9 Things Dietitians Do at Thanksgiving to Make the Meal Healthier
Recipe pictured above: Pecan Pie
You've probably heard the statistic time and time again since it was released back in 2006 by the American Council on Exercise: The average American eats between 3,000 and 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving. Since a pound—gained or lost—translates to 3,500 calories, this meal can make a dent in your weight-loss goals (if you've got 'em).
But, fear not. While the dietitians we spoke to have savvy ways to sneakily lighten things up without killing the mood or the flavor, they also want to make one thing very clear: "It's one day. Enjoy the food and the company, then move on," Ashley Reaver, R.D., a registered dietitian at Ashley Reaver Nutrition LLC in Oakland, California. "Your body can handle more calories a few days out of the year," she says.
Related: Try Our Best Thanksgiving Recipes
Rather than erasing creamy casseroles and whipped cream-topped pies from the menu, Reaver and Michelle Hyman, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss, like to take a more moderate approach and make tiny tweaks to tradition. Not only are they designed to cut calories and fat, but many also add nutrition (fiber, vitamins, hydration).
"I like to offer the traditional recipes that everyone expects, but to make ingredient changes to prepare these dishes with less fat, sodium and calories without sacrificing flavor. By doing so, I don't feel guilty serving these foods to family members who have chronic medical conditions, especially since they'll probably be eating the leftovers for a few days after the holiday," Hyman says.
Read on for nine small shifts or substitutes that will give your holiday meal a mini makeover.
1. Don't "bank" calories for the big meal.
Please, don't starve yourself until supper. The average Thanksgiving feast is around 2 p.m., according to Food & Wine, and you're setting yourself up to go overboard if you allow hanger to set in.
"Never go in hungry! Treat it like any other meal. You wouldn't fast all day normally, so why do it on Thanksgiving? Since I treat it like every other meal, I try to honor my hunger like I usually do at meals. Since I know I am going to be enjoying a lot of carbs at dinner, I try to get in some protein, fruit and vegetables at breakfast so my day is balanced, but I don't stress if breakfast is a cinnamon roll, either," Reaver says.
By eating a balanced diet prior, "I don't arrive completely famished and can make more sensible decisions," Hyman says.
2. Sip on ample amounts of H2O.
Many Thanksgiving staple ingredients pack in plenty of sodium (see: condensed soups, canned veggies), so Reaver likes to really focus on amping up her water intake for the day.
"Drink lots of water heading into the meal to help your body balance out the excess sodium you'll take in eating those deliciously flavorful foods. And drink water with your meal, not wine. It's easy to consume a lot more calories if you are satisfying your salt-induced thirst with a calorie-containing beverage. Enjoy the food during your meal, your wine during cocktail hour and your dessert during dessert," she says.
3. Back off on the butter just a bit.
Recipe pictured above: Sautéed Leek Mashed Potatoes
Fat doesn't make you fat. It does, however, have more calories per gram than the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein).
"Generally speaking, you can swap out half of the fat in a dessert recipe for applesauce. I use unsweetened applesauce to keep the sugar content down," Hyman says.
And if you're in charge of the Thanksgiving side dishes and you're using classic family heirloom recipes as a guide, you can most likely cut at least a few tablespoons of the fat called for in the recipe.
Reaver says, "Mashed potatoes and stuffing will still be delicious with the reduced portion of butter."
4. Cut carbs with cauliflower.
From steaks to gnocchi, there's little this vegetable star can't do.
"There are many ways to lighten up traditional side dishes without sacrificing flavor. For example, you can mix equal parts mashed cauliflower with your potatoes for a lower-carbohydrate dish," Hyman says. (Try our new Mashed Cauliflower and Yukon Golds recipe as a guide.)
5. Use fresh or frozen.
Recipe pictured above: Slow-Cooker Green Bean Casserole
Vegetables of any kind get a gold star, but cut back on the canned ones on Thanksgiving if you, well, can.
"If you are cooking, try fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned to cut back on the sodium," Reaver says, or select low-sodium varieties of your canned goods. "Prepare green bean casserole with fresh green beans or swap in frozen corn instead of sweetened, creamed corn for corn casserole.
Reaver tries to have at least one primarily-vegetable dish, and Hyman recommends, "serving at least one salad, one or two cooked non-starchy vegetables and a seasonal starch, such as roasted butternut or acorn squash, in addition to the traditional mashed potatoes and stuffing."
Related: Fresh vs. Frozen Vegetables
6. Survey the scene.
Before you take your seat, take a lap.
"I survey everything available at the buffet table before I put anything on my plate," Reaver says. "This allows me to choose what dishes are really special, even if they are high in calories, rather than piling up my plate high with everything available."
7. Divvy up your plate.
Recipe pictured above: Slow-Cooker Brussels Sprouts with Lemon
Think of your plate like a pie, and allocate "slices" for everything you love.
To help Hyman maintain her 35-pound weight loss, she aims to fill one-fourth of her plate with carbs, one-fourth with protein, and half with non-starchy vegetables at a typical meal.
"On special occasions, including Thanksgiving, my plate is closer to one-third of each. I always make sure to put plenty of vegetables on my plate, plus turkey—of course—so I have room to put small amounts of less nutritious, but very delicious, side dishes. I also know I'm definitely going to have dessert, so I don't want to overeat during the meal and then feel completely bloated, stuffed and uncomfortable after dessert."
8. Pace yourself.
Speaking of that bloated feeling, another way to steer clear of it is by aiming to eat more mindfully.
"I aim to eat until satisfied—rather than stuffed—chew food thoroughly and put the fork down between bites," Hyman says.
Reaver seconds that notion. She says, "I take what looks good—which happens to be a bit of everything on Thanksgiving—and eat until I am full or until I feel like I've satisfied my cravings." And as far as dessert goes? Reaver says, "Savor a small sliver of each holiday pie instead of a large slice of just one. You'll get to try everything and not feel like you missed out, which may make you go back for round two later."
9. Say "goodbye" to guilt.
Recipe pictured above: Cream Cheese Pumpkin Pie with Pecan Streusel
At the end of the day, head to bed with a happy stomach and a stress-free spirit.
"Eat the food and move on," Reaver says. "Don't try to compensate the following day by under-eating or detoxing. Hop back on your regular eating pattern the day after." Use these tips to help make your Thanksgiving a little bit healthier and take guilt off the menu. From how you prepare your dishes to how you take your seat, there are many things you can do to help you navigate the holiday season. (P.S. Here are five ways to make your healthy diet become a way of life.)