Healthy Holiday Habits

We’ve all had that moment of post— Thanksgiving remorse. Your jeans are fitting a little snugger, the scale is your mortal enemy and if someone mentions the word “turkey” one more time, you think you might hurl. But the food at grandma’s house tasted so good and you just couldn’t help going back for seconds or thirds. But wait — eating over the holidays doesn’t have to be riddled with gluttony and guilt — there is a better way! Here, WilmU magazine speaks with two professors who share their healthy holiday habits.

The Foodie

If you are invited to Dirke Baker’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, be prepared for a journey in tastes. Baker, a WU professor who teaches HUM 411 Food: Art and Custom International, loves to cook and entertain when she is not teaching or working as a food stylist for SugarFoot catering company in Wilmington, Del. Thanksgiving at the Baker home usually consists of fresh, delicious ingredients cooked with love, decorative centerpieces designed by Baker herself, and some wine and board games by the fire after dinner. “I love, love, love spending the whole day in the kitchen cooking everything from scratch,” exclaims Baker. “Right before dinner we”ll go for a nice long walk to work up an appetite,” she says. “As we walk along it’s nice to see all the gatherings, families coming together. It really puts you in the spirit.”

Baker believes there are many ways to cook a healthier Thanksgiving meal, and that doesn’t mean substituting flavor. “I don’t believe in dieting,” she says. “My whole approach is: if you have good, quality ingredients that are seasoned well, and eat them in moderation, then that’s really all you need!” Baker gives the following tips to enjoying a healthy holiday meal:

  1. Eat a Small Breakfast
    “If you are having dinner at three o”clock have a light breakfast to make sure you don’t go crazy,” says Baker.
  2. Include a First Course
    “Try adding a soup, salad or light appetizer,” suggests Baker. “It elongates the meal and slowly fills you up, so you aren’t piling your plate up with turkey in the next course.”
  3. Substitute the Creamy
    “Instead of using creamy green beans or mashed potatoes, try substituting them with simple roasted vegetables or mashed sweet potatoes,” Baker says. She explains that vegetables have great natural flavor, plus this is a healthier side option.
  4. Simple Decorating Tips
    For lighting, Baker recommends buying miniature pumpkins, cutting out the middle, and filling them with votive candles. Additionally, you can use big pumpkins as floral centerpieces! Just carve out the middle, insert a Styrofoam block and add fresh cut flowers.
Butternut Squash and Pumpkin Soup Recipe

Serves 8 | Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Cook Time: 45 minutes

1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 leeks — white and green parts, sliced ¼ inch thick and rinsed
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1½ lbs. butternut squash, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
1 15-oz. can pumpkin puree
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Kosher salt & fresh ground pepper


  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the butternut squash cubes and canned pumpkin puree, then the broth. Simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 25 minutes. Stir in 1¾ teaspoons kosher salt and ¼ fresh ground pepper.
  2. Working in batches, ladle the soup into a blender and puree until smooth or puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender. Divide among individual bowls and top with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh ground nutmeg.

The Vegan

The bumper sticker on Ed Coburn’s car says it all, “Live simply so others can simply live.” It is a motto he has lived by ever since returning from serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. Seeing the death and destruction convinced Coburn, a WU photography professor, that he would never harm another living creature again. “I”m privileged to be human,” he explains, “but I also understand that a bird that comes to my feeder has every right to live as I do.”

Coburn, who became a vegetarian in the “70s, distinctly remembers the day he became a vegan. “I was at an animal rights demonstration and this guy came up to me and said, —If you are involved in animal rights then why are you wearing leather shoes?” ” says Coburn. “It was like a slap in the face. From that day on I got deeply involved in animal rights and became vegan.”

When Coburn first made the transition, he wasn’t necessarily eating healthier. “I was a ‘junk vegan,'” he explains. “I ate anything that said it didn’t contain animal products.” But he soon realized the importance of eating well … and eating right. “I wanted to be healthy,” he says, “because what’s the point in living long if you are not living healthy?”
All these years later Coburn is glad he stuck by his beliefs of doing no harm. Coburn and his three children Rainer (8), Alden (5) and Leif (2), eat a lot of produce grown from their own garden. “We go out into the garden and gather up fresh herbs and vegetables that are just filled with rich nutrients,” he says. But beyond what is on the table, what Coburn appreciates the most are the people that are sitting around the table—his family.

