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The 2020 Version of Healthy Holiday Eating

Dr. Jami Zamyad & Dr. Venus Kalami share advice and tips on healthy holiday eating.
The 2020 Version of Healthy Holiday Eating
Jami Zamyad, RD | Venus Kalami, RD
Jami Zamyad, RD is the Director, Clinical Nutrition Services. 

Venus Kalami, RD is a clinical dietitian.

Scott Webb: The holidays are a time for many of us to eat well and spend time with family and friends. And though the pandemic has affected our plans this year, my guests today are here to help us all eat healthy, virtually connect with our loved ones and, with any luck, form some new memories along the way.

And I'm pleased to be joined by Jami Zamyad, she's a doctor in clinical nutrition and Director of the Clinical Nutrition Program at Stanford Children's Health. And I'm also joined by clinical pediatric dietician by Venus Kalami. She's also with Stanford Children's Health.

This is Health Talks from Stanford Children's Health. I'm Scott Webb.

Thank you both for joining me. We're talking about healthy eating, healthy holiday eating today, which, for many of us, I'm sure is a little counterintuitive as the holidays are often viewed as a time to indulge just a little bit, but we do want everybody, especially our kiddos to eat as healthy as possible. So, Venus, I'll start with you. Do you have any different advice this year due to COVID-19?

Venus Kalami: I'll start off by saying that this has been a hard year, full of disappointment. And I think straight up that is important to acknowledge as a parent, as a family unit and especially with our kids. I think most kids at this point have a great understanding that this year has been unlike any other. And so we want to take time to kind of reframe this holiday season so that it can still feel fulfilling, still feel about togetherness and still be fun.

Keeping up communication is probably one of the best ways to navigate this different time of COVID-19, especially during the holidays. And there are plenty of resources online, like comics, books, and articles that are geared toward children from experts in child communication on how to do this. So I suggest starting there as a parent. And then having family discussions about how to redefine and reframe the holidays about what they're about. That might mean instead of doing a huge dinner together, maybe we do an online virtual zoom dinner, and that's not to say just for Christmas, but for other holidays as well, whether that's Kwanzaa or the Winter Solstice. You can set up new holiday traditions that can be done virtually, but still be about togetherness.

Dr. Jami Zamyad: I will follow with that. The state of California Department of Public Health has current recommendations as we know with the numbers of COVID increasing, they're changing guidelines pretty much on a consistent basis. But some of the things that we want to be mindful of is limiting get-togethers to people from no more than three households, keeping events to under two hours, if possible, holding gatherings outdoors. The guideline also recommends avoid singing and loud talking.

You can check with the state or county health department for local updates. And I found the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends some kitchen safety tips during the holidays, that when sampling food, remember to wash the spoon before it goes back into the food; not leaving perishable foods out for more than two hours; keeping hot liquids and food away from counter and table edges where young children can reach; fully cooking recipes with eggs, meat, and poultry; and thoroughly washing fresh produce and, of course, washing your hands a lot and reminding kids to do the same.

Scott Webb: The singing one is going to be hard for me, because a dad does like to put on the Christmas favorites and sing a lot. I think my wife and my kids will be really happy to hear that dad is going to have to cut back on the singing this year. So Venus, do you have any go-to rules for eating healthy the around the holidays? How can we as parents plan a holiday dinner that feels special, but is also healthy?

Venus Kalami: To echo what you said, Scott, the holidays are a little bit about indulgence. Like you said, we don't typically think about honing in on healthy eating at this time. So what I say and what my strategy is around the holidays is to do the best you can and keep it simple. Like I said, the holidays are always going to be about food to some extent, and there will be special treats. But there's no need to put those treats on this pedestal or to treat them like an obstacle or to feel stressed out about how many treats are available.

Instead what I suggest is to really embrace the holidays, but still offer nutritious options. Many holiday foods are actually nutritious. Turkey, brussel sprouts, vegetables, salad and sides. And then except that it is okay to indulge on this day, but that we want to do it mindfully. So that might mean picking and choosing what kind of special treat you want to indulge in. Again, the holidays are typically one day or a few days. You're not going to be eating like this forever.

