Healthy eating for the holidays

November 19, 2020

By Sandra Millon Underwood
FAAN, Professor, UW Milwaukee School of Nursing

With the coronavirus top-of-mind for many of us, the holidays will look a little different for some of us this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending smaller gatherings and less travel as a precaution in spreading or contracting COVID-19.

While these changes reflect our ‘new normal’, as we prepare for the holidays it is also an opportunity for us to shake things up a bit—not only in how we entertain, but what we cook and eat during the holidays. With smaller gatherings, this holiday season might just be the perfect time to switch out some of those favorite and traditional holiday dishes, with healthier options. And, keep in mind, that healthy eating doesn’t necessarily mean boring or tasteless—just ask Chef Marvin Jones (‘Chef Marvin’) who has found his niche in creating and cooking healthy dishes throughout the year.

According to Chef Marvin, one simple adjustment for cooking healthier is preparing plant-based meals. He refers to this as a 70-30 food strategy, where 70 percent of our weekly meals are primarily plant-based and the other 30 percent are comprised of carbs, proteins, and other nutrients.

Chef Marvin is also featured ‘live’ on Thursdays at 12 noon on Facebook’s “Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee” page. You can watch him talk you through preparing delicious, healthy meal options for the holidays and every day.

“There’s no secret formula to cooking healthy dishes. Most of our eating habits are learned behaviors so we can unlearn them. Some easy ways to start cooking healthier are to replace salt with a plethora of spices, prepare meatless meals once a week, and reduce the amount of fast foods or processed foods that we prepare. There is no need to sacrifice taste for healthy eating—they can co-exist,” he said.

There are several benefits to healthy eating during the holidays and as a lifestyle change. What’s more, cooking that relies on more plantbased options can be beneficial in many ways, including:

• Lowering the risk of developing Type-2 diabetes
• Lowering the risk of heart disease
• Lowering the risk of developing cancer
• Lowering the rate of cognitive decline

Growing up, Chef Marvin observed the joy his father found in cooking and apparently it was contagious. After studying Film Art at Columbia College in Chicago, Chef Marvin later returned to his roots by earning an associate degree in Culinary Arts.

While he runs a vibrant catering business, Chef Marvin is a staunch proponent of healthy eating. His newest venture—THE UNSALT’D LIFE—revolves around the simple notion of giving up salt without sacrificing taste. Changes in diet can help alleviate the rise of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease facing not only an increasing number of senior citizens, but much younger age groups that are being affected. In fact, it was his mother’s diagnosis of hypertension that first led him to explore healthier cooking options.

“The African American community is disproportionately affected by diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, compared to the rest of the American population. Everyone wants to improve their quality of life, and diet and exercise are critical first steps. We can eliminate salt in our diet with only small changes in ‘Mom’s holiday recipes’ and the proof is in the cooking,” he said.

Here are two of the healthier recipes Chef Marvin suggests preparing this holiday season.

Vegetable Stuffed Sweet Potato

For many, this year’s holiday gatherings will be much smaller. Not only are people cutting back on the quantity of their holiday dinners, but some are looking for more plant-based alternatives. With that in mind, here is how to make the ever popular sweet potato holiday side dish a star without all the calories. The Vegetable Stuffed Sweet Potato offers a new side dish twist for the holiday season.

Ingredients – Serves 4

4 – Large sweet potatoes
1 cup of your favorite mixed vegetables
Cinnamon to taste

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees, thoroughly wash and oil potatoes, wrapping them in foil. Place potatoes on a sheet pan and bake 25-30 minutes, cook until tender to touch.

In a skillet, sauté the mixed vegetables your way (I suggest spicy to taste, to play against the sweetness of the potato). Once the potatoes are done cut length-wise to form a pocket, fill with vegetables and serve.

Sugar – Free Cheesecake Brownies

These ultimate Cheesecake Brownies are sugar free, flourless, low carb, keto; gluten and grainfree. This dessert can be made in advance and is easy to transport.


4 eggs
¼ cup softened butter
½ cup sour cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp chocolate liquid
½ cup cocoa powder unsweetened
¾ cup swerve sweetener
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup sugar free chocolate chips

Cheesecake Topping

8 oz cream cheese softened
1 egg
¼ cup swerve sweetener
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp vanilla liquid


• Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
• In a mixer, add the first five ingredients and blend on high until combined well.
• In another bowl whisk together the next five ingredients.
• Pour this into the wet ingredients and blend on high until combined.
• Gently stir in the chocolate chips. • Grease an 8 inch. by 8 inch. baking dish.
• Combine cheesecake topping in mixing bowl, mix on high until smooth.
• Pour half the cheesecake topping onto the brownie batter in the pan.
• Pour the remaining brownie batter over the cheesecake cake topping.
• Finish the remaining cheesecake topping.
• Use a butter knife to swirl the batter and cheesecake topping together.
• Bake 30-35 minutes until toothpick in center comes out clean.
• Allow to cool 20 minutes before slicing

For more information about Chef Marvin and healthy eating tips, follow him on Facebook’s “Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Milwaukee , where he cooks ‘live’ every Thursday at 12 noon.

The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) Program is a culturally tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.