New Year's Food Traditions December 28, 2009

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Seton Clinical Dietitian Julie Paff, RD, LD, teaches diet and diabetes self-management strategies to persons with diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance. She and other Seton Family of Hospitals health professionals host regularly scheduled seminars at multiple Seton facilities to help people learn more about pre-diabetes and diabetes in addition to teaching classes on diabetes nutrition, weight management and healthy eating. Julie's interests include the history of foods and she researched New Year's food traditions and added several favorite recipes. Here's her story.

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Food For Good Fortune

The New Year has had food-related traditions since the holiday was celebrated. In many cultures, this holiday is a time to restore friendships, renew financial contracts and resolve misgivings. The foods eaten at New Years are highly symbolic and the traditions are long-standing world-wide. Foods associated with good fortune often have a connection with health or wealth on this holiday:

  • Cooked greens are a New Years tradition and found favor in many cultures because of the resemblance to money. Spinach, kale, collard and turnip greens are popular additions to southern tables on New Years Day to bring good fortune in the new year. The Danish eat stewed kale seasoned with cinnamon and sugar. Germans eat sauerkraut and this tradition carried over to Pennsylvania in colonial times by the Pennsylvania Dutch. In Korea, kimchee, a spicy cabbage dish, is part of the New Years spread.

  • Black-eyed peas at midnight or on New Years Eve are a necessity throughout the Southoften called hopping John locally. This tradition dates back to Civil War days in Vicksburg where locals ran out of food while under attack but survived on black-eyed peas which subsequently became a symbol of luck. Some Southerners believe that you should consume one pea for each day of the year.

  • Legumes are associated with prosperity and wealth in many cultures, possibly because the dried seeds resembled coins in times past. Germans served split pea soup on New Years. In Italy, a dish called cotechino con lenticchie pairs green lentils with sausage (another symbolic New Years food) to bring good fortune. Brazilians serve lentils in soup or rice dish as the first meal of the New Year to encourage prosperity. In Japan the elaborate New Year is celebrated with kuro-mame (sweet black bean dish) as part of the three-day food tradition.

  • Pork or ham was a sign of wealth in the Middle Ages in Western Europe as meat was not served at every meal. Sharing a cured pork dish with guests was not always an option for common folks. The high fat content has long been associated with wealth. The Dutch also served pork, because the pig buries the past as it roots forward into the future, a symbol of burying the past misgivings and making a new start. A roasted suckling pig is the central part of New Years Day meals in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Austria. Austrians carry the pork theme on to the dessert table with pig-shaped marzipan. Sweden serves pickled pigs feet on this holiday and Germans serve festive sausages.

  • Fish is a must on the table on New Years Eve and dates back to the Middle Ages as a New Years tradition. It was a salted staple for travelers in those early years and made its way to the Caribbean and Africa on trade ships in those years. The Catholic tradition of limiting meat on certain religious holidays expanded cods popularity in Europe. In Italy a dried cod is consumed frequently between Christmas and New Years. German folklore and Polish traditions advise eating pickled herring at midnight as a sign of good luck and prosperity in the coming year. Japanese serve fish roe to enhance fertility, shrimp to encourage long life and sardines to encourage a good harvest. Swedish smorgasbords offer many fish dishes including fish salads. In China, fish is served to wish meal participants abundance, and the fish and tail are left intact to signify abundance from beginning to end.

  • Grapes are part of a 1909 tradition in the grape-growing Alicante region of Spain. It calls for the consumption of 12 grapes, one at each stroke of midnight to represent a month in the coming year. If the fourth grape is sour, it is felt that the coming April will be a difficult month. The tradition stuck and even spread to Portugal, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru.

  • Rice is a staple New Year's menu food in the south because it swells, representing prosperity in the New Year. Cornbread is said to bring prosperity to the family.

  • Noodles are traditionally served at midnight of the New Year in Japanese Buddhist temples as a sign of longevity.

  • Sweets are common New Years traditions. In Mexico, a ring-shaped cake called Rosa de Reyes is decorated with candied fruits and has one or more surprises baked into the cake. Greeks bake a coin in their Vasilopita cakethis cake is cut at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve and the first slice is given to St. Basil with the rest distributed to guests based on age. Scandinavians hide an almond in rice pudding for a lucky guest to find as it signifies good fortune in the coming year. In Holland, Ollie Bollen is a fritter like donut filled with raisins, apples, or currants.

Don't Court Misfortune

There are actually some food beliefs associated with misfortune at this time of year as well:

  • Don't eat chicken. Chickens scratch backward, and eating poultry on New Years is felt to bring regret or dwelling on the past in the coming year. Some also feel fowl consumption at New Years will cause prosperity to take flight for the next year.

  • Avoid lobster. Some cultures believe lobsters represent regression in the coming year because they move backward.

  • Don't clean your plate. In Germany, food left on the plate symbolizes food in the pantry throughout the next year.

  • Keep food on the table. In the Philippines, an empty table at midnight on New Years Eve could symbolize the absence of abundance in the New Year.

Cultural Traditions

Several interesting practices have their history in cultural tradition:

  • Scotland's Hogmanay holds that the first person to cross the homes threshold after midnight sets the tone for the next year with the gifts that come into the home. Coal is brought for warmth and fruits are baked into a black bun for prosperity. Shortbread and oatcakes are also good omens in this tradition.

  • Jewish tradition calls for black-eyed peas, beets, fish and apples to be served on New Years Day to bring good luck in the coming year.

