus cost less. Besides, they taste a lot better.

Buy local: Local food is the freshest because it was picked the night or early morning just before they drove to the market. It will also be cheaper than food that has been transported from far away. Keep in mind that small farmers do not have the money or the manpower to get certified organic. It does not mean their food is unhealthy. Ask them. I’m sure they will be proud to share with you how they grow your food.

Plan a menu: Ideally you would have planned your menu in advance and created a precise shopping list. Use it, and [try not to] deviate from it. Buying without a list is a budget-buster, and impulse shopping is his ugly sister. Use the power of your calculator to price by the ounce. You might be surprised to find out that larger packages are not cheaper by the ounce. Give it a try. You’ll see.

Bake it from scratch: Of course this one is common sense, but in this society it seems to have been forgotten. Prepare, cook and bake from scratch. I know it sounds impossible in this day and age of two careers per family plus the kids. But with a little planning, it is possible. At least try to prepare part of your food from scratch. Your budget will thank you. After all, these stores, bakeries and restaurants have to make a profit to pay for their employees and their overhead. You don’t have to pay for this when you cook your food yourself. See what you can do. Every little bit helps. If the holidays seem overwhelming — and I know they can be — buy the main meat course from your butcher or grocery store, but prepare the rest at home. I’m sure your family will appreciate your efforts. No one can beat Mom’s cooking.

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