December 10, 2009
By Lisa Ellis
InteliHealth News Service
Oil takes center stage in the story of Hanukkah, and on the Hanukkah table as well.
Tradition says that when the Maccabee brothers were defending the temple in Jerusalem against the Greeks, their one-day supply of oil miraculously lasted for eight days.
For this reason, Jews light candles on each of the eight days of Hanukkah. And foods fried in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts, have become traditional in many families.
It's a time when healthy eating can be difficult but not impossible.
With a few adjustments, you can prepare a fairly traditional Hanukkah meal that will not bust your budget for fat and calories, says Sheah Rarback, M.S., a registered dietician and medical school professor in Miami.
"The problem could be eight nights of Hanukkah, eight nights of overeating," Rarback says. "It depends on the family. That might be a problem if it's a high-fat, calorie-laden meal every night. If a family has a large meal only on the first night, it's comparable to Thanksgiving, something that we have once a year."
For that one night, Rarback says, a menu such as this can provide a celebration with a minimum of fat and calories:
- Roast chicken, not the beef brisket that is traditional in many families
- Modified potato pancakes
- Homemade applesauce
- A vegetable dish or two
- Heart-healthy apple coffeecake
Brisket, a fatty cut of meat, is not suitable for a low-fat meal, says Rarback, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"Brisket has a lot of fat that can't be trimmed away," she says. "The fat is marbled; it's in the muscle. Choose a lower-fat meat, chicken, so you can enjoy your dessert more.
"Everything balances out. You choose the lower-fat, lower-calorie item when there's a choice, so it gives you more room to splurge on the more traditional foods."
Chicken can lose as much as half of its fat, and some calories, if you don't eat the skin, she notes. "You don't want to take the skin off until after you cook it because it preserves the moistness of the meat."
Latkes, the food most closely identified with Hanukkah, can be made in a healthier way. Rarback's modification of a traditional recipe features peanut oil, and reduces the amount of it by using a nonstick pan.
"I don't have a problem with oil," she says. "It's how much you eat of it. I switched it to peanut oil because it's a healthier oil. It's higher in monounsaturated fat." Research shows that oils of this type can reduce low-density lipoprotein, the most damaging form of cholesterol, she says. Olive oil probably the type used by the ancient Hebrews and canola oil are other good choices, she says.
The menu also includes homemade applesauce and vegetable dishes, all low in fat.
Dessert, of course, requires some creativity. Often, the biggest danger is overdoing it at a time when more sweets are available, Rarback says. Not only does Hanukkah dinner usually come with dessert, she says, but many households also have gold-wrapped chocolate "coins" that are given out as prizes when children play with the dreidl, a spinning top.
Deep-fried donuts, with or without jelly, can increase your fat and calorie intake quickly. As an alternative, Rarback suggests a low-fat apple coffeecake recommended by the U.S. government's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
"This dessert has pecans," she says. "Any of the fat in a nut is a healthier fat because it's monounsaturated. This coffeecake uses only a quarter cup of oil for 20 servings because the fruit in it gives it the moistness."
Sometimes, though, you just have to have that donut.
So, she says, "if you want to go with a traditional jelly donut, you choose the chicken and you save the fat and calories you're not getting from the brisket for the donut. Start with half a donut and then see if you want the other half."
"In these times, you want those good memories with the comfort foods," Rarback says. "You don't want to take that all away."
Check out our recipes for a healthy Hanukkah meal:
Rosemary Roast Chicken
Lighter Latkes (Potato Pancakes)
Green Beans Saute