For many, Christmas dinner is the highlight of the holiday season, bringing friends and family together to celebrate by sharing a bountiful feast. Time-honored recipes are passed down from generation to generation, and their familiarity offers comfort in a rapidly changing world.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
But being traditional does not necessarily mean being healthy, and the food coma that follows the Yorkshire pudding, the mashed potatoes, the goose with chestnut stuffing can leave one regretting having indulged.
How does one go about preparing a healthy meal without sacrificing that special feeling of tradition and comfort?
"Buy local and buy organic," says Anna Edey, owner of the environmentally progressive Solviva Farm in West Tisbury. "You don't have to completely rework your menu to make the meal more healthy. Instead, substitute better quality ingredients."
Ms. Edey continues, "Local and organic means less processing, and less unpronounceable chemicals. You can still have your holiday eggnog, but make it using farm fresh eggs. Use the local produce. We have wonderful organic squashes available here during the winter season, local cranberries, kale. And if you can bring in some more vegetables, even though they may not be traditional, that makes for a better meal."
Heather C. Rynd also stresses the importance of using organic and local ingredients. A registered polarity practitioner, she has worked on Martha's Vineyard for 22 years in the field of polarity therapy, a comprehensive health system designed to balance the energies in the body though bodywork, nutrition, exercise and self-awareness.
"Nutrition is a huge part of what I do, and during Christmas a lot of questions come up about what to eat and not to eat. But if you can get it locally, you are off to a good start. Change what you put into the food, not the menu. Finding vegetables grown without pesticides, and meat raised without hormones will reduce the amount of chemicals you put in your body. You can also buy organic wine. The organic wines don't have the added sulfates."
Martha's Vineyard has an abundance of local farms, many of which still have a bounty of produce available. Morning Glory Farm stays open though Christmas and is still harvesting, among other things, spinach, leaks, butternut squash, and kale. You can also find local produce at Cronig's Market, a supporter of the Island Grown Initiative, a grassroots organization that supports local farming. The Island Grown website, islandgrown.com, has information on Martha's Vineyard farms, as well seasonal recipes.
But the side dishes are only that, side dishes. What about the main course of the meal, the centerpiece, the protein?
"The protein in your meal will be where you find a lot of your fat," explains Ms. Edey. "People think they have to cut out the fat from the meal to make it healthy, but fat is important. Fat is brain food. You don't want to get rid of it completely; you just want make sure it is the kind of fat that can be used by your body. There are good fats and bad fats. Grass-fed animals have a type of fat your body can digest; it is the corn-fed meat people should stay away from."
Allen Farm, Blackwater Farm, and Flat Point Farm are among the Martha's Vineyard farms that keep and sell grass-fed livestock. Lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat, grass-fed meat can have as little as half the total fat as a similar cut of grain-fed meat. It also has the added advantage of providing more of the "good fats," or Omega-3's, which reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and the symptoms of a number of ailments including depression, joint pain, and attention deficit disorder.
Using better produce and meats is the basis for making a healthier meal - a major part of the holidays - but not the only part of the celebration.
Says Ms. Rynd, "It's important to not get too stressed about it, and remember to enjoy whatever you are eating. If you go to someone else's house, and they have cooked, don't start analyzing what is in the food and forget to enjoy it. If the meal isn't perfectly healthy, you can make it up the rest of the year by adding more healthy elements to your daily diet. Christmas dinner is only one meal of the year. You should try and eat healthy every day."
Katy Plasse is a freelance writer living in Chilmark.