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Lighten up your holiday load

Although the holidays are meant to enjoy and relax with family and friends, many people find themselves spending the whole day in the kitchen. A friend of mine suggests ways she lightens up her holiday load by planning ahead and minimizing cooking time:

Do your shopping several days ahead (not the night before when the stores are jammed) and prepare at least part of each of the dishes a day or even two beforehand.

I always make squash soup using butternut, kombuchu and/or delicata squash. The squash can be baked or steamed a day or two days before, and the flesh scooped out and stored in a glass bowl in the refrigerator. Then it only takes a few minutes to combine squash, milk (I use soy or coconut or a combination of both), seasonings (lots of cinnamon, ginger and a dash of sea salt and black pepper) in the blender. Purée and voila, scrumptious richly orange soup with a heavenly aroma. This soup will keep very well for up to four days, but I usually make ours the night before (or my husband and teenage son eat it!), pour into mason jars and refrigerate, heating it up right before serving.

Our other traditional holiday dish - a fresh cranberry salad - will keep for three or four days - except it never lasts that long around here. I just rinse fresh cranberries and combine in the blender with chopped up pear, orange or pineapple (or a combination of whichever is available) and a big handful of walnuts or pecans. It takes less than two minutes to blend as you want to leave it chunky. I pour it into a glass storage bowl and mix in some chopped celery and lots of cinnamon.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes or yams can also be steamed, whipped and refrigerated a day ahead, so all they need is warming up and few finishing touches (a garnish, some gravy, etc.).

Not only can bread stuffing be made ahead, but it actually tastes better after a day or even two in the refrigerator where its flavors meld.

I usually substitute rice for the bread stuffing and make a mixture of brown and wild rice. I cook the rice the day before, season with olive oil, salt and pepper, then put in a serving casserole and refrigerate. About an hour before our Thanksgiving meal, I set the oven to 325 degrees, get out the casserole dish and mix in finely chopped onion, chopped celery, nuts, Italian parsley, and dried cranberries, (this takes 5 minutes), put a cover on the casserole and pop it in the oven for 45-50 minutes.

Even tossed green salad can be readied the day before. I rinse and spin dry the greens thoroughly one or even two days ahead, then store in a glass container in the vegetable bin. It only takes a minute or two to add cherry tomatoes, some shredded carrot, some parsley, broccoli sprouts, scallions, and a sprinkling of homemade croutons (very easy, see immediately below) before tossing with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar.

During the holidays, I always make whole wheat croutons. Everyone like them so much, they've become our traditional family gift to friends and teachers, etc. They can be made a week ahead and keep really well in an air-tight container in the pantry. I just cut up the bread into crouton-sized pieces, toss with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and dill or rosemary, then spread on a cookie sheet and bake at a low temperature (225-250 degrees) for a half hour. I know this exposes the oil to some heat and suppose you could just bake the bread then toss with olive oil and spices afterwards, but I haven't tried this - yet, maybe this year.

These holiday strategies can help you relax this holiday season while still giving your loved ones a World's Healthiest Home-Cooked Holiday Meal that is not only delicious, but costs much less and, I'm certain, delivers ten times the amount of phytonutrients than a meal consisting largely of packaged prepared foods.