At Christmas, the food is perhaps more important than the presents. It's an indulgent time, one for turkey with all the trimmings, sprouts laced with cream and bacon, and potatoes roasted in duck fat.
Here at Patient, we don't necessarily think you should feel guilty for ditching the diet at this time of year. But there are ways of cooking the Christmas lunch that can make it more nutritious.
So we challenged three professional chefs from the Healthy Eating Company to cook healthy versions of roast potatoes, mince pies and stuffing, without sacrificing on taste. Nutritionist Rose Constantine Smith was on hand to help us judge the health content of the chefs' offerings.
Patient's Christmas Cook Off took place on the afternoon of the 13th December at creative agency Engine's headquarters in central London.
The competing chefs
Stepping up to the challenge were Bradley Sinkins, Reece Taylor and Renaldo Wright who are all head chefs at various locations within the Good Eating Company. All three admitted that healthy cooking isn't necessarily their priority when preparing food at home, but were all excited to get stuck in to the challenge.
Bradley lives in Dangerham, Essex and is head chef at Engine. He trained as a chef at age 15 and never looked back. His speciality is fish after working in several fancy seafood restaurants during his career but says his favourite thing to cook is a spicy curry.
He says: "What I love most about Christmas is just everyone sitting around at the table. And all the family coming together and having a laugh. Normally my favourite food would be the meat. But when it comes to the Christmas dinner, the stuffing and the roast potatoes get my vote."
Prior to the big day, Reece from Kent was feeling confident. Currently head chef at engineering company Arup, he says he's been a chef for the past nine years. When he cooks Christmas dinner at home, he keeps his mind off the calorie count.
He says: "I think there's a way you can embrace the good elements of the roast without having all the unhealthy elements of it. But I've never been a healthy Christmas guy. I did Christmas lunch once and I think I had eight litres of cream, and three kilos of butter. My mum was horrified."
Renaldo from London, on the other hand, believes a healthy Christmas is completely possible. He's currently head chef at Henry Wood House. A keen traveller, last year he took six months out of the kitchen to see Asia.
He says: "I think we should focus not on reducing fat and calories necessarily but giving things added nutritional value. Trying to do it so it still tastes good with nice seasoning while cutting down on salt and butter. I've tried to add things that give you more benefits like fibre."
So would their efforts make it on to Santa's 'nice' list? We were about to find out.
Crispy roast potatoes
Never trust someone who claims to not like roast potatoes. But the perfect recipe is hotly debated. Can you forgo the goose fat and still have a delicious crispy roastie? We were about to find out.
Bradley's recipe involved steaming the potatoes first, before adding them to the baking tray with rapeseed oil. Renaldo also used the steaming trick and rapeseed oil was his chosen oil. However, for extra crunch, he added some chia seeds. Reece took a left-field approach and fried his potatoes for a shorter cooking time.
Rose was a fan of steaming to preserve the nutrient value. Using rapeseed oil also improved the fat profile of the roast potatoes, compared to the more traditional goose or duck fat.
“Renaldo also added chia seeds to add an extra crunch to his potatoes which also meant that it became a great source of omega-3," she explained.
The taste test
Our tasters generally loved all of the roast potato options on offer (all vegan - with no duck fat in sight), but Renaldo's addition of chia seeds got the overall vote. Many attendees (including our Clinical Director Dr Sarah Jarvis, known to her family as the 'food police') said they'd be following suit this Christmas for an extra crunch.
Stuffing to accompany the festive bird comes in many forms, but what's the healthiest recipe? And is vegetarian the way to go?
Bradley decided against using meat and went instead for a bread-based stuffing with onions and sage. Reece plumped for a very meaty stuffing - combining pork and lardons with flaxseed, cranberries annd mixed nuts. While Renaldo went veggie too and used a quinoa base with apricots and hazelnuts.
Rose acknowledged that Bradley's effort was the lowest in calories and fat. But with so few ingredients, it was a little lacking in nutrients.
"On the other hand, Reece's recipe contains three sources of pork, so it is sadly high in fat. But the addition of nuts, flaxseed bread and dried fruits does increase the nutritional value, particularly for vitamin B1, B3 and B6."
Renaldo's stuffing was higher in fat than Bradley's, but the majority came from unsaturated sources (so better for heart health).
"Renaldo's stuffing contains 13 nutrients such as folic acid, iron and selenium at a significant value. It is also high in fibre due the wholemeal bread and quinoa," reveals Rose.
The taste test
All three stuffing options went fast! But the public voted for Bradley's stuffing as their favourite - due to its delicious herby flavour.
Marvellous mince pies
Thoroughly festive but hardly a healthy contender, would it be possible to make a less indulgent mince pie that didn't taste like something was missing?
Bradley chose gluten-free flour and used Flora Light to reduce the fat content of the pies. While Reece plumped for organic spelt flour and used both lard and butter to make the pastry. Renaldo chose wholemeal flour and used maple syrup and pomegranate molasses instead of regular sugar.
But whose recipe was best? Rose praised Bradley for significantly reducing the fat content of his recipe. While Renaldo increased the nutritional value of his mince pies by using wholemeal flour and olive oil for the pastry. Reece's use of spelt flour also improved the fibre content of his recipe.
"When comparing with the traditional mince pie however they are actually slightly higher in fat due to his use of lard and butter in the pastry."
Rose did point out that: "Renaldo's use of maple syrup and pomegranate molasses still provided the same amount of sugar as a classic mince pie but they do provide more nutritional bang for their buck. On the whole when looking purely at fat, calories and sugar, Renaldo’s recipe is only slightly lower when compared with a traditional recipe. But it is when looking in closer detail that the changes pay off."
The taste test
All mince pie options were delicious, but the clear winner, perhaps surprisingly, was the wholemeal flour and olive oil mince pies. They had a beautifully intense flavour and felt less sickly than the traditional version.
The overall winner
Our three chefs all did a tremendous job of creating delicious recipes. But luckily, the winner was clear. Gaining points not only for taste but also for improving the nutritional profile of the festive dishes was Renaldo. Patient's clinical director Dr Sarah Jarvis crowned him the winner and awarded him a voucher for a thrill-seeking adventure experience.
Rose said: "Renaldo’s recipes weren't necessarily the lowest in calories and fat compared to the other chefs, but all of his recipes show an improvement in this region compared to the traditional recipe. And I was really impressed with the way he incorporated innovative ways to increase the nutritional value of each item."
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