Talking with U of M

Talking holiday eating with U of M

Professor Joanne Slavin next to an image of a holiday meal.
Professor Joanne Slavin. Credit: University of Minnesota/Getty Images.

The holiday season is right around the corner, and families and friends across the state will soon be gathering around the dinner table to share a special meal together. 

Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., RDN, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition in the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, answers questions about how you can make the most of your holiday dining experience both at your own kitchen table and out in your community. 

Q: What is special about holiday eating in Minnesota? 
Dr. Slavin:
Walleye, wild rice and wild game are all special Minnesota treats that can be enjoyed during the holidays. Load up on vegetables to make sure you get the vitamins and minerals  you need. Pumpkins, apples, nuts and cranberries make eating festive and healthy. Holiday drinks, especially hot versions, are a fun tradition during our cold winter months. Remember the importance of rituals and family customs in holiday eating, and don’t diss Aunt Eleanor’s jello salad, the white buns that make an appearance at holiday meals or the sweet potato hot dish with marshmallows. Sure, these items don’t meet many of our new nutrition norms: whole grains, low in added sugar, mostly whole food ingredients – but small helpings of most items can be enjoyed with family and friends. We know that food keeps us healthy, but it is much more than the nutrients that come from food.

Q: How has our understanding of “healthy” changed in 2022?
Dr. Slavin:
The FDA has recently proposed changes to what food products can be termed “healthy.” If approved, the new language would allow food companies to use the word “healthy” on their packaging only if their product contains a certain amount of food from at least one of the major food groups, such as fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy or protein. In addition, the product would need to have limited added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. However, as a dietitian I believe that calling any one food healthy or unhealthy is skating on thin ice.  Many traditional foods that are important in different cultural practices are put in the “unhealthy” category, when in reality no one food should be called unhealthy.  We want to be sure that our overall diet contains all the nutrients we need and no more calories than we should be consuming based on our activity levels. Packaged foods already contain critical information on calories and nutrients so consumers have access to food composition data that allows them to manage their diet as needed.

Q: What food safety measures should I keep in mind this year?
Dr. Slavin:
 We are fortunate to live in a country where our food safety standards are high and consumers can feel good about the foods they buy at the grocery store. After foods leave the grocery store, consumers can practice good food handling practices to avoid food safety outbreaks. For example, avoid leaving the stuffed turkey sitting out as you watch the football game. Even more important, don’t stuff the turkey at all. Consider cooking the stuffing separately and filling it with healthy ingredients like fruit, nuts and vegetables. Additionally, canning, freezing, smoking, baking and all food handling practices are more complicated than food novices appreciate, so please contact the University of Minnesota Extension Help Line or review Extension's food safety website before you decide to gift your homemade salsa, venison jerky or vegan cheese to your friends and relatives. Foodborne disease outbreaks have originated from all types of foods and beverages, including salads, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products and eggs.  Appreciate the importance of protecting your family and friends when they eat at your house or when you share a food gift with them.

Q: How can I connect with local farmers and producers during this holiday season?
Dr. Slavin:
I would love to see more folks connecting with farmers, either by buying a holiday tree, visiting a farmstead to buy local cheese, or going to the pumpkin patch or apple farm.  It makes the point that food does not start at the grocery store; there are dedicated farmers that supply our wonderful foods in the U.S.  Minnesota is a leading producer of turkeys, but also a leader in regenerative agriculture, including use of cover crops and perennials to make sure that we care about our health but also the health of our soil.  We are so lucky to live in the breadbasket of America. Deep winter greenhouses keep us supplied with healthy greens in the winter. Thank you Minnesota farmers.

Q: How can I connect with my community and support neighbors who might be dealing with hunger this year?
Dr. Slavin:
 Food security is a basic right and the Farm Bill invests in many programs to help provide food for those struggling with hunger. But it takes a village to feed everyone, so community partners like religious groups, soup kitchens and food shelves are the important safety nets to make sure our neighbors have the food they need. Many of us do our part during the holidays to donate gift cards to grocery stores and restaurants or spend time volunteering for non-profit organizations that help feed those in need. But the need is always there. Every community needs drivers for Meals on Wheels or food donations for food shelves. Hunger is all around us and sharing a hot meal and support with our neighbors is what Minnesotans do.  

Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., RDN is a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. She teaches Advanced Human Nutrition, a writing intensive class that covers food policy and human health.  She manages the Slavin Sisters Farm LLC in Walworth, WI and is a member of the Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board.  She served on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in 2010 and works with industry, commodity groups, and NGOs to promote food science, nutrition and agriculture.  


About “Talking...with U of M”
“Talking...with U of M” is a resource whereby University of Minnesota faculty answer questions on current and other topics of general interest. Feel free to republish this content. If you would like to schedule an interview with the faculty member or have topics you’d like the University of Minnesota to explore for future “Talking...with U of M,” please contact University Public Relations at [email protected]

About the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences 
The University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) strives to inspire minds, nourish people, and sustainably enhance the natural environment. CFANS has a legacy of innovation, bringing discoveries to life through science and educating the next generation of leaders. Every day, students, faculty, and researchers use science to address the grand challenges of the world today and in the future. CFANS offers an unparalleled expanse of experiential learning opportunities for students and the community, with 12 academic departments, 10 research and outreach centers across the state, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the Bell Museum of Natural History, and dozens of interdisciplinary centers. 


Media Contacts

Lori Fligge

College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, Twin Cities