Giving thanks this year doesn’t mean you have to give in and throw off healthy eating until after the holidays. On Thanksgiving, choose main dishes and sides that keep you on track.
“Thanksgiving is all about practicing gratitude for what we have. In that way, mindful eating ties right into the holiday,” says Lizzie Devitt, MS, wellness coach at Methodist Richardson Medical Center.
While enjoying the holiday bounty, savor each bite and think about how the food will nourish your body. Just enjoy in moderation.
“Thanksgiving food is good for the soul,” Devitt says, “but be mindful of your portion sizes.”
Take note of the people around you, as well as the food, and be thankful for them, too. If you’re hosting, consider making the meal as healthy as it is tasty, even if that means swapping out an ingredient here and there.
“You have an advantage to control how healthy and tasty your food will be for your guests,” Devitt says. “If you’re not hosting, you can still follow these tips by preparing a side dish for your group.”
These nutritious ideas can help you celebrate a guilt-free holiday.
GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
This Thanksgiving staple may be the only green dish on the table for many families. So it goes without saying it’s healthy, right? Not so much.
Canned green beans are especially high in sodium, so opt for frozen vegetables instead.
“In most canned veggies, salt is used as a preservative to help maintain the flavor of the veggies,” Devitt says. “Most frozen vegetables are free of additives and preservatives.”
The casserole side of the equation tosses in fried onions, a can of creamy soup, milk, and sometimes cheese. That all adds up to a heaping helping of fat and calories.
Consider a breadcrumb topping and a base that combines Greek yogurt with caramelized onions and mushrooms, as in this recipe from the food blog Well Plated.
Even when served plain, mashed potatoes tend to be full of cream and butter. But that’s no reason to drop this dish like a hot potato.
“Spuds get a bad rep because they’re a starchy veggie,” Devitt says, “but some forget that they actually bring in good nutrients such as vitamin C and potassium.”
If you prefer loaded mashed potatoes among your Thanksgiving side dishes, you can use turkey bacon, find a lower-fat organic butter or grass-fed option, and opt for plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, as food blogger Holly Grainger does here.
“Greek yogurt is a great source of protein,” Devitt adds. “It’s low in fat, helps support gut health, and will provide the tartness that sour cream has.”
Make sure to add rosemary, garlic, and chives to give this side dish extra flavor.
The problem with this casserole isn’t the yams, which by some standards rank among the healthiest of vegetables. Rich in fiber and antioxidants like beta carotene (that’s what makes them orange), they promote healthy vision and gut health.
But again, it’s the casserole part where they can go terribly wrong and take the sweet in sweet potatoes to an unhealthy level. So let’s start by swapping the traditional sugar for stevia, monk fruit, or erythritol.
“These sugars will still provide sweetness to the casserole, but without raising our blood sugars compared to traditional sweeteners,” Devitt says.
And if you’re looking for an alternative to the traditional marshmallow topping, try a crunchy pecan and oatmeal topping, like this recipe in Well Plated.
SLOW YOUR ROLL
If Thanksgiving without bread is a nonstarter in your family, compromise by adding whole-grain rolls to the menu. Not only do they have fewer calories than white rolls, but they also pack more fiber to help your digestive system, so you’ll stay full longer.
“Whole grain rolls are stacked with important nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and folate,” Devitt says. “So, don’t feel guilty if you decide to grab two for your plate.”
And if you want to extend that advice to your stuffing, the other Thanksgiving carb of choice, here’s a healthier whole-grain alternative from A Couple Cooks.
ALWAYS ROOM FOR PIE
For many families, no Thanksgiving spread is complete without a pumpkin pie. And good news from our expert: “Pumpkin is a health food!”
“It’s great for eye health,” Devitt adds. “It is a rich source of beta carotene (vitamin A), lutein, and zeaxanthin. These are all antioxidants that help fight free radicals and support healthy eyesight.”
But here’s the catch: Store-bought pies overwhelm all that nutrition with loads of sugar and preservatives to make them shelf-stable.
If you try making one from scratch – don’t worry, it’s one of the simpler pies you can make – you may want to start with a low-carb crust.
“The first thing you’ll want to do is make a low-carb/low-calorie crust out of cassava flour, almond flour, coconut flour, or oat flour,” Devitt says. “This will get you on track for a guilt-free pie.”
When it comes to the filling, make sure to use a pumpkin pie puree that is 100% pure pumpkin. And like with the sweet potato casserole above, try an alternative sweetener such as maple syrup like All the Healthy Things did in this recipe.
THE REST IS GRAVY
Turkey may be the healthiest dish on the table at Thanksgiving. It’s what we pair with the bird and mashed potatoes, one of the classic Thanksgiving sides, that’s problematic — and that starts with gravy.
Gravy tends to be high in fat and carbohydrates. One way to make it healthier is to skip the prepackaged varieties and ditch the white all-purpose flour.
“Start off with the turkey juice as the base, like normal,” Devitt says, “then add arrowroot starch as a gluten-free flour alternative to help thicken the gravy.”
Other alternatives to thicken the sauce include almond flour or xanthan gum, as in this keto-friendly gravy recipe from I Can’t Believe It’s Low Carb.
“Your guests won’t notice a difference,” Devitt assures.