Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year… and quite possibly the most unhealthy. The festive season now stretches out for the whole of December and as far into January as we can justify. We quaff mulled wine, liqueur coffees and noggy drinks like our lives depend on it (well, it is awfully cold out there). The office tin of Quality Street is pilfered on a regular basis (not to mention the Terry’s Chocolate Orange you had for breakfast). And that’s before we’ve even begun to consider Christmas dinner - and yes, the second and third helpings of roast potatoes.
So, is there a way to deck the halls without decimating the diet? Chef Gurpareet Bains thinks so. He has created a ‘Guilt-Free Gala’ - Christmas dinner with all the trimmings - altogether clocking in at less than 1,000 calories. Which is less than two-thirds the calories of a normal feast. And it actually looks appetizing, with butternut squash and pear soup with lobster to start, turkey breast poached in mulled wine spices with blueberry sauce for mains and superfruit pudding with green tea and chia seeds for dessert.
Bains, whose cookbook The Superfood Diet is a bestseller, says: "Christmas is a time for indulgence and for enjoying the finer things in life. But that enjoyment doesn't have to come at the expense of your waistline or cholesterol levels. I set out to create a traditional Christmas dinner with a twist, and one that is not just better for you than classic lunches but that is actually good for you.”
All well and good - but what of the rest of the day? The cheeseboard, tubes of Pringles, your mother’s insistence on you having a second helping of Christmas pud, the wonderful leftover sandwiches, the chipolatas that surely don’t count because they’re oh-so-tiny, the cocktail party nibbles. Then there’s the stress of it all - we spend so much time racing around trying to sort out shopping and prep, before the pressure cooker environment of an overheated house full of over-excited children and over-fed adults, that not only our health but our sanity is suffering. Reason alone to reach for the sherry, and certainly not the serene, Nigella-esque fantasy of Christmas hosting we all harbour.
Ranking the Christmas meals
Ranking the Christmas meals
1/10 The Christmas Pizza
Pizza chains must panic around the end of August, when summery pastas and Pizza Leggaras lose their charm and hearty pub roasts rub their hands together greedily ahead of the winter storm. But Fire and Stone know how to keep pace - throw all that one might want in a roast onto a pizza! It sounds hefty, and looks quirkier, but the Festive Pizza is a delight. Turkey, sausage, stuffing, sprouts, cranberry and brie all on a bed of steaming thick gravy, this is no half-hearted attempt at festivity. Why can’t all roast dinners come with a crusty dough base? Fire and Stone - nationwide - £10.95
2/10 Mince Pie Cheesecake
How might a pizza become Christmassy? Let us count the ways… Pizza Express could have gone for a tree-shaped base, or even added just some orange to its seasonal pulled duck Anatra Romana - without it one might be mistaken for thinking they were celebrating the Chinese New Year. The four-part Christmas menu offers Brie and cranberry pizza for veggies, which was delicious to start with, if a little greasy by the end. But don’t go to Pizza Express for the Brie or even the cheerful roasted nut bowl nibbles, go for their finest idea yet: the Mince Pie Cheesecake. Festive perfection worth leaving your crusts for. Pizza Express - nationwide - £14.95 for set Christmas lunch menu, £19.95 for set Christmas dinner.
