Seven Ways to Make Thanksgiving Healthier

Thanksgiving dinner can still be a delicious splurge without packing on pounds

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

It's here – that one day of the year when the whole point is to eat all manner of tasty comfort food with abandon. Heaping helpings of sweet potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin and apple pies…

The question, of course, is whether it's even remotely possible to have a healthy Thanksgiving that's also enjoyable and delicious. Or, at least a not-horribly-unhealthy one. And the answer is yes.

Remember that Thanksgiving is a holiday to be enjoyed, not feared, so just be prepared with some ways to make it a teensy bit healthier. Follow a couple simple tips to help reduce your calories on Turkey Day without reducing the fun.

1) Add a new family tradition to your day

First order of business: add something. And that something should be active. Before the big football game on TV, how about starting a traditional family football game in the backyard? Or, before all the cooking gets started, take a brisk family walk around the neighborhood.

It's fine not to do a full workout on the holiday, but adding an hour of physical activity can be a fun opportunity for family bonding that burns off some calories before you splurge.

2) Don't skip breakfast

It's a common myth that skipping breakfast lets you save room for the big dinner, but there are two problems with this strategy. First of all, breakfast is what stimulates your metabolism. Getting food into your system first thing at the start of the day ramps up your body so that you're burning calories more effectively throughout the day.

Second, skipping breakfast gives you the illusion of being able to pig out later. But it's unlikely that the calories you're missing out on at breakfast will equal as much as the extra food you eat… because you skipped breakfast. When you skip breakfast and end up nearly starving at the dinner table, you're much more likely to overeat than if you had your morning meal and are just appropriately hungry for the big one.

3) Tweak your recipes

It's a lot easier to justify eating favorite foods on Thanksgiving if they are tweaked to be just a bit healthier. Often, small substitutions can drop the calorie and fat gram count without you or your guests even noticing. Consider these opportunities to use healthier ingredients instead of similar fattier or higher calorie ones:

  • Substitute egg whites for whole eggs
  • Use whole wheat pie crusts and low-fat or skim milk instead of evaporated milk or cream in your pies and desserts
  • Use almonds instead of fried onions in casseroles
  • Skip the sour cream in dips and use Greek yogurt (or at least a low-fat sour cream) instead.
  • Cook stuffing in its own pan instead of inside the turkey so it's not filled with all that seeping turkey fat
  • Reduce the amount of oil and butter used in each dish
  • Better yet, replace oil and butter with fat-free chicken broth in the gravy and vegetables
  • Try baking Splenda or another sugar substitute in pies and desserts
  • Vanilla frozen yogurt can be just as tasty on a pumpkin or apple pie as vanilla ice cream

4) Drink water throughout the day

Instead of reaching for another bowl of chips and dip, reach for a glass of cold water. It will probably be just as satisfying, and it will keep your body burning calories while making you feel a little fuller. It doesn't mean you won't still have a few extra chips, but water is a great substitute for slowing down the munch-fest.

5) Fill up on healthy veggies first

If you're already feeling a little full when you get around to your favorite foods, then it's a double bonus: you eat less of them but end the meal with your favorite tastes lingering in your mouth. So, just as you're downing a glass or two of water before even sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner, likewise fill your plate with green beans and sweet potatoes before piling on the stuffing and cranberry sauce.

If your plate can be more than half full of veggies, then you're already on your way to a healthier meal. But also remember that not all veggies are created equal. Gravy-topped mashed potatoes are just a starch topped with fat while carrots and broccoli have a bit more nutrients to offer.

6) Divide and Conquer

It's completely okay to enjoy your favorite foods on Thanksgiving. If you actually live for those marshmallow-topped, candied sweet potatoes that you only have once or twice a year, then by all means, scoop them up.

But what about the other stuff we pile on our plates simply because it's there? Mentally divide your food into favorites, semi-favorites and the others. Enjoy a healthy helping of the favorites and a half-serving of the semi-favorites while skipping the others altogether.

7) Practice portion control throughout the day

On a day like Thanksgiving, the problem is less about what we eat than it is about how much we eat. Use smaller serving spoons and plan to skip seconds (it's easier to save room for dessert that way too). One of the best parts of Thanksgiving is the leftovers, so remember you can enjoy a second helping of stuffing or cranberry sauce tomorrow, or even later on Thanksgiving evening.

Portion control begins before you even sit down for the big dinner. While watching the game or chatting with family and friends, don't sit next to the big bowl of chips and onion dip. Instead, get your own smaller bowl and fill that with a small serving just for you – and don't go back for seconds.

Another way to practice portion control is to eat less of the unhealthy part of the portion. If your sweet potatoes are the ones topped with marshmallows, dig your spoon underneath the topping to get more of the sweet potatoes and less of the sweet sticky top.

If your green bean casserole has fried onions, eat more of the beans and fewer of the onions. Whether you eat the light or the dark meat of the turkey, skip the skin, by far the fattiest part of the bird. When drizzling gravy onto your turkey or mashed potatoes, use a smaller serving spoon or pour on half as much as you normally would.

Finally, remember that you should still enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner. If you try to deprive yourself, you may end up splurging more later. Be smart and sensible about how you cook and eat your food, and you're bound to cut down your calorie count from last year.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 16, 2012