  • New Orleans Creoles present blooming roses as a sign of glory to receiving hostesses, and roses adorned buffet tables. This was possible, because in the milder climate, roses bloom year-round. Perhaps such New Years traditions influenced the celebration of modern Rose Bowl and Parade of Roses on New Years Day.

  • Chinese tradition considers spring rolls a sign of wealth. Lettuce wraps may be served, because lettuce is a symbol of rising wealth. Tangerines are associated with good fortune and oranges with wealth. Pomelos (related to grapefruit) are a symbol of abundance. Chinese garlic chives are a symbol of eternity and bamboo shoots symbolize wealth in Chinese tradition. Eggs symbolize fertility. At New Years the sweets are covered with seeds, to encourage many children. The traditional round sticky rice cakes symbolize abundance as family reunites. Of course it is important to note that the Chinese New Year begins on January.

Traditional New Year's Recipes

Hoppin John

Makes 6-8 servings


2 Tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
Garlic powder
2 cups black-eye peas, cooked
2 cups cooked rice
Salt and black pepper
8 sprigs fresh parsley, for garnish


  • Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic powder, to taste, and cook for 5 minutes.

  • Add peas and rice and cook an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Be careful not to overcook; this dish is best if the bell pepper and onion still have a crunch to them.

  • Season, to taste with black pepper, salt, and garlic powder. Garnish each serving with sprig of parsley.

Nutrition per serving: 125 Calories, 21 mg carbohydrate (1.5 carb choices), 2 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 4 gm fiber, 15.5 mg Vitamin C (26% daily value), 127 mcg folate (32% daily value, 3 mg phytosterols.

Collard Greens

Makes 6-8 servings


2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 pound lean ham, sliced thick
1 onion, halved
4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 pounds fresh collard greens, washed, stems removed and roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic


  • Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the ham pieces and brown on both sides, about 6 to 8 minutes.

  • Add the onion, cut sides down, and brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth. Season with chili flakes, salt, vinegar and garlic powder. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer. Adjust seasoning, if desired.

  • Add the collard greens and garlic cloves, stir to combine and cover. Cook until greens are tender, approximately 35 to 45 minutes. Remove the onion halves, garlic cloves, pork pieces, for better presentation. Transfer the greens to a serving bowl.

Nutrition per serving: 185 Calories, 11 gm carbohydrate (0.5 carb choices) 5 gm dietary fiber, 9 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 1297 mg sodium 42 mg Vitamin C (71% of daily value), 574 mcg Vitamin K (700% daily value), 5 mg niacin (27% daily value), 0.6 mg thiamine (39% daily value), 195 mg calcium (20% daily value), 11.2 mcg selenium (16% daily value).

Sausages and Green Lentils with Tomato Salsa

Makes 6 servings


8 Italian sausages
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh thyme

For salsa:

Olive oil
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 small stick of cinnamon
1-2 small dried red chilies, crumbled
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus extra for dressing
2 14 ounce cans of diced Italian tomatoes

For lentils:

14 ounces lenticchie di Castelluccio or Puy lentils
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
Fresh flatleaf parsley, remove leaves from handful and chop, reserving stems
Red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar


  • Preheat the oven to 400F.

  • For the salsa, saut onion and sliced garlic in olive oil in a medium pan. Add cinnamon stick and crumble chilies into the pan. Saute over medium or low flame for 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and sweet. Increase the heat and add red wine vinegar steam (this is not a pleasant aroma and may induce coughing). Reduce heat to low setting and add canned tomatoes. Simmer slowly for half an hour.

  • For lentils, place into a large pot, cover with water, and add the 2 whole cloves of garlic and bay leaf. Tie stems from the parsley and add to pan. Simmer for around 20 minutes, making sure the lentils are always covered with ample water.

  • For sausages, brown on stove-top in small amount of olive oil in an oven-safe pan and then cook in oven for 25 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.

  • Remove parsley stems and bay leaf from lentils and pour away most of the excess liquid in the pot. Mash the garlic cloves with a spoon, add 4 Tablespoons olive oil and one or two Tablespoons red wine vinegar. Mix well. Add finely chopped parsley leaves and mix again.

  • Remove the sausages from the roasting pan and pour away any fat.

  • To serve, divide the lentils into serving bowls. Remove the cinnamon stick from the salsa and discard it. Season to taste and spoon it over lentils. Slice the sausages and arrange in serving bowls on top of lentils and salsa. Sprinkle with the tips of the fresh thyme and serve.

Nutrition per serving: 550 Calories, 51 gm carbohydrate (3 carb choices), 23 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 769 mg sodium, 24 gm fiber, 64 mg Vitamin C (107% daily value), 414 mcg folate ((104% daily value), 198 mg calcium (20% daily value), 9.6 mg iron (53% daily value), 28.8 mg phytosterols.

Julie Paff, RD, LD
Seton Diabetes Education Center
5555 North Lamar Blvd., Building D, Suite 125
Austin, TX 78751
Phone: (512) 324-1891

Julie sees patients at Seton Medical Center Williamson, GoodHealth Commons and Seton Southwest Hospital. She has worked as a Registered Dietitian for 30 years. She has a special interest in all aspects of diabetes management, heart disease, chronic disease management, with emphasis in Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and pre-diabetes.

Seton Diabetes Education Program

Seton Diabetes Education Program empowers individuals with diabetes to manage their disease over the course of a lifetime. Program participants can expect to learn skills and self-management strategies to manage blood sugar and reduce the risk of complications with the changing needs of disease management. Seton Diabetes Education wants to assure that all persons with diabetes or at risk of diabetes are aware of services to support health. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to learn more about the program at (512) 324-1891 or email

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