Every November, families and friends all over the United States lick their chops in anticipation of Thanksgiving, when they’ll gather ’round big tables to gorge themselves on turkey drenched in gravy, butter-saturated mashed potatoes, and corn syrup–filled pecan pie. Gleeful gluttony has become as much a part of Thanksgiving as the food that’s served or the thanks we give; indeed, the holiday’s spirit of camaraderie stems partly from Americans’ unspoken agreement to throw culinary caution to the wind and not breathe a word about the thousands of calories we’re consuming or the arteries we’re clogging—but maybe that’s because we can’t breathe at all after eating so much.
Though a food-induced stupor gives people a great excuse to lie around watching football on TV, not everyone is into sports. For those of us who want to keep our pants buttoned and maybe even take an after-dinner stroll to digest some of our Thanksgiving meal, a cornucopia of flavorful, nutritious alternatives to gut-bomb foods is just a bottle of heart-friendly oil and some creative seasonings away. And eating healthfully on Thanksgiving doesn’t have to mean avoiding the classics; in fact, in their purest form, many of the holiday’s staples are full of nutrients. Let’s explore a list of standouts—and where they go wrong.
Give Thanks: Not only is turkey high in protein, but skinless white turkey meat is lower in fat than any other meat.
No Thanks: Turkey with its skin on is not your friend. The skin’s high fat content, coupled with its usual coating of salt, raises people’s levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and strains their arteries.
Saving Grace: Turkey skin does serve one helpful purpose—a thin membrane that separates it from the meat helps the meat retain moisture while shielding it from fat. In other words, you don’t have to deprive yourself of traditional, oven-roasted Thanksgiving turkey—just make sure to remove the skin before you gobble-gobble. For an especially juicy, aromatic bird, rub the skin with olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking.
Give Thanks: Sweet potatoes provide a one-two antioxidant punch of vitamin C and beta-carotene, as well as a whopping dose of potassium. Leave the skin on, and you’ll add fiber to the mix.
No Thanks: In their Thanksgiving casserole form, sweet potatoes are so slathered with butter and mini-marshmallows that they’re almost undetectable, aside from their telltale orange color.
Sweet Swap: To cut sugar and fat and restore yams to their full glory, brush them with canola oil, which has the lowest saturated-fat content (only 7 percent) of any commonly used oil in the U.S., then bake them with their skins on. Top them off with a small dollop of butter and a sprinkling of cinnamon for a festive touch.
Give Thanks: Although russet potatoes, the type typically used in Thanksgiving mashers, get a bad rap for being starchy, they’re actually high in fiber and effective in fighting heart disease and high blood pressure. They’re also rich in vitamins C and B6 and potassium.
No Thanks: As is the case with their sweeter cousins, russet potatoes’ nutritional value takes a backseat to the full-fat dairy products that most Thanksgiving cooks incorporate as they mash. As a result, these tasty tubers often end up resembling whipped butter.
A More Moderate Mash-up: Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much to make mashed potatoes creamy—a good potato masher works wonders for their texture. To infuse this dish with savory flavor, steep thin slices of raw garlic in water as it boils, then cook your potatoes in it, leaving some of the skin on to retain their dietary fiber. Once you’ve mashed the cooked taters, mix in about one tablespoon of butter per pound of potatoes, plus enough 1 percent milk to thin out the mixture slightly, and season it lightly with salt and pepper.
Give Thanks: Because a turkey can be filled with myriad combinations of vegetables, herbs, and fruits, stuffing is a nutritious concept in theory.
No Thanks: In reality, the store-bought stuffing that most people fall back on is heavy on starch and butter and light on other, more beneficial ingredients. Considering all the mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and piecrust most Thanksgiving meals include, do you really need to eat more white carbs on this holiday?
Stuffed to the Gills with Goodness: Hold on to your Pilgrim hat—you don’t actually need butter to make stuffing. Instead, sauté a blend of onions, celery, and any other vegetables you choose in a tablespoon or two of olive oil and throw in some fresh herbs, such as sage, marjoram, and thyme. Combine the cooked vegetables with cubes of whole grain bread and enough chicken broth to moisten the mixture, then pack it into your turkey or bake it on its own. Other stuff-worthy foods include dried apricots, low-fat turkey sausage, diced apples, shiitake mushrooms, and figs.
Give Thanks: Pumpkin is low in calories and provides a multitude of benefits, including vitamin A, fiber, and healthy fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids).
No Thanks: For most Americans, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without pumpkin pie. But for natural pumpkin purée to metamorphose into a dessert, it has to join forces with an army of bad influences: eggs, shortening, sugar, and heavy cream (and thus trans fats).
Pie-Eyed for a Lighter Pumpkin: Fortunately, pumpkin pie lends itself to all kinds of healthy ingredient substitutions. Possible swaps include low-fat evaporated milk for cream, brown sugar for white, and egg whites for whole eggs. In addition, a crust made from crushed gingersnap cookies and reduced-calorie margarine is a sweet, satisfying replacement for a butter-laden conventional pastry crust.
Think Before You Thank
Thanksgiving has long been synonymous with American familial traditions, but overeating to the point of physical discomfort now seems to overshadow all the other Turkey Day customs. Moreover, the “traditional” dishes that most people count on seeing on their Thanksgiving table actually have nothing to do with the holiday’s origins. When the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags gathered in 1621 for the harvest celebration that started it all, they enjoyed a simple supper of roasted wild fowl and venison—not marshmallows or pumpkin pie. This year, before you find yourself drinking straight from the gravy boat or loosening your belt so you can sit through another helping of potatoes, go against the grain by preparing some lighter fare. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a big holiday meal, but it doesn’t have to be heart-stopping to be hearty.
Updated November 19, 2010