Hanukkah Survival Guide

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the victory of Maccabees (led by Judah) over the Syrians. Following the victory, the Jews reclaimed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the Temple needed to be rededicated by lighting the N'er Tamid (eternal light present in every Jewish house of worship). Once lit, this eternal flame should not be extinguished, but only one jar of sacramental oil was found. Barely enough to burn for one day, the small amount of oil miraculously continued to burn for eight days and eight nights.

Hanukkah is a time of joy and family celebration, fun and traditional foods. Although Hanukkah foods can represent serious temptation for anyone, following these tips will help you succeed instead of "starting over" after the New Year.

Celebrating the Miracle of Oil
The miracle of oil is celebrated each day by cooking a variety of foods in oil, including latkes (grated potato cakes) and sufganiyot (donuts). While certain oils are a healthy addition to a balanced diet, other oils offer greater risks to your health. Plus, healthy or not, oil is high in calories and fat, meaning that even a small amount can put you over your calorie needs for the day. Try these tips to keep it healthy:
  • The word "light" often appears on oil labels, but it refers to the oil's taste, not its calorie or fat content.
  • Limit the use of tropical oils (coconut, palm, etc.) in your cooking. These oils are high in saturated fats and should be used in moderation.
  • Do cook with healthy oils such as olive, canola and peanut. These are high in monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to improve cholesterol levels.
  • Make the Latke ahead of time. This will allow you to spend more time with your guests, and reduce the oil content of the food during the reheating process (by a slight amount). Latkes can be frozen up to two weeks in advance by layering them between wax paper in airtight containers. When ready to serve, bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes.
  • Take a few extra steps to reduce the amount of oil in the foods. For example, try draining fried foods on paper towels after cooking to keep the taste and tradition, but reduce the overall fat and calories you consume.
  • You can get away with using less oil by frying your foods in a non-stick skillet or by using an oil-based spray, which usually contains few calories.

Other Recipe Adaptations
Try alternative recipe ingredients to boost the nutrition of your food. Latkes made with eggplant or zucchini will add color, variety and health to the table. Or try sweet potatoes, which pack more vitamin A and fiber, instead of regular (white) potatoes.

Serve your latkes with reduced-fat or fat-free sour cream (instead of the full fat varieties) or unsweetened applesauce (instead of applesauce made with added sugar) to reduce the amount of fat and calories you consume.

Choose reduced fat dairy products when available, such as low-fat cottage cheese for fritters. When making cheesecake, use light cream cheese, reduced-fat ricotta cheese and egg substitutes (such as Egg Beaters brand) to indulge in tradition without the guilt.

Kugel, traditionally made with potatoes and egg noodles, is enjoyed throughout the year. To make it healthier, replace those refined egg noodles with a whole wheat egg noodle, such as Hodgson Mill brand. Whole wheat noodles are less processed, and contain more protein and fiber, keeping you fuller, longer. In place of eggs, try egg whites (which are virtually cholesterol-free) or egg substitutes. Sweeten your dish with grated or chopped apples.

When making homemade applesauce, reduce the amount of sugar that the recipe calls for. Apples are naturally sweet, so try using half the amount of sugar called for, or use a calorie-free sugar substitute. Add extra flavor without the sugar by trying a variety of spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg or clove.

Traditional matzo balls, which are used in chicken noodle or matzo ball soup, are made using chicken or goose fat (schmaltz). For health reasons, you can adapt your recipe to use vegetable oil in place of the animal fat. Eggs are also used as a binder in many matzo ball recipes, but can be replaced with egg whites or egg substitutes.

Of course, there's more to a Hanukkah meal than latkes and fritters. What about the main dish? Baked chicken makes a perfect addition to the table, bringing protein and nutrients in a lower-fat package. You can add a sweet taste to the meal by serving it with apricots and cranberries; or try olives and feta for a salty yet savory taste.

Check out the chart below for the nutrition breakdown of some common Hanukkah fare.

Food Serving Calories Fat Grams
Applesauce (sweetened) 1/2 cup 95 0
Applesauce (unsweetened) 1/2 cup 50 0
Latke (fried, potato) 2 oz. 200 11
Matzo balls 1 large 90 3
Chicken soup with matzo balls 1 cup 185 8
Blintz (fried, cheese-filled) 1 medium 340 15
Baked sufganiyot (jelly-filled) 2-inch wide 115 1
Fried sufganiyot (jelly-filled) 2-inch wide 300 15
Mandelbrot (almond bread) 1/4-inch slice 45 2
Rugelach 1 cookie 100 7

Happy Hannukah!