Quite interestingly enough, we in the nutrition field have a deep range of literature that shows us that overly restricting food, whether it's for yourself as a parent or an adult or if you're overly restricting your child, can lead to overeating later and can even lead to eating when you're not even hungry.

If you needed evidence to support, this is it. It's completely fine to relinquish control around food for yourself and for your kids and still enjoy foods, but try your best to stick to nutritious meals and eating on a regular schedule. It's all in good balance, I would say.

Dr. Jami Zamyad: Some great ideas and getting kids to eat healthy is by recruiting their help on planning the holiday menu; considering recipes with their favorite fruits and vegetables or those that they're willing to try; involving them in shopping, prepping, and cooking. This gives them a sense of ownership and pride, and they're more likely to try and eat something they worked hard to prepare.

And this is especially helpful for picky eaters. So depending on the level of interest and participation, this could be adaptive for at least one meal per day, where the kids are involved in the meal you enjoy as a family even outside of holidays. And then if you're going to be busy, stocking up the fridge and pantry with dried fruits, raw nuts, fresh raw veggies, nut butter. These are some of my go-tos. Salsa, avocado, hummus, things like that. Cheese and crackers. You can prep and plate vegetables with some dips, hummus, making fruits and a cheese and cracker platter, doing a corn tortilla with avocado, cheese and salsa, just as a quick healthy option for snacking.

I can go on and on about ways to prepare for busy parents, who don't have a lot of time, whether it's during the holidays or other times that are busy running around and trying to prepare meals and get dinner on the table quickly. There's always options of keeping frozen vegetables in the freezer. Keeping the pantry, again, free of packaged foods, including sweet and salty snacks and having options that are quick, marinating your favorite proteins and keeping it in the freezer, so you can quickly, thaw it and prepare, whether it's the frozen veggies or pre-cut and fresh veggies that you can make a quick meal that's healthy and good for the kids.

I also recommend, if you have a pressure cooker or slow cooker, those are also great cooking tools for busy parents.

Scott Webb: Really great suggestions. And Venus, do you have any tips for sneaking vegetables into holiday dishes, which is always the battle between parents and kids? How can we sneak things that are good for them into these dishes? And maybe what are some great tips to engage with our kids during the holidays? We're talking about maybe having them be our cooking or baking buddies or shopping buddies. And lastly, we've touched on this just a little bit, but how about some quick meal ideas for all of us who really are, despite the pandemic, we still find ourselves pretty busy.

Venus Kalami: I'll start off by saying maybe a controversial statement, which is sneaking vegetables into dishes is actually not a good long-term strategy. The ultimate goal, when it comes to eating a healthy and nutritious diet, is to actually get your child to participate in the food, in eating it and seeing it. So that means smelling, tasting, touching. If you have zucchini, that's hidden in a muffin, you're doing the zucchini a huge disservice and your child as well.

Eating a wholesome diet and nutritious diet, it's a lifelong quest. It's a daily commitment. So if your child wasn't eating a nutritious diet before, if you as a parent, weren't eating a nutritious diet before, I could comfortably say that the holidays probably aren't the best time to start doing that. And I know it sounds unusual for a dietician to say that, but really, because it's a lifelong quest and a daily commitment, it's really more about the behaviors that you want your child to take on.

So think about where that starts, and that really starts with the parents. That means modeling the food behaviors that you want your child to mimic. Um, having family meals at the table together to create a safe space of togetherness, to try new foods and, together, those help build a healthy relationship with food, which is the priority when it comes to nutrition for children. And that healthy relationship with food in turn is going to drive food choices for your child and therefore the quality of their diet.

So the ways that you can get them more interested in eating vegetables or familiar foods that they don't typically have is to engage them as Jami mentioned earlier. And particularly if you have a picky eater, simply getting them engaged in a low-pressure way can just open up the door of curiosity to try new foods.

The ways that you can do this is through exposure. And I think it's important to redefine what exposure means. For a lot of people, eating a new food or eating vegetables, or offering them to your children, the goal is to get them to eat it and eat lots of it and eat it regularly. I think it's actually okay to take a few steps back and think about the long-term goal, which is to get them to eat this regularly and the short-term goal, which is to expose your child in a pleasant, fun, engaging way with the variety of foods so that they build a healthy food relationship and that they feel safe to try on these foods.

