CALS Wellness Committee tip: Reduce calories in your holiday spirits

Taiya Bach is a teaching faculty II and a registered dietitian nutritionist with the UW-Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a member of the CALS Wellness Committee.

With winter holiday break around the corner, and New Year’s soon after, many will celebrate with special food and drink. As we all know, it is an easy time to over indulge, sometimes due to easy access (cookies are everywhere!) or stress-related (finals, work, Covid, upcoming family time).  This tendency to indulge can also lead to the dreaded few extra pounds, that many of us have worked so hard to keep off the year prior. While normally, the blame is focused primarily on those rich holiday desserts, one must not overlook the extra calories coming from the liquid portion – our drinks!  Once you determine what’s in that festive glass you’re raising to toast, there are a few things you can change rather than give up on all your merrymaking.


  • Watch the alcohol content.  One shot (1.5 oz) of liquor can increase your drink by 70 to 100 calories. Consider making a “mocktail” or cutting the serving of liquor in half.
  • Whip the toppings. Eliminate or reduce the amount of extra drizzles or dollops. Try sugar-free syrups or low-fat whipped cream.  If thinking hot chocolate, use mini-marshmallows instead of large ones. Skip the maraschino cherries, and use some muddled or garnished fresh fruit.
  • Sub-out. In those creamy drinks (Tom & Jerrys), use skim milk versus whole, use half and half versus heavy whipping cream. In some cases-water can be used instead of sugary drinks like sweet tea or lemonade.
  • Consider your nog. Almond, soy, or coconut nog is quite tasty and has fewer calories and fat than a traditional glass of eggnog, which may pack up to 400 calories per 8oz serving.
  • Enhance the flavor. Instead of using syrups or juices, try using dry spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves) or extracts (just a drop or two of vanilla, almond, amaretto or hazelnut extract can go a long way). Garnish with cinnamon sticks or shaved dark chocolate.
  • Swap the carbs. If you know you will be having a starch heavy meal or rich dessert, swap out the carbs at dinner to account for a sweet holiday drink instead.
  • Know what’s in your mixer or spritzer.  Tonics, sparkling water, juice, soda are not created equal. When it comes to juices- try buying the ones with no added sugars, and that are 100% juice. For sodas go for the diet version.  As for some of the other popular mixers, here’s a reminder as to what they are:
    • Tonic– Carbonated water with a bitter flavor from quinine, and is offset with added sugar or corn syrup. When using tonic water beware of the hidden calories (~114cal/12oz). Consider diet tonic water (but then beware of the hidden sodium).
    • Seltzer – water + carbonation, no calories, and no flavor.
    • Club soda – water + carbonation + added minerals (minimal amounts).
    • Sparkling mineral water– similar to seltzer and club soda, but it’s carbonation is supposed to be naturally occurring. From a spring or a well for instance.  Sparkling water can come in many different flavors, and is often a good-calorie free choice when mixing if you want that extra bubble or pop.

For those that don’t want to skimp on the added “punch” of their holiday drinks, here are a couple lower calorie recipes to try out:

Crock Pot Mulled Apple Cider Punch:
½ gallon apple cider, unsweetened
½ gallon sugar free (or low sugar) cranberry or cranapple juice
2 tablespoons of mulling spices in a tea infuser ball
4 cinnamon sticks

Add all ingredients to a 5 quart or larger slow cooker, heat on low for 4 hours.

Cocktail version: Place liquor bottle of fireball cinnamon whiskey or cinnamon schnapps (such as Goldschlager) along with a shot glass on side for those who would like an added kick.

Spiced Hot Chocolate (make by the mug):
6oz brewed coffee
1-2 drops peppermint extract
1 packet of sugar free hot chocolate or no sugar added hot chocolate
Fat free whipped cream
1 miniature candy cane

Pour hot coffee into the hot chocolate mix, add a drop or two of peppermint extract.  Serve with a dollop of fat-free whipped cream and a sprinkle of crushed peppermint candy cane on top, or a small miniature candy cane.

Cocktail version: Add ½ oz of coffee flavored liquor such as Kahlua and ½ oz of peppermint schnapps, and skip the extract.

So Simple Hot Toddy (make by the mug):
8oz hot water
1 chamomile or sleepy time tea bag
½ oz lemon juice, or lemon wedge
½ packet of sugar substitute (or in this case honey substitute)
Garnish with cinnamon stick and / or anise star

Cocktail version: Add 1oz of Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Vodka or Firefly Sweet Tea Whiskey or a Honey Flavored Vodka or Liquor. For a less-sweet version, try a shot of whiskey.

If you’re not one to go changing your favorite traditional holiday drink, then keep the old adage in mind-all in moderation!  Wishing you a happy holiday and new year!

Cheers to 2022!