3/10 Blitzen Burger
With burgers across the country tarting themselves up and jumping on the festive bandwagon by the cow load, choosing the right one can be daunting. The Blitzen Burger is GBK’s take on festivity in a bun and comes pretty as much as expected - 6oz beef or chicken swaddled in cheese, bacon and, er, cranberry ketchup. The deep-fried camembert feels a little unnecessary and the cranberry only just allows it to stay within the Christmas munching category, but it’s a satisfying meal nonetheless. Wash it down with the seasonal Nutella milkshake and you’ll feel that familiar feeling of happy overindulgence. GBK - nationwide - £14.95 for the three-piece Christmas Bundle menu
4/10 The Christmas Hot-Dog
The Christmas burger may have become something of an old yarn, but did you hear the one about the Christmas dog? A turkey hot dog in a bun may not sound like gourmet family eating, but Dirty Bones dishes are surprisingly elegant. The turkey dog sits in a fancy brioche bun with stuffing and red wine gravy, nicely accompanied by rosemary seasoned fries and garlic greens. The Dirty Santa cocktail is the real star of the show and after a couple you won’t care whether it’s turkey in your bun or cut of Rudolph’s ear. Dirty Bones - 20 Kensington Church Street, London - from £23 per person for four courses
5/10 The Christmas Salad
Yes, it does exist. If you’ve made it this far down the list and have cranberry sauce dripping out of every orifice, the It’smas Potsu may come as a welcome break. With chicken, orange zest, mixed spices and chestnuts, the Itsu medley is a light and more creative way to get your lunchtime Christmas hit. For those who are bored of limp turkey sandwiches or those whose perpetual diet plans want to punish them on the build-up to the big day. Be warned, you may want another. Itsu - nationwide - £4.99 for medium / £6.99 for original
6/10 The Christmas Wrap
“I love it so much! I eat it every single day!” said the manager of Leon in Spitalfields, handing over their Christmas wrap. “Well… until about the second week into December.” Everything you would expect from on-the-go Christmas lunching, this wrap may well be the champion of all Christmas sandwich variations. Juicy and more filling than it first appears, this wrap is best consumed in private, away from the eyes of colleagues who might witness you slurping the cranberry and port sauce off your elbows. Leon - nationwide - £4.95
7/10 The Christmas Pasty
It’s not quite a pasty, but then it’s not quite a pastry... the “festive flavour” Christmas Bake from Greggs with chicken, stuffing and sweet-cure bacon in sage sauce, soothing places that your limp roast turkey sandwich just can’t reach. Pick it up when stumbling home from office Christmas drinks, on the brink of tears when bracing the Christmas shopping masses, or even on Boxing Day when you’ve fallen out with your family and have to seek out alternative lunch plans. It may not be glamorous or contain any one of your five-a-day, but there’s always time for a Christmas slice. Greggs - nationwide - from £1.40
8/10 The Latino Christmas
And now for something a little more sophisticated. Andina restaurant owner, Martin, says that Peruvians had Christmas eating down before anyone over here. And he may have a point - Andina’s sharing-style dishes are indulgent in the required festive fashion, but provide something a bit different for those who just can’t take any more turkey. The fresh salmon Ceviche Morado begs to be devoured but it’s the Lamb Seco Santiago which wins the favourite as the traditional Peruvian Christmas dinner offering. Follow with the cinnamon sponge and wash it all down with a seasonal cinnamon Pisco sour or three. Andina - Shoreditch, London - Christmas set menu from £36 per person.
9/10 The Mexmas Dinner
What does a Mexican Christmas taste like? Unfortunately, we can’t tell you. Despite having their Christmas menus on the table, papá Noel was yet to deliver the restaurant in question its Christmas menu ingredients. We can tell you that Wahaca’s guacamole is a perfect taste of festive sunshine and that the Herring Tostadas were second to none. But then, what’s a Christmas meal without the Roasted Sprout Mole? Pretty unseasonal, we say. Wahaca - nationwide - £19.50 per person for a four course Christmas set menu
10/10 The Christmas Barbecue
Make like the Brazilians and stick your Christmas dinner on the barbecue. Or, if the British weather doesn’t quite lend itself, let Cabana do it for you on their in-house grill. Santa’s Little Skewer is a happy mash up of traditional pigs-in-blankets with chicken and pineapple chargrilled to perfection. The Christmas set menu offers a huge amount of food ideal for sharing, but those inevitable meat sweats will make you want a siesta pretty soon after. Feliz Natal! Cabana - Leeds, various London locations - Skewer £12.95
Before I’m tarred as a grub Grinch, let’s be clear - of course you’re not going to spend Christmas Day with a turkey kale salad and sparkling water while everyone else tucks into the chocolate log. If you can’t eat, drink and be merry now, when can you? But back-to-back parties and pig-outs can be overkill for even the most spirited of us - come on, aren’t we a little glad to don the sackcloth come January? However, staying a little saintly is not as simple (or as boring) as simply reaching for an extra helping of sprouts. We asked the experts for a few tips to help you enjoy and indulge without the regret, or that extra layer of, erm, stuffing.
