This is your brain on holiday foods: Hooked! It’s a chemical reaction, says Cristina Caro, MBA, RDN, LD, regional dietitian and wellness manager with Sodexo. As we get into the holiday season, she has a theory on the unbreakable connection between food and the last months of the year: Feasting on our traditional favorites, “you get a boost of brain chemicals that soothe and comfort your mood,” Caro says. “Additionally, holiday foods are often associated with happy memories and traditions. Your brain remembers the connection between these foods and positive feelings.”
Sign us up! There is a bit of a catch, though, with so many rich foods, Caro warns. (She is a dietitian, after all!) “As we experience the added demands of the holidays and feel stressed, our brain signals for comfort foods to help balance our mood and lower perceived stress. Many of these comfort foods can spike blood sugar and make us hungry sooner, triggering a splurge of holiday snacking and decadent foods.”
Her solution? Swapping in healthier ingredients on traditional faves and taking advantage of the positives involved with holiday flavors, specifically herbs and spices.
“Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, rosemary, sage and thyme are rich in antioxidants and other nutrients that help to manage blood sugar and appetite, digestion and immune function,” Caro says. “Foodservice chefs can make the most of the positive nutrition, aroma and flavor profiles of these healthful ingredients by incorporating them in familiar dishes and offering new menu items alongside traditional favorites.”
Comfort (food) and joy (of eating healthier)
Caro recently created a turkey ciabatta with spiced cranberry sauce cut into small wedges as a snacky, healthy way to celebrate. The sauce includes ground allspice, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, ground ginger and freshly grated nutmeg.
She has been noticing a shift in what consumers are seeking, and it’s a happy medium between indulgence and wellness, like dark chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Caro’s colleague, Executive Chef Jared Danks of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, has created a cool artichoke with beet stuffing for an earthy delight that can serve as a great meatless holiday brunch item. Danks combines roasted beets with celery, carrots, garlic, scallions and corn with a boost of flavor (and nutrients) from chopped fresh rosemary and sage.
Savory flavors of the season
Stony Brook University’s Faculty Student Association and CulinArt teamed up earlier this fall for a country-cozy festival that included savory items with apples, like roast pork loin with apple-mustard glaze, apple-butternut squash hash, apple-leek brussels sprouts and apple fritters, which can go in the savory or sweet direction, depending on how you plate it. It worked well on the side with the pork.
Savory fritters also came into play at UConn, when Chef Robert Landolphi began serving them at a food truck-outdoor kitchen hybrid earlier this year. The little bite-size fritters or “tater tumblers” are made with dehydrated potatoes and combos from bacon-spinach-Parmesan to sweet potato-cranberry and chicken-spinach-feta.
Another festival with fun brunch-style food, Metz Culinary Management’s VegFest presented even more opportunities for seasonal, shareable dishes that became regular menu items. Hannah Alvarez, a corporate healthcare chef with Metz, finds that winter is a great time for seasonal veggies, like butternut squash, to cozy up in casseroles, for example.
Other plant-forward items introduced at VegFest include roasted pear-blue cheese flatbread, chimichurri quinoa-stuffed peppers and black bean-asparagus frittata.