Ed Coburn’s Tips to Eating Healthier

  1. Buy From the Perimeters
    “The best places to shop in the grocery store are around the perimeter,” says Coburn, who encourages his students to read labels. “I always tell my students to go and get a can of strawberry preserves,” he says, “and chances are, there won’t be strawberries even listed in the ingredients. That’s just sad.”
  2. Make it Yourself
    Instead of buying milk, Coburn and his family make their own homemade steel oat milk. “My son absolutely loves it with his cereal,” he says. “And it is really simple to make.” After cooking the oats in water, you bring 5 cups of water to a boil separately; add the oats, hot water, nutmeg and vanilla to a blender and pulse. Then let the mixture cool in the refrigerator. Voila — homemade oat milk!
  3. Try a Smoothie Instead
    “My big thing now is smoothies — green smoothies. I put lettuce, kale, stevia, and banana in a blender,” says Coburn. If savory smoothies are not your style, Coburn suggests fruit smoothies with a little whey powder — they make for a great breakfast or snack on the go.
  4. Go Wild
    Coburn says to try wild plants (often found in your backyard) because A. they are in their natural state and B. they are packed full of nutrients. Great winter wild plants include: chickweed, purslane, and lamb’s quarters.
  5. Read Up On It
    Coburn recommends several books for those interested in going vegetarian: The Pig That Sang to the Moon by Jefferey Moussaieff Masson and Eat to Live by Dr. Joal Fuhrman.
Holiday Truffles Recipe

Ed Coburn recommends this delicious holiday dessert.

1 cup walnuts or ½ cup pumpkin seeds
1 cup dates
¼ cup chocolate/raw cacao
¼ cup flax seed
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Place all ingredients in food processor. Grind until becomes fudge consistency. Roll mixture into one-inch balls. Place in freezer and remove when ready to serve!

The Family Girl

For WU Nursing student Labrini Carabestos, it is not Christmas unless she smells her mother whipping up some delicious Greek treats in the family kitchen. “Melomacarona is my favorite cookie ever,” she exclaims. “My mom has made it ever since I can remember, but only during the Christmas holidays. I literally wait all year for it. She makes a huge batch and they go so fast. We all compete for them.”

Labrini, whose name means “lucent” or “bright” in Greek, knows that the holidays are not just about the food — they are also about the traditions, the culture, and the family time. “Honestly,” she says with a laugh, “when the family gets together, we like to play poker.” With cards spread out on the dining table, the family laughs and hollers, as the game gets more intense. “We’re very competitive,” she admits.

This Greek family is very close — mainly because food brings them together. “My parents are retired restaurateurs,” she explains. “They owned a restaurant and diner in the area for many years.” With her father in the kitchen, her mother in the front of the house, and Labrini and her sister waiting tables, the family’s two successful restaurants brought a Greek touch to the First State.

Each summer, Labrini and her family fly to Greece. “On holidays and when visiting family in Greece, I will join in on our family eating traditions,” Labrini says. “First of all the food is so good, and made with love, and secondly, I feel such a connection enjoying a great meal with my loving family and making memories.”

She encourages WilmU readers to try a batch of Melomacarona cookies this holiday season. “They are sweet, nutty, syrupy and melt in your mouth.”

Find the recipe for Melomacarona cookies at

My Holiday Tradition

Nursing student Elizabeth Cartagena White tells about her family’s Christmas traditions.

“As a child I can recall all my fond memories of going to Puerto Rico every Christmas, to spend the holidays with my family. I can still reminisce over the aroma of garlic, onions, cilantro, [and] pork marinating in special spices enveloping the house.

Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, in Puerto Rico is when the big holiday celebration is held. The festivities usually last “til morning, and on Christmas Day, people normally rest from the night before. Preserving my cultural traditions is something that is very important to me. I have two sons, and I am committed to making sure that they are exposed to these traditions. It was always said that Santa couldn’t make it to the tropics in his hot wool suit and cap with reindeer.

Traditional Puerto Rican Christmas foods such as pasteles, lechón asado, arroz con dulce, tembleque, and coquito give Puerto Ricans a separate identity from the rest of the world. Pasteles, one of my favorite holiday dishes, are made using mashed green bananas, called plantains, along with other root vegetables in the form of a dough filled with meat and wrapped in the leaves of the banana tree or special wax paper.

Just like there is nothing that compares to a Puerto Rican Navidad, nothing compares with what Puerto Ricans go through their first Christmas away from the Island.”
— Elizabeth Cartagena White

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