Precise Portions weighs in on healthy holiday menu

By SHELAGH BRALEY

BOSTON—Ann-Marie Stephens, co-founder of Precise Portions, wants you to reimagine your holiday feast, replete with surprises that will satisfy and save your health.

Both a foodie of the highest order and a former Procter & Gamble engineer, Stephens and her co-founder/husband, Ed, focus on helping families make healthier eating decisions.

But how does that work when you’re getting ready to host a holiday meal, full of traditions and palates crying for old, fatty favorites?

“You can surprise your family as to how fantastic holiday eating can be and still be healthy. It’s the debunking of a myth: It’s not going to taste good if it’s healthy,” Stephens says.

Precise Portions, a MassChallenge 2016 finalist, launched a complete nutrition program for adults in 2010. Stephens and her husband come from families that have struggled with diabetes, so they were used to coaching around food choices.

“We finally said, ‘At P&G, we are trained to improve people’s lives, so guess what, that’s what we’re going to do,’ ” she says. The American Diabetes Association has vetted the Precise Portion line of products and has been selling them since 2011, and starting in January 2017, Wegmans Supermarkets will carry them as well.

The founders couldn’t help but turn their focus to the epidemic of diabetic children, Stephens says. “If you look at the trends, childhood diabetes is a global problem … it’s about families being on the go, they don’t have time. The impact of those choices is that children are terrifically obese, and the long-term health implication of that is huge. So we decided to become part of the intervention.” Now Precise Portions offers a line of nutrition programs and products for children as young as 2.

Bringing families together is a hallmark of the holiday season, and food is at the center of it all. So how does Stephens keep it together health-wise?

“There are a couple of things that people have a hard time with—two that are really critical. In order to eat healthier, (people think), ‘I’m not going to have food I love any more.’ You can absolutely have food that you love, you just have to find better ways to do it. Second is the belief that the plates are smaller, so I’ll always be starving. So the mind change is you’re going to be deliberate,” she says.

“People eat with their eyes,” Stephens says. “When you have super powerful visuals of colorful, beautiful foods with rich spices, they start salivating. They begin to imagine the journey we’re going to take them on, and the foods we’re going to surprise them with,” Stephens says.

“Let’s start a new tradition, and make it delightful and memorable—all of the things we love about the holidays.” Here are six tips for keeping you and your family healthy and happy at the table this holiday season.

1. Offer snacks

“You’re going to be grazing,” Stephens says. “So you’re going to have snacks laid out: vegetable crudité, cut-up fruit, cheese, nuts, you’re going to have more variety. So when the meal finally comes out, you’re not starving.”

She also recommends a soup course. It’s fancy, but also filling, which helps to balance your calorie intake. “Always start the main meal with a chicken-broth based soup, because it’s so high in protein. By the time you get to the main course, you don’t want to be starving. If you are, you’re going to eat everything in sight. If the soup is high protein and high fiber, it’s satiating.”

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2. Go overboard with vegetables

The traditional picture has the turkey as the centerpiece. In this new, healthy holiday menu planning, Stephens says to start with non-starchy vegetables. “Instead of having the most variety around the meat and carbs, we want the most variety around the non-starchy vegetables,” Stephens suggests.

If you serve a salad course, “by the time you get to the main course, no one is going to want to eat that much. Then you can say, ‘Eat as much as you want!’ ” Stephens says. “We are playing psychologist here, we are tricking the body.”

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For the main meal, “Have at least three or more non-starchy vegetable options: salad, string beans, collard greens—go for three to five options,” Stephens says. “By default, people are going to eat what they see. We can just change what’s on that table, we don’t have to say a word,” Stephens says.

3. Adjust the plate size

Stephens says controlling portion size in addition to changing the foods offered can save more than 200 calories per plate. “It’s the portioning of foods that makes a huge difference,” she says.

Precise Portions offers a line of attractive place-settings that subtly address portion control. To keep a handle on calorie consumption, Stephens says, consider the amount of calories on an 11-inch plate for protein alone: “On average, that’s about 500-600 calories,” Stephens says. “It really adds up.”

4. ’Tis the season for seasoning

Using flavorful spices is an effective trick for your starchy vegetables, Stephens says. Ginger, cumin, cinnamon: Pick your favorites and be generous with these rich, aromatic spices.

“We all love sweet potatoes, but let’s not go with marshmallow version, let’s go with ginger,” Stephens suggests. “It’s so sweet, it’s got so much junk. I want to make a big sign that says, ‘Don’t do this!’ and show sweet potatoes with marshmallow with a big X over it. Let’s just bake a dozen and cut them in half. They are totally sweet enough. And then there’s the perfect holiday spices—savory over sweet.”

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5. Rethink the centerpiece

“When we think of health, we think of calories, sometimes we think about food choices, but we don’t think about nutrients. We don’t have front and center what the body needs,” Stephens says. The key to keeping a holiday meal reasonable is limiting the amount of meats you offer. “Culturally, we have a habit of starting meal planning with the protein, the meat. We start there and say, we’ll have chicken or pork or ham or beef roast. I like to serve a fish and a poultry option, like turkey. You don’t have to do your ham with pineapple and sugar. Let’s skip the ham and go with turkey,” she says.

But good gravy, you can’t skip it, right?!

“I think we have to allow for gravy,” Stephens says. “But instead of cream, you just need a little drippings for flavor. And when you serve it, you ought to have a small serving spoon, so people aren’t taking a huge ladle of it. A little bit is not a problem.”

6. Get your just desserts

Desserts are an important part of our celebration, Stephens acknowledges, but recommends slight changes to keep the nutrition high. “How about pie crust out of almond flour? It’s nut-based, and it’s high protein. Then do more fruit and nuts, but instead of fruit and flour and lots of sugar, you can do cranberries and apples and walnuts in an almond pie crust,” she says.

And don’t forget the beverages: “Cider, wine, champagne … you’re still going to celebrate,” Stephens says, “but now I’ve given you an extra 200 calories to play with.”

So you’ll have your health to be thankful for.