For children, it's very common to feel very skeptical of new foods even when they've had the foods before, so this can just change with their age and their developmental status and their own personality as it starts to bud. So what I will say is that try to avoid sneaking veggies and really focus more on the food experiences and the food behaviors that you as a parent are modeling for your child.

Dr. Jami Zamyad: I think that was perfect, Venue. I would also add that if there are a texture and mouthfeel sensitivities with kids, you can try fine chopping, grating and pureeing some of the fruits and vegetables in recipes. For example, making a smoothie for breakfast and putting spinach and putting other kale or other greens that perhaps might be more difficult with children that have texture and mouthfeel sensitivities.

Also, I can add in pasta sauce, I can chop zucchini, I can chop spinach and add it within the pasta sauce, their favorite pasta sauce that they enjoy. Fried rice, for example, is a great way to add chopped vegetables and get children to try, especially again if they have texture and mouthfeel sensitive sensitivities.

And then with the exception of infants, most kids can get involved in cooking activities and, depending on their age and their skillset, kids can help with rinsing and washing. They can help with measuring foods. They can mix, they can mash. They can help you with peeling. They can help with marinating, decorating. Um, also searching for recipes, reading recipes, even writing recipes, which I highly recommend to do as a family, especially around holiday times where you can establish some tradition with recipes and getting the kids to participate, again with their input on their favorite foods and foods that they're willing to try.

They're also great at helping set the table and decorate the table. While I was doing my Christmas shopping, I came across this knife that is specifically designed for children. And it also comes with my first knife booklet that gives kind of guidelines around how to use the knife safely. It has rounded tip and heel and it has rubber handles, which is easy for small hands to cut. And so I think there's some tools that we can help with, again, getting the kids involved and getting them to participate and be more willing to try eating different fruits and vegetables.

Scott Webb: And Venus, when we're talking about our kids and issues, what are some of the common issues that could happen or have happened during the holidays, whether it's overeating or foods that are too rich or choking, whatever it might be? Let's go through some of these things that we need to be on the lookout for.

Venus Kalami: So besides setting the theme for a healthy and happy eating environment and besides COVID and beyond social distancing, there are some other areas of health and safety that we want to be mindful of. This can vary and depend on your child's age, and if they have any medical or nutritional needs in particular.

First and foremost, I would say that we want to make sure that whatever foods that we're offering, that they're age-appropriate and they aren't a choking hazard. And this is going to depend on your child's age. If, as a parent, you're wondering, "What is a choking hazard?" I would say look to the CDC. They have a fantastic resource online that's easily accessible that outlines various common choking hazards, like hard pieces of food, popcorn, hard candies, and so on.

And then I would also add that around the holidays for people, children, and families who have food allergies, food intolerances, chronic illnesses that impact diet like diabetes or celiac disease, the holidays can be pretty stressful. So if you're doing a socially distanced holiday dinner or have holiday plans of that nature, try to keep those people in mind.

If you yourself are someone who has a chronic condition or condition in general that impacts what you eat, let your host or your family know in advance. So your whole family and you can enjoy the celebration. Don't be shy. Be a self-advocate. Your host will absolutely appreciate that you're telling them what it is that you need, so they can prepare in advance.

Aside from that, overeating, probably one of the most common things that happen during the holiday season. And to some extent, it's probably going to happen and I always like to remind and reassure everyone that it's just one or two days, you're not going to be eating like this for the whole year, right? When it comes to overeating, there are some things that you can do, some practices that you can put in place to avoid overeating, feeling too full or having all the digestive issues that come along with that.

First and foremost is not skipping any meals and a lot of people like to starve themselves all day and then overeat and not feel great afterwards. So just because it's a holiday, still keep to your regular eating schedule. If you're really busy that day, again you can always redefine and reframe what a meal looks like. Maybe it's a simple yogurt and nuts. Maybe it's dip and some vegetables, but just something to keep your body nourished and energized so that you're not famished and starving when it comes to that dinner. And then therefore you're less likely to overeat.

