Nutrition Tips:

Healthy Eating - Chinese New Year - the Spring Festival

After the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, there’s another big challenge for the Chinese who are weight conscious – the Chinese New Year celebration. Food plays a very important role in the Chinese New Year celebrations as it is the most important festival for the Chinese. Dinners tend to be very elaborate and there are a variety of treats and desserts, usually pretty high fat and sugary, prepared at the household to serve the family members and the visitors.

The celebration starts at New Year’s Eve. It is a family reunion dinner which will include “whole fish” as a main course because it symbolizes “an over abundance of fortune” in the coming year. Most New Year dishes are prepared with whole ingredients to assemble “completeness” and to avoid misfortune. A dish with black moss seaweed (fat choy) and dried oysters (ho si) symbolizes “wealth and good business/jobs”. There is always a vegetarian dish with 5 different vegetables together which is called “the five blessings at the door”: longevity, fortune, peace, wisdom, and virtue. The reunion dinner usually concludes with a dessert - glutinous rice balls with sesame or red bean paste inside served in sweet ginger soup. The round shape of the rice balls portrays “togetherness” and all the family members will need to have at least one.

In the Northern China , the new year’s eve tradition is to serve dumplings, which look like the golden ingots “Yuan Bao”, which brings wealth and prosperity to the family. Some families will hide a clean coin in one for the most lucky to find!

The first day of the Chinese New Year, people usually will have porridge and a sweet sticky rice pudding cake called “neen gow”, which sounds like “advance towards higher positions year after year”, together with turnip cake. The usual way of cooking them is to dip the cake slices in scramble egg and then pan fry them.

The Second Day of New Year is the “Day of Commencement” which symbolizes the beginning of the New Year for the business and household. The dinner usually prepares with lots of dishes with lavish ingredients: whole chicken, shrimp, oysters, abalone, sea cucumber, Chinese mushroom, bamboo shoots, etc. The lavish meal inspires good team or family spirit and hope for a profitable year.

All the ingredients used in the Chinese New Year dishes have a symbolic meaning of good fortune, happiness, longevity, and prosperity:

Black Moss seaweed (Fat Choy), bamboo shoots, dried bean curd – Wealth
Fish / Chicken served whole – Prosperity
Lettuce – Growing wealth
Pig’s tongue & Pig’s feet – Profits
Tangerines and oranges – Gold and Wealth
Meat or rice balls – Reunion
Lotus roots – Abundance year after year
Lotus seeds – Fertility

The seventh day of the Chinese New Year is “Everyone’s Birthday” which is a day for all to celebrate new birth with another round of delightful feasts.

The new year celebration usually lasts for 15 days until the first full moon. While the Chinese celebrates the year according to the lunar calendar, one should note that every 15th of the lunar month is the day of full moon. During the first full moon of the new year, everyone, especially lovers, celebrate the first time the moon is “complete”, which symbolizes harmony and togetherness. This usually romantic night time celebration, called “yuen shiao”, involves hanging many fancy lanterns with clever riddles, and eating sweet rice dumplings.

Throughout the stretch of celebration period, every household keeps a special “tray of togetherness”, which is a red or gold colored tray of box filled with an assortment of treats such as melon seeds and peanuts which symbolizes fertility and lots of off-springs, deep fried Chinese dumplings symbolizes wealth, and sweetened lotus roots and seeds, sweetened winter melon, chocolate “coins”, and a variety of candies symbolizing sweetness throughout the year.

With all the festive foods around, how do we stay controlled and still be a healthy-eater? Here are 8 helpful tips (8 is always a lucky number and it symbolizes wealth):

  1. Look for healthy alternatives: replace some of the high fat and sugary (empty calorie) items from your “Tray of Togetherness” with some healthy snacks choices such as: rice crackers, dried fruits such as apricots, wolfberries, cranberries, dates, blueberries; UNSALTED nuts such as almonds, walnuts etc which will provide more fiber, calcium, DHA.
  2. Portion Control: since dried fruits still are concentrated in sugar and all nuts and seeds are high in fat, for those who have high blood sugar and needs to control their weight, portion control is utmost important. For example, limit yourself to only one to two tablespoon of melon seeds or nuts a day.
  3. Modify food preparations: when preparing the turnip cake, try to replace the traditional preserved meat and sausage with Chinese mushroom, dried scallops and dried baby shrimps to lower the saturated fat content.  Try steaming the turnip cake instead of pan-frying.  For “neen gow”, use microwave to first warm it up and then use non-stick pan to panfry with just 1 teaspoon of oil.  Baking is also a good option.
  4. Compensation: when eating the sticky rice cakes and turnip cakes in between meals as snacks, try to reduce the portions of grains and oil intake in the next meal.
  5. Go for high Fiber foods: use more high fiber ingredients in the meaty dishes. Ingredients like black fungus, different types of mushrooms, and vegetables. Always start with vegetables.
  6. Drink lots of liquid: before a big festive meal, always drink enough water, and try to have a fruit before you go to avoid overeating at the meal. For the Chinese, tea drinking is very popular. Not only is tea (without sugar) a healthy beverage, it is also helpful in easing the sensation of greasiness from all the dishes and snacks.
  7. Save some room: Always eat up to only 70% of fullness.
  8. 100 kcal rule: If you’re watching your weight, try not to exceed 100 kcal from snacks (candies, sweets, cookies, nuts, seeds, etc) a day.