There was apparently a time when the holiday season created visions of sugar plums dancing in the heads of children. People nowadays may scratch their heads and wonder, "What's a sugar plum, anyway?" And for that matter, what is this "figgy pudding" we're to be brought? "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" sounds lovely, but how many of us have ever had them? But even without those traditional treats, the winter holidays offer us a wide variety of delicious foods to nibble, nosh, and feast upon.

For those of us trying to maintain a healthy weight, manage chronic conditions affected by diet, or avoid potential food allergens, the holidays are a tantalizing but tricky situation. Sure, you could be really disciplined and eat only from the party veggie platters, but then you're likely to end up hungry and wanting more. The holidays are a time to indulge - within some reasonable parameters, of course! Moderation is the magic word. Here's a guide to help you navigate the holiday buffet.

Holiday treat: Chocolate
Tricky ingredients: It's hard to escape chocolate during the holidays. From hot cocoa to cookies to fudge and coin-thin Hanukkah gelt, chocolate is everywhere. The chocolate of choice for holiday goodies tends to be milk chocolate, which is lower in antioxidants and higher in fat than dark chocolate. Chocolate also contains caffeine, a stimulant that can trigger headaches and digestive problems in some people.
Healthy ways to savour it: When adding chocolate to recipes, trade milk chocolate for an antioxidant-packed dark chocolate. Low- and no-sugar chocolate provide safer alternatives for diabetics and those watching their blood sugar or weight. Even no-sugar products can contain sugar alcohols, though, so if you're diabetic, you'll have to be extra careful when choosing chocolates.

Holiday treat: Crunchy snack mixes
Tricky ingredients: These crispy combos are loaded with potential food allergens, including wheat, milk, soy, sesame, almond, and peanut ingredients. Popular foods such as peanuts and tree nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts) are common food allergens. For some people, these foods can cause serious allergic reactions. The cereal used may also contain barley malt, a gluten ingredient that can be a danger to those with celiac disease.
Healthy ways to savour it: You can whip up your own mix minus the offending allergens. Gluten-free varieties of the cereal ingredients are also available.

Holiday treat: Eggnog
Tricky ingredients: Eggnog overflows with sugar and fat. And one cup will fill you up with half of your day's recommended cholesterol.
Healthy ways to savour it: Rich, decadent eggnog will often contain whole milk, heavy cream, and several egg whites. To trim the fat and cholesterol, trim the ingredient list. Use skim milk in place of whole milk, light cream in place of heavy, two egg whites instead of four. Some people even use lower-cholesterol egg substitutes to whip into their nog or sugar-free vanilla pudding as a thickener instead of eggs and cream.

Holiday treat: Fruitcake
Tricky ingredients: It's made of fruit, so it can't be that bad, right? The tricky part? The sticky part, for one! Some fruitcakes are sticky enough to pull out teeth. And there is a reason behind the saying "nuttier than a fruitcake." Most contain at least a few types of nuts, and chances are there will be peanuts, almonds, or other common food allergens.
Healthy ways to savour it: Those with nut allergies should pass on this dense, ingredient-packed Christmas mainstay - unless you've made it yourself and know for sure that there are no nuts.

Holiday treat: Gingerbread
Tricky ingredients: Laced with healthful ingredients like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and blackstrap molasses, gingerbread could be one of the more nutritious of the sweet holiday treats. But as with other treats, gingerbread's baking process usually calls for loads of butter, eggs, and sugar.
Healthy ways to savour it: Lose the fat and calories but keep the warm, sweet-but-spicy flavour by swapping out a few ingredients for healthier alternatives. In the place of refined white sugar, try dried cane juice. It maintains more of the original nutrients of sugar cane. Eggs can be traded for applesauce or apple butter, which can actually intensify the spice of your gingerbread mix.

Holiday treat: Latkes and other Hanukkah treats
Tricky ingredients: Oil is at the center of Hanukkah celebrations. Deep-fried treats like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts) are eaten to commemorate the miracle that one night's worth of oil endured to light the ancient temple for eight full nights. "Deep-fried" is not usually a healthy thing!
Healthy ways to savour them: You can't take the oil out of the tradition, but you can opt for healthier oils. Choose canola or olive oil, since they are lower in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fats, which can help lower cholesterol when used instead of saturated fat.

Holiday treat: Pies
Tricky ingredients: Apple, pumpkin, and pecans all shine as nutritional superstars. But during the holidays, we whip them up and pour them into a shortening- or butter-baked pie crust and top them with hefty dollops of ice cream or whipped cream. And when you go to some holiday feasts, you have several yummy pies to choose from!
Healthy ways to savour them: If you're the pie cook, choose lower-fat milk products and, in recipes that call for shortening, exchange it for healthy oil, like canola. Or you could go topless - with your pie crust, that is! Instead of baking a crust over the top of your pie filling, cut calories and fat in half by skipping the top crust. Offer your guests light whipped toppings or low-fat ice cream. As you eye pies at the holiday feast, slice yourself thin slivers of a few different kinds or share with a friend. That way, you get a taste of everything without stuffing yourself.

For the record, sugar plums aren't plums and figgy pudding isn't a pudding - at least not in the sense of pudding most might think. Sugar plums are actually oval-shaped candies usually made with almonds, sugar, honey, and dried fruit. Figgy pudding is more like a cake, in fact it's quite like a fruitcake. It really does have figs, though. And what about chestnuts? You don't need an open fire to roast them - just cut slits into a handful of chestnuts and broil them on a metal baking pan at 220°C (425°F) for about 20 minutes. When the inside is soft and the outside is toasty golden brown, they're set to eat! Just peel back the skin and pull out the vitamin-rich, cholesterol-free nutmeat.

Amy Toffelmire