From the moment November 1 hits, so many of us switch into holiday mode, planning family reunions and office parties, scouring the internet for dessert recipes, and daydreaming about festive comfort foods like stuffing and green bean casserole. Practically all socializing this time of year seems to revolve around food—rich, flavorful, coma-inducing food.
“Navigating healthy eating throughout the holidays can be really hard,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, the dietitian behind the blog Once Upon A Pumpkin. Not only do endless gatherings and errands throw you out of your routine, but decadent holiday nibbles seem to be constantly at your fingertips.
Most holiday foods just aren’t the picture of perfect nutrition—and that’s okay. “Sure, some holiday eats are better for you than others, but if you want that stuffing you only make once a year, be mindful of your portion size, enjoy it, and move on!” says Michalczyk.
That said, if you’re curious about what to fill your plate with to get the most nutritional bang for your bite, we asked Michalczyk to rank eight popular holiday foods for you, in order of least to most nutritious.
And The Biggest Loser Is: Cranberry Sauce
“Though you do get some of cranberries’ beneficial antioxidants and nutrients from the homemade stuff, cranberry sauce is usually loaded with sugar,” says Michalczyk. “I rank it last because popular canned varieties, in particular, are high in sugar with very little nutritional value.”
That high sugar content—22 grams-plus in just a quarter-cup of your average canned sauce—secured its spot in last place.
7th Place: Pumpkin Pie
No surprise here. Does anyone really eat pie for the nutritional benefits? “Pumpkin pie is often heavily sweetened and racks up the added sugar,” says Michalczyk.
6th Place: Green Bean Casserole
“Green beans are a good source of vitamins C, A, and K, as well as potassium,” says Michalczyk. However most green bean casseroles are made with heavy cream-based soups and fried onions, which add a lot of calories and fats—but little nutrition—to the dish.
“I like that you still get some vegetables in, but this is definitely one to watch your portion sizes with,” she adds.
5th Place: Stuffing
Usually made with plenty of butter and bread, most stuffings consist mostly of carbs and fats, says Michalczyk. However, if you add lots of veggies (like mushrooms, carrots, and spinach) and lean protein (like ground turkey) to the mix, you can up the nutritional value a bit.
Again, Michalczyk recommends keeping your portions reasonable.
4th Place: Mashed Potatoes
“Though often shunned because they are high in carbs, potatoes contain beneficial nutrients,” says Michalczyk. “In fact, they’re a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and folate—and provide a little bit of fiber.”
3rd Place: Ham
“Ham is notoriously high in sodium,” says Michalczyk. “However, it does contain protein—and is a good source of selenium, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamin, and riboflavin.” Plus, getting in that protein can help balance out your holiday meal.
To keep your sodium intake under control, just stick to one serving of this one, Michalczyk says.
2nd Place: Turkey
You can’t really go wrong with the traditional turkey. “Turkey is a good source of protein, B vitamins, and selenium,” says Michalczyk. It’s a great staple to center your meal around—and will help you feel satisfied without going overboard on some of the table’s less nutritious offerings.
If you want to save your fat intake for your favorite desserts and sides, take your turkey skin-free, Michalczyk recommends.
And The Sweet, Sweet Winner Is: Sweet Potatoes
However, sweet potatoes’ first-place spot is contingent on them not being covered with marshmallows or doused in maple syrup. “You’re getting a lot of extra sugar and calories if topping your potatoes,” Michalczyk says. Still nutritious, but with some baggage.