Holiday food baskets: beware the calorie bomb!

You can enjoy those goodies without paying the price on your waistline, says dietitian. Here's how.

Come Christmas, they're sprinkled thick as snowflakes on store shelves-gift boxes and baskets bursting with drink mixes, wine, crackers, dips, jams, cheese, candy and other sinful holiday goodies.

But be warned: wrapped up in all that shiny cellophane and cheery ribbon lurks a calorie bomb.

As luxurious as they are to give or receive, holiday food gift baskets are often brimming with processed products-food that's been altered in some way during production. They tend to be high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and that can take a toll on our holiday waistlines, said Sabina Valentine, a registered dietitian with the University of Alberta's School of Public Health Centre for Health and Nutrition.

"Depending on the size of the gift basket, there can be anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 calories or more," she said.

Fortunately, there's no need to feel scrooged if Santa pops one under your tree.

"Moderation is key," Valentine said. Instead of wolfing down all the calories at once, enjoy the treats over several days. "Have a couple of cookies every day. It spreads the calories out, and if you indulge about 20 per cent of the time and eat healthy the rest of the time, having a bit of yummy stuff lets you avoid binging."

Sharing the goodies at parties, at the office and with visitors, or even regifting an unopened basket, are also good ways to enjoy the treats and control the calorie count, she added.

And don't feel you have to eat something just because it's there.

"If you don't like something in the basket, don't waste the calories by eating it anyway," she said.

Packaged meats like sausage and salami are the one thing to avoid eating, she advised. The World Health Organization considers them a cancer risk to humans.

"They're colourful and aromatic, but not healthy. Anything cured or smoked is going to contain nitrates that are carcinogenic," she said.

Take care to also check the content labels on the individually packaged foods in the basket, to avoid flare-ups of peanut, gluten or wheat allergies.

And if an item in the basket something in the basket looks discoloured or smells off, "throw it out," she said.

Building your own basket? Get a fresh start

If you'd like to give someone a basket of goodies, Valentine advises building your own so you can pick and choose from natural foods.

"Make it as healthy as possible by minimizing the processed food going into the basket."

One of her favourites is legumes-high-fibre plant seeds like beans, peas and barley that are both good for us and good to look at with their many colours. "Give a whole basketful, and throw in some soup recipes."

Handmade salad dressing using vinaigrette and olive oil is also a thoughtful option to throw into a basket, along with almonds, walnuts and pecans. "Keep them in the shell so they won't be eaten mindlessly," Valentine suggested.

If crackers are a must, go with whole-grain, multigrain or whole wheat varieties that aren't high in fat or sugar. "Stay away from refined grains with fortified or enriched flour. They don't have as many vitamins or nutrients."

Instead of salt, add spices to a basket, she advised. "Oregano, basil, thyme and a clove of fresh garlic are popular for use in cooking."

For dessert, add colourful dried fruit-without added sugars like fructose, sucrose or glucose. Valentine suggests cranberries, mangos, pears and bananas. Fresh produce with a longer shelf life, like apples and oranges, also bring nutritious cheer and a lower calorie count to a basket.

In place of pre-packaged sugary hot chocolate or drink mixes, add bags of loose tea and whole coffee beans for sipping enjoyment.

"If you want to add some flavour, include sugar-free flavourings," Valentine said. "My favourite is vanilla."

And since a holiday gift basket should still have some naughty but nice decadence, it's OK to include a bottle of wine, a bit of fresh cheese with a cold pack, and a bar of dark chocolate, she added.

"A gift basket doesn't have to be boring to be healthy. With any food, moderation is key, but by including whole foods like nuts, dried fruit, dark chocolate and even wine, you'll get healthy fats, fibre and antioxidants that help prevent chronic disease and are good for you."