When it comes to the holiday dinner, same sort of guidelines as day-to-day healthy eating are going to apply to your plate. Aim to have a protein, aim to have a good hefty portion of vegetables on your plate and some sort of carbohydrates. So you're getting all of the nutrients that you need to feel satisfied.

And then I would say most importantly, give yourself permission to not need to feel so in control of food. It is truly okay to have an indulgence and to do it mindfully. Sometimes by not worrying so much or not trying to control so much, you wind up naturally indulging less as funny as that sounds.

And I would say same goes for children, right? If you overly restrict or you overly control, kids wind up getting really preoccupied with a food or a special treat, eating when they're not hungry. And I've attributed this also to human nature, you know, we want what we can't have or others tell us we can't have.

Bottom line, I would say, stay on a regular eating schedule. Still try to have a balanced meal when it comes to the holiday dinner and indulge mindfully, to let yourself have a little treat and do it without guilt or stress.

Scott Webb: Those are all great ideas. And, Jami, is there anything parents can look out for, you know, as we're shopping and looking at ingredient labels? What can we be on the lookout for when we're trying to buy, you know, ready-made snacks and food? What are some red flags or things that we might want to be looking for?

Dr. Jami Zamyad: Definitely the goal is to aim for whole foods when and where possible. And those are label-free, so there's no worry about reading labels. But if you do have to buy packaged foods and you want to minimize excessive intake of sugar, salt and avoid any trans fats in the ingredient label for the most part.

Also there's artificial food colors that are found in all sorts of food products, especially those marketed for children. They have been found to increase some symptoms in children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Also nitrates and nitrites are used to preserve food and enhance color. They are commonly found in processed foods, especially meats. Those would be the salt, the sugars, the fats and also some of the artificial preservatives and additives I would definitely look out for.

We also want to be mindful of the fact that due to COVID and this pandemic, there's been a lot of financial strain on many families. We have a lot that who are unemployed and relying on food pantries and more packaged foods. It doesn't mean that you have to stop eating packaged food, and you do the best that you can as Venus has alluded to earlier. But if you have access to fresh whole foods, fruits and vegetables are always a good choice and they're label-free.

Scott Webb: Venus, besides a pediatrician who can a parent talk to or what resources are out there if we have questions about our family's diet and nutrition?

Venus Kalami: If you're looking for more individualized one-on-one support or a deep dive into nutrition, the best resource to reach out to is a specialist in nutrition, such as a registered dietician. To do this, starting with your pediatrician is always great. You can start there to get a referral to a registered dietician. And if you're looking for nutrition counseling services and education for your child, I would speak up to your pediatrician that you're looking for more of a pediatric specialist in nutrition.

And if you have specific questions, specific needs regarding nutrition, just know that dieticians even within the pediatric realm actually have subspecialties. So however more specific you can be with your pediatrician about your needs, the more likely you'll get connected to the dietician that you need to support you with your specific goals, questions, and needs.

Scott Webb: And last word to you here, Jami. We're talking today about healthy holiday eating and we've covered a lot of territory. It's been really educational and fun, what else can we tell people before we close up here?

Dr. Jami Zamyad: To enjoy. I think communicating and sharing this time, especially with the pandemic. Our inability to spend more time with extended family has its positive and make building connection and having time to spend more about communicating and sharing with your children and your immediate family. So even though it has put a lot of strain on us and we're keeping at home, it could still include a lot of fun, a lot of memories built and made and good times.

Scott Webb: It's been so fun having you both on today. It was not a good idea to host this podcast when I'm hungry. Love what you brought today. Love the energy and suggestions and tips, and we hope, you know, everybody finds these to be helpful and useful. Thank you both for being on and you stay well.

Venus Kalami: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure. Thank you.

Dr. Jami Zamyad: The same for you. Happy holidays.

Scott Webb: For more information on the Clinical Nutrition Program at Stanford Children's Health, visit And we hope you found this podcast to be helpful and informative. And if you did, please share it on your social channels and be sure to check out the full podcast library for additional topics of interest.

This is Health Talks from Stanford Children's Health. I'm Scott Webb. Stay well, and we'll talk again next time.