Top Tips for a Healthy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a celebration we are grateful for: family, friends and not least, the comfort of a home cooked meal. It is a day of excess. The average reveler downs a whopping 4,500 calories during the annual Thanksgiving Day feast, according to the Calorie Control Council. But there are ways to enjoy the plentiful bounty without developing a serious case of indigestion. “A little indulgence for one day isn’t going to make a huge difference,” said Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, a Syosset-based dietitian and the co-author of Healthy in a Hurry: Easy Good-for-You Recipes for Every Meal of the Day. But, Ansel warned, “you don’t want to go hog-wild either.”

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One of the biggest benefits of hosting dinner, in addition to avoiding the roads, is the ability to control the menu and the ingredients. “Sweet potatoes, string beans, cranberries and turkey are all natural health foods,” Ansel said. “The trouble begins when we drown them in butter and fat.”

Smart recipe modifications lighten things up without spoiling the joy of cooking (or eating). “Just about any recipe calls for way too much butter and oil. My rule of thumb is, no matter how much butter or oil a holiday recipe has, cut it in half. Nobody will ever know the difference.”

Also, rely on healthy swaps: if the potatoes seem a bit dry, a splash of reduced fat chicken broth adds flavor without jacking up calories. Go light on the marshmallow sweet potato topping too, they’re just empty sugar calories. And try whole-wheat bread for stuffing to introduce more fiber than traditional options. Another potential problem for many is that potatoes, stuffing and turkey are simply vessels for rich smooth gravy. But Ansel noted that, “Despite its reputation, gravy doesn’t have nearly as many calories as we’ve been led to believe. A quarter cup of homemade gravy with giblets only has about 50 calories. Go ahead and ladle a few spoonfuls onto your turkey if that’s what you love.” Just be choosy on the delivery method.

Green bean casserole is another traditional dish that’s not terrible for waistlines, despite being made with cream of mushroom soup, which—surprise!— doesn’t actually have much cream in it (it gets its signature texture from a flour-based roux). “The real offender is the fried onion topping, which is loaded with bloating sodium, fat and calories,” according to Ansel. Keep it to a light layer.

As a counter punch, cranberries provide a great source of antioxidants, vitamin C and fiber. But the canned sauce version is nothing more than a source of sugar. The fix: make it from scratch, halving the sugar content or using a recipe that replaces it with better options like unsweetened applesauce or pineapple tidbits. “With less sugar, you’ll cut the calories and enjoy more of the cranberry flavor.”

It’s more of a challenge to make decisions when someone else is doing the cooking. But there are ways to select healthier options without grilling the cook over the preparation of every edible.

In general, hors d’oeuvres are fried, cheesy, fatty or all of the above. If feeling particularly peckish, stick to friendlier choices such as crudités, shrimp cocktail and a small portion of mixed nuts. The trick is knowing when to splurge. This meal happens once a year and savoring those dishes makes it memorable and much more satisfying. “There’s no sense blowing hundreds of calories on foods you can eat any time. Focus on special seasonal foods like sweet potatoes, stuffing, turkey with a little bit of gravy or a small piece of pecan or pumpkin pie.”

When it comes time to dig into that little slice of heaven, keep serving sizes small—there’s more room to delight in the table’s bounty without undoing a belt notch. Remember, it’s not just about how much you eat, but what you chose to fill up on. “The trick to a healthier and more comfortable Thanksgiving meal is to load your plate with lean protein and vegetables. You don’t need to obsess about portion size, but you do want to avoid going back for seconds.”

Healthier helpings don’t mean a sparse place setting. Feel satisfied and virtuous by following simple plate math. Fill half the dish with fiber rich veggies: Brussels sprouts, green beans and steamed carrots. Dedicate one-quarter of the plate to lean meat—four ounces of skinless turkey breast saves 30 calories and 3.5 grams of fat compared to dark meat. The final one-quarter of the meal is for carbs: stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy. Serve sauces sparingly for flavor, not fervor. And drinks count, too—a glass of wine is 100 calories.

When all is said and done, this one meal isn’t going to disrupt a generally healthy diet. What could be more problematic though is leftovers. If hosting, send guests home with as much as possible; if not, try to resist the host’s efforts to do the same! Then “wrap up individual portions and freeze it to defrost for a special treat on a future night when there’s no time to cook,” Ansel suggested.