10 Healthy and Delicious Whole Grain Holiday Foods

Even your pie can get a whole grain makeover.
Even your pie can get a whole grain makeover.
© Getty Images/Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

The holiday season is upon us, and so is the seemingly inevitable weight gain that comes along with the cocktails, the dinner parties and the pies. The good news, if you can call it that, about gaining weight during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is that we are actually gaining less than everyone imagines -- on average we gain about 1 pound (about half a kilogram), rather than the 5-pound (2.3-kilogram) gain that was previously estimated. And the bad? We're not losing that weight once the holiday season passes (not even after we make another New Year's resolution to eat healthier and lose weight this year).

In an effort to celebrate a healthier holiday season this year and get a jump on that New Year's resolution, allow us to introduce you to whole grains: amaranth, whole-grain barley, buckwheat, bulgur, whole-grain corn, flaxseed, millet, whole oats, quinoa, whole rye, sorghum, triticale and wheat berries. Brown and wild rice are also whole grain foods.

Whole grains are grains that still have their bran and germ intact. They are unrefined. White flour, white rice and white bread, among other (yes, probably white) foods, are refined, which means the grains have had their bran and germ removed in the milling process. Refined grains can also be enriched grains, which means that after the bran and germ are removed, some nutrients are added back into the product.

Studies indicate that a diet rich in whole grains and low in refined grains can help you lose weight, especially the hard-to-lose weight around the belly. Eating whole-grain foods may also lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and reduce your risk of having a stroke.

Adding whole grains to your diet, even to your holiday menu, can be as simple as making a few substitutions to your tried-and-true recipes, or as adventurous as switching to a plant-based diet. Let's look at how to infuse your holiday foods with the benefits of whole grains, one course at a time.



It's incredibly easy to give stuffed mushrooms a whole grain upgrade.
It's incredibly easy to give stuffed mushrooms a whole grain upgrade.

Making small substitutions in classic, stand-by recipes is an easy way to reinvent them with the benefits of whole grains. For example, if you're serving stuffed mushrooms as part of your holiday appetizer spread, swap the dried breadcrumbs for whole-wheat (or another whole grain) bread crumbs. Partial to a quiche or tart on the table? Again, an easy refined-for-whole-grain substitution in the crust is all you'll need to begin adding whole grains to your holiday foods. And to accompany dips and cheese plates, choose whole grain crackers and breads.

But eating whole grain foods isn't just about modifying your current recipes -- it's also about opening your menu up to include grains you or your family may not have tried before, such as spelt, millet or quinoa. Try flavor pairings such as sweet potato and quinoa or roasted squash, cranberries and spelt.


Bread Basket

A single slice of store-bought white bread has about 66 calories and 1 gram of dietary fiber. Turn that into a single slice of whole-wheat bread and the fiber content bumps up to 2 grams. And you'll get 3 grams of fiber if you turn that into a single slice of homemade (or carefully chosen pre-packaged) whole-wheat bread. The point of this? The more whole-grainy goodness in the bread, the better it is for you. Swedish rye, wheat boules and sweet potato-spelt biscuits aside, that's what to keep that in mind when buying or making breads this holiday season.

When shopping for breads and rolls for your holiday bread basket, look for products that list whole ingredients first. Be sure to look at the ingredients list to verify instead of relying on the packaging's claim of "now made with whole grains," as those labels are not always true. Making your own bread? You can generally substitute white flour with whole wheat flour when baking without a kitchen catastrophe or recipe re-tooling, although you may need to add a little more liquid. Also try using whole rye or other grains such as barley, spelt or oatmeal in place of white, refined flour, substituting for 25 to 50 percent of white flour.

And any leftover breads? Day old bread makes an excellent whole-grain French toast.



Add a quinoa salad to your holiday table to deliciously increase your intake of whole grains.
Add a quinoa salad to your holiday table to deliciously increase your intake of whole grains.

Green salads are a great way to feel full while eating less -- an important trick to remember during the diet-busting holiday season. Research tells us that when we eat a small, low-calorie (no more than 150 calories) first course such as a green salad, we eat fewer total calories during that meal. That's good information to have if you're watching your waistline.

Those salads may be good for us, but we can make them even better. No, not croutons (although if you must, choose those made with a whole grain flour). Whole grains. Whole grains (and fiber) take longer to digest, making you feel full longer. Try adding half a cup of cooked whole grains such as a wheat berries, whole wheat couscous or quinoa as a topping to leafy salads. Or make the grain the star, such as a quinoa with lemon and chickpeas, toasted pecan and brown rice pilaf or bulgur tabbouleh.

Make note, though, that when you're working with whole grains, some, such as wheat berries and brown rice, may need to be soaked (sometimes overnight) before you can use them. Plan ahead.


Main Dishes

Including whole grains in your main dishes is easy, and you can either dabble or dive right in. If you're dabbling, try substituting whole grain versions of ingredients you normally use, such as whole wheat flour for all-purpose white flour and brown rather than white rice. If you're using any ground meats, consider adding whole-grain bread crumbs or a cooked whole grain such as brown or wild rice -- not only is this a trick to stretch how many servings you can get out of your meat, it also helps keep ground meats moist. For those who want to give whole grains better representation as the main dish, consider a centerpiece dish such as a mushroom pie baked in a whole-wheat crust.

The holiday season isn't just about dinners, though. If during the holidays it seems as though you're often hosting overnight guests, you're not alone. Send them on their way home with a whole grain, healthy holiday brunch including banana buckwheat waffles, steel-cut oatmeal, blueberry-spelt muffins or whole-wheat pumpkin pancakes.

