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Dietitian’s Favorite Holiday Traditions

Sharon Palmer

One of the best things about the holidays is spending time with the people you love, enjoying delicious foods as part of your tradition. Food traditions are those practices surrounding foods that have been handed down over the generations. Perhaps your grandmother made tamales for the holidays with her secret family recipe, or your mother boiled up a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck (mine did, which inspired my Black-Eyed Pea Salad pictured above and featured in Plant-Powered for Life). Or maybe you’ve started a new family tradition making pumpkin muffins with your kids this time of year. No matter what those traditions are, they deserve to be celebrated and handed down to the next generation.

The picture above shares my own holiday food tradition. For the past 22 years, we have been hosting our annual Christmas Eve holiday dinner with friends and family in our home in the San Gabriel Foothills of California. Last year, we switched to a brunch in my vegetable garden. It was a bit chilly, but it was fun sharing a menu full of delicious, seasonal foods—each member of our party sharing in the menu.

I asked some of my favorite dietitians to share some of their own precious family traditions. Read on for inspiration, and don’t forget to build your own treasured food traditions this year. And don’t forget to check out my blog on BYO Food Traditions for more inspiration.

Dietitian’s Favorite Holiday Traditions


Seasonal vegetables are center stage in this recipe for Squash Filled with Herbed Quinoa and Cranberries.

1.  Forage for the Foods of the Season. “Foraging! A recent family tradition we have been enjoying, while living here in Spain, is foraging for the foods of fall. The tradition this time of year is to head to the mountains on the weekends for mushroom hunting, foraging for chestnuts, and picking apples. We love it as a way to escape the city, take in the fresh air and enjoy the local foods of the region. Here is a picture from this past weekend when we went mushroom hunting in Girona. When foraging, I do recommend going with a local or an expert since picking your own food can be dangerous if you don’t know the varieties,” says Denine Marie, MPH, RDN founder of Healthy Out of Habit.

2. Classic Cultural Cuisine.  “My favorite family holiday tradition is eating Croatian sauerkraut at every holiday meal. What makes the sauerkraut different is it has tomato sauce in it. We always eat our meals family style. Lots of wine is involved. And the food is passed out in courses so the meal takes about 2 or more hours to eat,” says Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, founder of Family. Food. Fiesta. 

3. It’s All About the Holiday Table. “My favorite memories of all our holiday meals at my parent’s house revolve around the table. We have the same traditional foods each year that are wonderful, but the table is what stands out to me. You see, my mom goes through a lot of effort to make sure the table is big enough so we can share our holiday meals sitting together. As the family has grown though marriages and children, she continues to add on tables to make room. Years back we bought her a table cloth that is long enough to cover all the added on tables so its once again “one” table we are all sharing together in the house my siblings and I grew up in. It’s wonderful – I look forward to those meals every holiday!” says Jodi Danen, RDN, founder of Create Kids Club.

My Vegan Sugar Cookies

4. Cookies, Cookies Everywhere. “Every Christmas I would go over to my grandmother’s house and we would make dozens of Christmas cookies all day. She was Polish so there were many that were from when she was younger and that you don’t see in the stores. She had decorations for the cookies from silver dots, to several different decorating sugars in all the colors to pearls and tiny snowflakes. It was so much fun and I believe that’s where I learned to love baking,” says Kim Melton, RD of Nutrition Pro Consulting.

Cauliflower Spinach Lasagna

5. Homemade Lasagna Joys. “While we had a huge Italian Christmas celebration on the actual day with 50+ family members, I always enjoyed Christmas Eve growing up where it was just my grandparents at my house. We had lasagna every year and then attended midnight mass together. Now that my grandparents have passed and I obtained a dairy allergy later in life, I make her lasagna noodles from scratch with her old pasta machine and created a delicious tofu ricotta to replace the dairy. It’s a lot of work, but brings back great memories as we create new ones!” says Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD of Eat Real, Live Well

Vegetarian Hoppin’ John with Okra

6. Cultural Traditions Stand the Test of Time. “For Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, my family would always make Spaetzle, a traditional German dish that we all learned to make from my grandma, who came from Germany. Growing up we looked forward to it every holiday and didn’t realize it wasn’t part of traditional meals at other people’s houses until my sisters and I got boyfriends that we invited over for dinner on holidays. I will proudly say though that all our husbands are big fans of spaetzle now,” says Brynn McDowell, RD and owner of The Domestic Dietitian.

Love this recipe for Pasta with Marinara and Roasted Vegetables

7.  Spread the Love.  “My favorite holiday tradition was gathering at my grandmother’s house for Christmas Eve every year. She is the one who taught me to love and appreciate food. Each year she would make an incredible spread, mostly the Italian tradition of no meat on Christmas Eve. It was the most magical day of the year for me. All of us together, mainly in the kitchen, surrounded by love and incredible food,” says Jenny S Manseau, RD, CC of The Creative RD.

For more of my favorite traditional plant-based holiday recipes, check out the following:

Swedish Beet Potato Apple Salad
Grits Smothered with Mustard Greens
Oat Cranberry Pilaf with Pistachios
Broccoli Au Gratin

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