Making Thanksgiving Dinner Healthy

Giving thanks doesn’t have to mean giving up your healthy eating habits.

By Stacey Stein

Between sugary cranberry sauce and calorie-rich desserts, Thanksgiving dinner can be a nutritional nightmare. 

Although turkey makes for a healthy main course, many other popular holiday dishes are anything but waistline-friendly.

But before you start packing up your skinny jeans, rest assured, it is possible to make a healthier Thanksgiving dinner. The key is to approach the meal with a different mindset. 

“People worry so much about the turkey and the stuffing, they forget about the vegetables,” says registered dietitian Shannon Crocker. “I think the key is to switch your thinking about Thanksgiving dinner and make the vegetables the star of the table.”

This is exactly what Meg Redmond does. The health-conscious mom’s Thanksgiving dinner is full of interesting veggie dishes – favourites include sweet potato and chickpea curry on rice, maple-roasted brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes made with sour cream and horseradish.

“Thanksgiving is such a time of plenty in terms of what’s available, it seems a shame not to include some really rich, nutritious foods,” says Redmond, who also incorporates traditional staples like stuffing and gravy, but with a twist. 

“I use whole grain sunflower flax bread instead of white bread in my stuffing, and add mushrooms, carrots and red peppers to up the vegetable content,” she says. Redmond also eschews traditional gravy made with fat drippings in flavour of mushroom-based gravy. Swapping fattening ingredients for healthier alternatives, as Redmond does, is the easiest way to make a lighter holiday meal. Crocker even recommends replacing traditional bread-based stuffing with a nutrient-rich quinoa stuffing as a side dish, or making a wild rice-based stuffing.

If you can’t imagine Thanksgiving without bread-based stuffing, Crocker suggests using whole grain bread and nixing the bread baskets at the dinner table. Instead, start off the meal with a leafy green salad, vegetable or lentil soup (such as this curried lentil soup with Havarti cheese.) Keep other appetizers light too: try serving a veggie tray or roasted asparagus with a dip made of blended cottage cheese or sour cream.

A major pitfall to avoid is turning an otherwise wholesome dish into an unhealthy one by adding fattening ingredients.

“There are lots of dishes that start off with a healthy base and then it spirals down from there,” says Crocker, citing coleslaw as an example. Purple cabbage is high in fibre and chock-full of antioxidants, but the mayo-based dressing adds loads of fat. The solution? Ditch the mayo and replace it with sour cream and a squeeze of lemon.

The traditional sweet potato casserole is another example. Sweet potatoes are full of fibre, potassium and vitamins A and C, but adding the marshmallow topping loads the dish with fat and sugar. Keep things healthy by skipping the marshmallows and mixing in some Asian chili paste to add a unique and spicy twist to this Thanksgiving favourite.

No holiday meal is complete without dessert, and this is where things can really go awry. Traditional Thanksgiving desserts such as apple and pumpkin pie are made with a shortening-based crust that’s full of trans fat. Thankfully, there are plenty of healthy alternatives. Crocker suggests making an apple crisp with a light oatmeal crumble instead of pie crust. You can also use pumpkin to make lighter desserts such as pudding, custard or pumpkin soufflé. 

This is yet another example of using substitutes to make a more nutritious Thanksgiving dinner. 

At the same time, the holiday only comes once a year, so if you absolutely must have a sinful dish, it’s okay to indulge a little – just make sure you limit the portion size.

“That’s the key here – it’s all about making your favourites a little bit better and then enjoying them in small amounts,” says Crocker. 

Here are a few other tips to lighten up your Thanksgiving dinner

•When making gravy, use a sodium-free broth and add fresh herbs or a splash of wine for flavour instead of salt. 

•Does your dish call for cheese? Use a strong flavoured cheese like parmesan or an aged cheddar – you can use less, cutting out calories and fat.

•Up the nutrients in your mashed potatoes by using sweet potatoes – bake them first and then mash with some butter and a dash of cinnamon. 

•Try a fresh fruit salad with minted honey for dessert – it’s the perfect light finish to a big meal.

•Add Gay Lea Real Whipped Cream to desserts in place of icing or as a topping to fruit for a lighter dessert option.

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