In the midst of special occasion gatherings and dinners, cooking balanced and healthy meals can seem challenging to those conscientious about their heart health.

Menus can be filled with dishes that can be packed with excess salt, fat, cholesterol and sugar, all of which can wreak havoc on the body’s cardiovascular system. Whether eating with friends and family or cooking recipes passed down through the generations at home, eating heart healthy can be accomplished with a few helpful hints and tips.  

“One of the biggest things heart patients should be aware of is the sodium in their food choices,” says Marjorie Jarrett, clinical nutrition manager at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville. 

Along with other factors, a high sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, which can gradually develop into extensive heart problems. Limiting sodium is especially important for those with high blood pressure or those at risk for developing high blood pressure, and thus monitoring salt content of foods eaten outside and inside the home should become a way of life for those with heart conditions.  During the holidays, people tend to eat food prepared by others more frequently. This makes limiting sodium more of a challenge, because, as Jarrett said, “food prepared outside the home can be laden with sodium.” 

However, don’t let this stop you from celebrating with friends and family. Instead, Jarrett said that reducing portion sizes of foods that are higher in salt such as gravy, canned foods, sauces and cheesy dishes can help limit sodium while still allowing everyone to enjoy a tasty meal.  

When eating at home, cooking heart-healthy meals can be easier because you have control of what ingredients go in each dish. Jarrett said that, when cooking at home, you should “reduce sugar and oil in recipes and make healthier substitutions and thus make new traditions that include healthier eating.”

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to reduce the fat that comes from cooking oil, select an oil such as canola or flaxseed oil that provides omega-3 fatty acids. Also, using these oils instead of stick margarine or shortening can reduce fat in dishes.

Eating certain meats also can add to fat and sodium content. The academy encourages people to select lean cuts of beef or pork and avoid processed meats such as bacon. Sauces and gravies, which typically accompany meats, are a big part of holiday meals, so try using fat-free milk instead of whole milk to thicken the consistency. When choosing side dishes, incorporating as many vegetables as possible in dishes will provide essential nutrients that help reduce the risk of high blood pressure. 

Jarrett offered a few additional tips to ensure healthy and fun holiday eating: 

• ocus on people and visiting with others at holiday gatherings. 

• at healthy choices at home throughout the day to satisfy hunger until meal time.

• ake healthy options if you are asked to bring a dish. 

• on’t add salt to foods and enjoy the flavors. 

• void fried foods and foods with sauces and cheese because of extra fat and sodium. 

• educe portion sizes of desserts because of heavy fat and sugar content. 

• hoose water over other beverages to help cut back on calories and sugar. 

The great thing about cooking and eating heart-healthy meals is that you can monitor your sodium, fat, sugar and cholesterol levels and never have to sacrifice flavor.

Preparing family favorites with a healthy spin can lead to new traditions and memories that will last a lifetime.  


Mashed Potatoes 


One 2.5- to 3-pound

(medium) cauliflower head

2 large garlic cloves

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

Ground black pepper, to taste


Separate cauliflower into florets and cut in smaller chunks.

In a medium pot, combine cauliflower, garlic and enough cold water to cover the vegetables. Place a lid on top and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes or until cauliflower is fork tender. Drain.

Add butter or olive oil, salt and ground black pepper to taste. Using an immersion blender (a food processor), process until very smooth or desired consistency. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.

Serve hot just like you would serve mashed potatoes.

Heart Healthy 

Green Bean Casserole 


1 pound frozen green beans (French cut is best), thawed

One 10.5-ounce can

    reduced-fat, low

    sodium cream of

    mushroom soup

1/2 cup low- fat

    sour cream

1/2 teaspoon


1 small onion (cut into thin strips)

Nonstick cooking spray

1/4 cup whole-wheat flour


Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish, combine green beans, soup, sour cream and pepper.

Stir until well mixed and bake for 20 minutes.

While casserole bakes, spread out onion sticks and lightly spray with cooking spray.

Sprinkle flour over onion pieces, tossing to coat equally.

Spray a medium-large skillet with cooking spray and heat to medium-high heat.

Add onions and cook until crispy, stirring occasionally.

Remove casserole from oven, add half of the onions, stir well.

Top with remaining half and return to oven, bake 5 minutes more.


 MARY RACHEL GEAN is a senior majoring in dietetics at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Load comments