It’s almost Hanukkah and that means eight days and nights of festivities and food. However, the traditional dishes eaten at Hanukkah are not the healthiest. The holiday celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks. When the Maccabees rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they only had enough oil to burn for one day but a miracle occurred and the oil burned for 8 days. Fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) became the traditional fare for Hanukkah because they are cooked in oil and remind us of the great miracle that happened there.
It is also customary to eat cheesy foods on Hanukkah. This is based on the Book of Judith in which a woman helped conquer an Assyrian warrior by feeding him salty cheese which made him thirsty, and wine to make him drunk. After he was drunk, she beheaded him with his own sword. Talk about a hangover! In honor of Judith’s bravery, cheese and dairy foods became part of the traditional dishes of Hanukkah.
So how do we honor the great traditions of the holiday without revolting against our bodies and our health? Well, it doesn’t take a miracle to make some small changes in the way we eat which could lead to some big changes in how we feel.
1.Swap out the dairy
Dairy products can be replaced with plant-based versions. Try dairy-free sour cream and nut-based or tapioca-based cheeses. So much progress has been made in this area. Vegan sour creams and cream cheeses are rich and creamy while vegan cheeses come in many flavors and actually melt! There are numerous types of dairy-free milks available: soy, rice, almond, coconut, hemp. They are delicious and contain less fat and calories than dairy milks.
2. Who needs eggs?
Most recipes say to use eggs as a binder but they are not necessary for making delicious latkes or other dishes. Eggs can be easily replaced. To replace 1 large egg:
a. Use an egg replacer, like Ener-G, according to the package directions
b. Use 4 tablespoons of pureed silken tofu plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
c. Use 4 tablespoons of unsweetened fruit puree plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
d. Use 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed or chia seeds mixed with 3 tablespoons of warm water and let sit until thickened.
3. Limit the amount of oil and frying
Just because Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, doesn’t mean we have to consume vats of it. Instead of deep-frying, we can pan-fry foods or use natural cooking oil sprays. Or we could even bake latkes and doughnuts instead of frying them. Yes, you read that right – I said bake instead of fry! Nothing in the Hanukkah story mentions frying foods. Baking still uses oil and just like the miracle of that time, we should try to make one day’s worth of oil last eight nights!
4. When you do use oil, choose healthy oils
While all oils have the same calories per tablespoon, they are not all equally healthy. Blended oils, shortenings made with partially hydrogenated oils and chemically extracted oils are not healthy. Polyunsaturated oils, such as corn oil or soybean oil, contain too many omega-6 fatty acids, which people should limit in their diets.
Instead, we should choose oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturates and oleic acids. Choose cold-pressed olive oils and expeller-pressed organic canola oils over the refined blends.
5. Swap out white potatoes for sweet potatoes
When making dishes such as latkes, choose sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. While both types of potatoes have nutritional value, sweet potatoes have higher values of Vitamin A and beta carotene. Sweet potatoes are rich in carotenoids that help the body respond to insulin. They are also lower on the glycemic index scale and an excellent source of Vitamin C.
6. Or just skip the potatoes and be creative
Who says latkes have to be made with just potatoes? You can cut down on the amount of potatoes you use by adding other shredded vegetables such as zucchini, carrots or yellow squash. Or you can leave out the potatoes altogether and make latkes out of zucchini, parsnips or my new favorite, Brussels sprouts. The way I see it, the healthier my latkes are, the more of them I can eat!
7. Whole grains and Macca-beets
Include healthier choices in your other holiday dishes. If you make noodle kugel or any other pasta dish, choose a whole-grain pasta like whole wheat, brown rice or quinoa pasta. Ditch the refined white flour and go for the protein and fiber-rich choices like whole wheat, chickpea, brown rice, amaranth or teff flour.
Entrees can also be made healthier. Why celebrate a holiday by clogging your arteries and intestines with meat dishes? This is the perfect time of year to get beautiful and delicious root and winter vegetables like beets, parsnips, celery root, turnips, kale, pumpkin and squashes galore! Make these colorful and healthy foods the stars of your Hanukkah table.
8. When going for the gelt, go for the gold
What’s Hanukkah without gelt, the chocolate coins used when playing dreidel, or for that matter, chocolate dreidels? Not fun, that’s what but guess what? Chocolate is healthy…when you choose the right one. Instead of milk chocolate, indulge (in moderation) with dark chocolate. Flavanols, which are more prevalent in dark chocolate, have antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage implicated in heart disease. Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve vascular function, possibly reducing the risks of diabetes, stroke and heart attack. Choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 65 percent or higher but limit how much you eat because it still has significant calories (up to 450 calories for 3 ounces).
As you can see, making small changes can add up to a lot of healthy benefits. Try making one change for each night of Hanukkah. It will be the best gift you could give to yourself and your loved ones.