When shopping for ingredients or ready-to-go foods, be sure to check the labels before adding anything to your basket. Product labeling can be deceiving, and not all products with "100 percent wheat" claims contain whole grains. Looking at pancake mixes for brunch? Enriched flour is not a whole grain. Whole wheat flour is a whole grain, and you'll probably do better to make your own mix with your own flours.


Stuffing and Dressing

What would a turkey dinner be without stuffing? The whole grain versions are just as delicious as the kind mom used to make.
What would a turkey dinner be without stuffing? The whole grain versions are just as delicious as the kind mom used to make.
©Getty Images/Jupiterimages/Thinkstock

Whether you call it stuffing or you call it dressing, it's basically the same deal, and it's almost always based on a bread or grains.

Cornbread stuffing should be made with stone-ground cornmeal. Instead of a day-old crusty baguette or country-style loaf, cube whole-grain breads instead (or make it a 50-50 split, which is still healthier than no whole grains). Also try stuffings that are made with brown or wild rice, quinoa or barley -- all pair nicely with cranberry, mushrooms and fresh herbs, and all are good alternatives to breads.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recommends we all cook our stuffing separate from our turkey -- it's safer because stuffing cooked inside the cavity of a turkey needs to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) to kill bacteria that may cause food borne illnesses. If you do stuff your bird, always check its temperature to determine its doneness.



There is a whole world of pasta out there that's not made from refined flour. These days, you'll find pastas made from not only whole wheat but also other whole grains such as brown rice, buckwheat, kamut, quinoa and spelt (as well as pastas made from corn, potatoes and peas) -- in fact in early 2005, almost 50 new whole-grain pasta options were introduced -- more than four times the number hit the shelves in 2002 [source: Foltz-Gray]. And Americans are buying more whole wheat pasta than ever before -- sales hit $128 million in 2010, which is about 9 percent of the pasta market [source: Whole Grains Council].



Brown rice makes an excellent base for adding dried fruits to create a colorful side dish.
Brown rice makes an excellent base for adding dried fruits to create a colorful side dish.

More than 70 percent of the rice we eat in the U.S. is white rice [source: Hendrick]. One of the easiest things to do when choosing whole grains over refined grains is to start eating brown or wild rice instead of white rice. Use it not only as a side on its own, but as a stuffing for roasted tomatoes, in pilaf, or in your dressing.

Just as you'd replace white rice with brown to get the whole grain benefits, consider using barley or bulgur as a side dish. Some grains such as brown and wild rice, cracked wheat berries and quinoa can be eaten as a side, as a star on their own, or in a duet with a handful of dried fruits and a splash of vinaigrette or sautéed wild mushrooms mixed in.

Grains can also easily be added to soups, pilafs and salads. Risottos, too, can be modified and cooked with the whole grain farro and millet instead of Arborio rice.



If you have never made your own gravy, you may not know: Gravy contains flour. Your classic holiday gravy, the kind you'd find served with turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, typically consists of three things: flour, fat and stock. There are about 50 calories in four tablespoons of the stuff [source: Ward].

The flour in your gravy is there as a thickening agent, and typically it's plain white flour that does the work. Gravies begin with a roux, which is a combination of fat (usually pan drippings or butter) and flour whisked together until the mixture liquifies and develops a nutty, not floury, flavor. And the thing about gravy is that you don't need white flour to make it perfect. Try substituting refined flour with whole wheat flour (or white whole wheat flour), spelt flour, millet flour or oat flour.



A decadent dessert has an improved nutritional profile when it's made with whole grain substitions.
A decadent dessert has an improved nutritional profile when it's made with whole grain substitions.

It's a baked mixture of cream, sugar, eggs and white bread, so there's really no getting around it: There is nothing healthy about bread pudding.

Despite our efforts to be healthy, though, who among us doesn't have an unhealthy holiday food tradition? Maybe Thanksgiving doesn't feel quite right without a slice of pumpkin pie, or maybe you wait all year for that bread pudding.

Let's look at that slice of pumpkin pie as an example. A slice of pumpkin pie -- that's one eighth of a 9-inch (23-centimeter) pie -- is about 200 to 300 calories and contains about 2 grams of fiber. If you're going to indulge, why not sneak in a little whole grain with easy substitutions? Not everything has to be made with all-purpose flour. Try whole wheat flour (or whole wheat pastry flour) or other whole-grain flours such as buckwheat, oat and quinoa, as well as nut flours, bean flours and flaxseeds in your desserts. Make that pumpkin pie in a whole grain crust made with whole wheat pastry flour, whole wheat flour and flaxseeds and you'll change that nutrition profile for the better -- now that slice of pie has 280 calories and 5 grams of fiber.



Holidays and snacks go hand in hand, and it can be difficult to pass up a calorie-dense cocktail, a slice of Bûche de Noël, or something sugary from the cookie platter. Among the water crackers and a log of chèvre, you can still make healthy, whole grain choices.

Rice cakes (basically just air-puffed rice), whole-grain crackers and pitas can be dressed up with toppings, dipped or made into canapés. Bake oatmeal raisin cookies instead of chocolate chip. And yes, to the delight of all snackers: Popcorn is a whole grain food. Getting one serving (1 ounce, or about 28 grams) of grains is as easy as snacking on three cups of popcorn (go easy on the salt and butter, if any at all, or sprinkle your popcorn with toppings such as Parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast or chili-lime) [source: The Popcorn Board].


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