Just add fruit juice
"To add a burst of flavour to my Christmas vegetables, I like to par-cook mine in a fruit juice, followed by a drizzle of pure maple syrup, before roasting - adding just the right touch of sweetness to your vegetables. For a gluten-free stuffing, simply follow your favourite recipe and substitute the breadcrumbs for gluten-free breadcrumbs (Mrs Crimbles is a good brand to buy) or you can make your own from store-bought gluten-free bread. Also make sure the sausage meat is gluten-free (I always use the meat from store-bought gluten-free sausages from brands such as Heck and The Black Farmer)."
Amanda Parker, development chef at gluten-free bakery Beyond Bread
Avoid white sugar and gluten
"I would never tell anyone to avoid indulging this time or year, but there are plenty of ways of enjoying extravagant food without an excess of white sugar and gluten. Swap bread as a canapé base for a homemade buckwheat blini. A simple mix of buckwheat flour, egg, milk, baking powder and salt fried as mini pancakes does the job perfect and is a great base for smoked salmon and creme fraiche or cream cheese. And swap the large tin of chocolates for home-made choc and nut bites - blend a cup of nuts with a cup of dates and add 50g cocoa powder for the perfect truffle base. Add a dash of salt and some spices or vanilla extract for a richer flavour."
Ceri Jones, natural chef and food writer, www.naturalkitchenadventures.com
"A glass of water is the last thing on anyone’s mind during the party season with all the festive cocktails and warming hot chocolates doing the rounds. Everyone gets more irritable when they’re dehydrated so keep the calm by keeping the water flowing. We like to make up decorative jugs of water for the dinner table or place them around at gatherings to inspire people to stay hydrated. Rather than add to the Winter chill with ice cubes, we fill the jugs with large sprigs of pine leaves, fresh cranberries and spirals of orange peel to create water jugs terrarium style! Use naturally carbonated water and a squeeze of orange or clementine juice and it’s as refreshing as any cocktail."
Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley, authors of The Art of Eating Well
The 70/30 rule
"For me it’s all about the healthy alternative - make your own version of your Christmas treats without the sugar and additives. It’s not about depriving yourself, it’s about nourishing and supporting yourself. So don’t feel guilty about the choices you make. I follow a 70/30 rule when it comes to eating healthy, so if you want to dive into the Quality Street on Christmas Day do - just maybe have a green smoothie first. And eat before your Christmas party to help you steer clear of the canapes and balance your blood sugar if you are having a glass of wine. Remember that food is fuel, and you must feed yourself in the right way to make you feel fantastic."
Natasha Corrett, creator of the Honestly Healthy plan
Natasha’s third book, Honestly Healthy Cleanse, is out January 1st
The two-glass rule
"Most of us consume an extra 7,000 calories in alcohol alone over the Christmas period - this equates to 2lbs of fat. You can cut this by a third by sticking to the 'two-glass rule' at every function you go to. If you eat a protein snack or meal with just two glasses of fizz, you will likely escape a late night and a hangover - which has an even greater effect on an increase in calories the next day. The next day, you'll likely be able to stick to your healthy eating regime."
Louise Parker, weight-loss expert
Time for yourself
"Christmas can often seem to be about other people; seeing family and friends, giving carefully chosen gifts and cooking amazing meals. Some people may feel it's selfish to make time for yourself when there's so much to do, but if you're running on empty, you won't be able to give your best and you'll be tired and irritable. Schedule in some time for yourself and let others know you're doing this so that any jobs can be covered. Go for a walk or run, have a bath, practise some meditation or even just having a few minutes of deep breathing will recharge your batteries and make the whole Christmas experience a lot more enjoyable and calm."
Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist. Get a free guided relaxation download at www.calmer-you.com
"Make everything from scratch, so you can be sure it's healthy (and really nice). But get organised, make Christmas cake and pud a month before and store them, make mince pies and freeze them, even make the stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and bread sauce and freeze them. That way, on Christmas Day, you only have to concentrate on turkey, potatoes and veg. And don't be a martyr! Make everyone do something towards the meal, even if it is just peeling the potatoes."
Deborah Thackeray, nutritionist