• By Julie Stefanski
  • In 2017
  • December 13, 2017

Holiday Food Traditions

By: Laura Ali, MS, RDN, LDN


I love the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.  It starts with decorating the house, baking cookies, and shopping to find special gifts for my favorite people.  The holidays are all about being together and food has always been one of the best parts of our celebrations.  Every year I look forward to making our favorite family dishes.  They always bring back memories of past holidays, special times and family.


While I love the traditions I grew up with, it’s fun to learn about traditions in other families and meld them together in our celebrations.  Since I’ve gotten married, the dishes I make have expanded.  I grew up in an Irish – German family and my husband is 100% Italian. Now, in addition to my family’s traditional beef roast and potatoes and mincemeat pie, spinach balls and stuffed artichokes (my Mother-in-laws specialty) are also found on our table.


When I asked some of my colleagues for their favorite holiday food traditions I heard so many stories of visiting grandma and the special meals she made.  They’ve kept the traditions and meals alive – either with the same recipe or an adaptation to make it a bit healthier.   Here is a little about some of the foods we enjoy during the holiday season and what makes them special.


Hanukkah – The celebration of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days and nights, which kept the menorah lit.  Many of the foods prepared during the eight days of Hanukkah pay homage to that miracle by using oil.  Potato pancakes (latkes), fried jelly filled donuts, and called sufganiyot, along with blintz, rugelach, and challah bread are foods traditionally enjoyed during Hanukkah.


Christmas Eve – For many Southern Italian families, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional way to celebrate Christmas Eve.  Traditional fish include baccala (salted cod), anchovies, fried smelts and calamari.  Other Italian Christmas Eve dishes include pasta, eggplant and sausage and peppers.  Kelly Jones, MS, RD shares her favorite memories of going to her grandmother’s house and her Christmas Eve lasagna and her remake of the dish to make it dairy free.  In Germany Christmas Eve is a time to feast, often on pork, beans and macaroni salad.  Raquel Redmond, RD shares her grandmother’s macaroni salad that she now makes for many of her family holidays.


Christmas dinner in my family always included a beef roast, popovers and plum pudding and mincemeat pie for dessert (along with dozens of varieties of cookies).  For my Polish friends, they celebrate Christmas dinner (Wigilia) with the traditional beet soup – Borscht, poppy seed cake and always an odd number of dishes for good luck. Other common dishes found on many Christmas dinner tables include goose (from France and Germany), Turkey (Brazil and France), Bûche de Noel (France), Nutrolls (Hungry) Oysters and Roasted Chestnuts from France and Italy.


New Year’s Day – There are more superstitions around the food eaten on New Year’s Day than any other day of the year.  In Spain they celebrate the New Year by eating 12 grapes, one to bring luck for each of the coming months.  Pork and sauerkraut are served for many Pennsylvania families’ New Year’s dinners.  Both are Eastern European and German traditions and have been thought to bring wealth and good luck.  Deanna Segrave-Daly shares her grandmother’s recipe for Kapusta, a braised sauerkraut and her family’s New Year’s traditions.




My best memory of a special New Year’s Day was the first New Year’s dinner with my future in-laws.  In addition to the traditional pork and sauerkraut was pasta and meatballs, sausage, parmesan chicken, wedding soup, and those delicious stuffed artichokes.  There is no superstition associated with any of those, just a typical Italian holiday dinner but I will always remember those artichokes – and now that my mother – in – law has passed away, will always make sure they are on our New Year’s table in her memory.  I have to believe she will be smiling on us!


So many of our food traditions are formed over generations and all have special meaning, some are surrounded by myth and superstition but all are associated with wonderful memories.  What are some of your favorite foods for the holidays?  Please share below so we can learn about other traditions!

Laura Ali, MS, RDN, LDNLaura Ali, MS, RDN, LDN is Manager of Nutrition and Regulatory Affairs for the StarKist Company in Pittsburgh, PA.  You can follow her on twitter @LauraAli_RD