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A Dietitian's Thanksgiving

November 21, 2015

Many people ask me, “What does a dietitian’s Thanksgiving meal look like?” Well, I can tell you, it is one of the most exciting holidays for nutrition. The foods associated with Thanksgiving are a dietitian’s paradise! The entrée is a lean protein, and many of the sides are phytonutrient packed vegetables like squash, broccoli and sweet potatoes. Even the dessert is squash-based and loaded with good nutrition.

Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family and good food. But have you ever considered healthy eating during the holiday? This isn’t about entirely changing your Thanksgiving menu. It’s about looking at your holiday feast from a new angle. The key is balancing the high calorie items, with nutritious lower calorie fare. There is a way to provide good nutrition for your family and enjoy your holiday meal without sacrificing flavor.

The Bird

One great part about Thanksgiving is that the main entrée is a lean protein. However, preparation plays a role in how healthy your bird will be. It comes down to the facts and the calories, with baking the turkey as the preferred method over frying. According to the National Turkey Federation, 3 ounces of fried turkey (light, dark & skin)- about the size of a deck of cards- is 200 calories, 10 g fat, 2.7 g saturated fat. Comparatively, 3 ounces of light & dark with skin baked turkey clocks in at a healthier 161 calories, 6.2 g fat and 1.8 g saturated fat.

Reduce calories further by opting for the turkey breast without skin. Baking, skipping the skin and choosing breast meat saves you additional calories, and over 2 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat per 3 ounce portion.

But who eats just three ounces? You should plan to double those numbers for a more realistic picture of calories and fat. Eating less saturated fat is important because saturated fats are clearly linked to raising LDL cholesterol, which increases heart disease risk.


When it comes to the sides for your meal, you have many options for improving the nutritional quality. You can make small tweaks to your favorite recipes to lighten the calorie load, try brand new recipes or use alternative /substitute recipes. If the recipe is a traditional family favorite, I suggest not changing it. Just remember moderation is key.


Both potatoes and gravy are easily manipulated without the notice of your company. Cream the potatoes with fat free half and half or skim milk instead of cream or whole milk. Eliminate the butter – or use less as most diners add gravy to the potatoes anyway. Try chicken broth as a flavorful substitution to cut calories and fat. Use a hand held beater for a smooth, creamy consistency.


Making gravy with pan drippings creates a high saturated fat dish. Low sodium chicken broth is an easy alternative is to use for your base and season with herbs and spices to your liking. You can also flavor with just a hint of turkey drippings- rather than using the drippings as the entire base. Another option is to use a fat free packet or bottled gravy mixes. Just note that sodium is generally very high on these products.

Vegetable Dishes

Thanksgiving tables are usually honored with many vegetable sides. Use this as a way to increase the nutritional value of your meal, without adding a high amount of calories. Brussels sprouts, spinach salad, sweet potatoes, carrots and squash are all great choices!

Try a mix of colorful vegetables which adds eye-appeal to your table. Prepare the vegetables with no added fats- just steamed. You will be pleasantly surprised that all the side dishes get eaten. Make sure to also include a vegetable salad and a fruit salad.

Plan to add just one new vegetable dish to your usual Thanksgiving spread. If it is a hit, you know you have easily added a healthy option for next year. Maybe try a new vegetable like brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts are nutrient packed with folate, vitamin C, fiber, folate, and magnesium. They also contain glucosinolates, a phytonutrient that is helpful for cancer prevention.

Sweet potato casserole is a family favorite at our house, but I modified it. I significantly reduced calories and fat by cutting the butter and brown sugar to two tablespoons (so now you can taste the sweet potato) and cut the ingredients in the nut topping by 2/3. It is a staple on our Thanksgiving table.

Green bean casserole can be “tweaked” by using lower calorie ingredients. Try low fat creamed soup and low fat shredded cheese. Use less fried onions than called for in the recipe. Guests will not be able to tell the difference. You could also try an alternate recipe. This modified green bean casserole makes as easy substitute.


Another modification that easily reduces calories is in how you prepare the stuffing. Instead of stuffing your turkey, cook the stuffing separate from the bird. Your turkey will cook faster and you will have a lower-calorie side to offer your guests. Use whole wheat bread crumbs in place of white bread to boost fiber and nutrition. This is stove-top version we use. It is quick, easy and tasty.

The recipe includes fresh cranberries that add fiber and a host of disease fighting phytochemicals, which help to prevent cancer and a myriad of other chronic diseases including urinary tract infections. 

Cranberry Sauces

Speaking of cranberries, the sauce is an excellent accompaniment to your turkey for flavor and nutrition. If canned cranberries are not your thing, try this cranberry marmalade and surprise your guests with something new.


What about the bread? You can either skip it, or if you are near a good bakery, choose a variety of whole grain rolls or breads. Whole wheat, pumpernickel and rye all compliment the meal nicely. Corn bread is also considered whole grain. You may have to curtail the amount of fat in your cornbread recipe, or try this cranberry cornbread recipe (cranberries- strike again!).


Now for the crown jewel: the pumpkin pie. How to make it work? Easy—use evaporated skimmed milk in place of evaporated whole milk and skip the crust! That’s right! Just skip the crust all together and pour the filling directly into the pie pan. The pumpkin molds to the pan and you can scoop out “pieces” for your family to enjoy. Add a little low fat whipped topping and you have a healthy, low fat dessert.

Lastly, put your leftovers away. Turkey should not be out longer than 2 hours. Leftovers last in the refrigerator for around 3-4 days.


Watching your Weight? Tips for your Thanksgiving Day:
  1. Don’t skip meals earlier in the day. This will make you so hungry that you will over-fill your stomach during your celebration.
  2. Make the first round vegetables and fruits. Plan to take vegetables and fruits as a side dish if you are not hosting.   First round load up on salad and fruit. That fills you up, slows you down and helps with eating smaller portions of the high calorie items.
  3. Fill ½ your plate with a low calorie vegetable (that does not mean green bean casserole or sweet potato soufflé). Add small tastes of other higher fat sides. Select turkey breast and try to keep it to a deck of card size.
  4. If you enjoy pumpkin pie, take ½ slice or leave off the whipped topping and crust.
  5. Pick pumpkin over pecan pie and pick a fruit pie with one crust over a pie with 2 crusts.
  6. Stick to water or other low calorie beverages. If consuming alcohol, pick a light beer or wine as a spritzer.

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