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Small Tweaks to Make Your Thanksgiving Foods Slightly Healthier

Registered dietitians and chefs chimed in on ways you can make your favorite Thanksgiving dishes healthier.

Thanksgiving is a special time of year for many Americans. It's the holiday where families and friends come together and indulge in a feast. During this day, splurge-worthy meals are welcome, and reaching for an extra serving of dessert is encouraged. However, if you're trying to maintain your weight-loss routine or you have food allergies, the holidays can be a tough time.

Thankfully, there are numerous ways you can make small tweaks to both your main dish and side dishes that will make the overall meal that much healthier. Every little bit helps! We asked a handful of registered dietitians and chefs to share some of their healthy Thanksgiving tips so that you can incorporate them into your holiday get-together this year.

Make mashed potatoes with sweet potatoes.

mashed sweet potatoes

Instead of mashing regular brown potatoes, try mashing sweet potatoes for a more nutrient-dense side dish. Sakiko Minagawa, MS, RDN, points out that regular mashed potatoes can be both high in calories and fat with the inclusion of ingredients such as butter, cream, and cheese.

"Additionally, when you peel off the skin of the potato, you also remove the fiber and other significant vitamins and minerals," she adds. "A simple roasted sweet potato will have less calories, fat, and more fiber than mashed potatoes."

Sweet potatoes are also very high in vitamin A, which promotes eye and skin health and supports your immune system.

Try this Spicy Mashed Sweet Potatoes Recipe.

Skip the butter and use olive oil in your mashed potatoes.

mashed potatoes with olive oil in a white bowl and spoon

If you do go with the traditional mashed potato route as a side dish, consider replacing butter with olive oil.

"Instead of making mashed potatoes loaded with cream and butter, opt for extra virgin olive oil, vegetable broth, garlic, and fresh herbs," says Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, an LA-based performance nutritionist. "They'll still be flavorful and satisfying, but without being overly heavy and laden with unhealthy fats."

Cook with avocado oil and ghee instead of vegetable oil.

Plant based healthy fats like avocado olive oil nuts seeds

Recipe developer and wellness writer Beth Lipton prefers to use oils that lend healthy fats, such as avocado oil and ghee, especially when cooking foods at high temperatures. 

"Vegetable oils are harmful in the long term—and since they cause inflammation, they can leave you feeling sluggish and headachy even after one meal if you're sensitive to them," she says. "For high-heat cooking, grab avocado oil or ghee."

She mentions that extra virgin olive oil is better utilized in dressings, sauces, and anything that you're cooking at a lower heat.

Swap out mayo for Greek yogurt for deviled eggs.

deviled eggs made with greek yogurt

Minagawa has a great tip for making deviled eggs more nutritious, and that's by eliminating mayo from the traditional recipe and instead using Greek yogurt. One-quarter cup of mayo contains roughly 360 calories, 6 grams of saturated fat, and less than 1 gram of protein.

"On the other hand, 1/4 cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt has approximately 30 calories, 0 grams saturated fat, and 6 grams of protein," she says. "Additionally, Greek yogurt is higher in protein, [which] plays an important role in body function and repair."

Of course, protein also boosts satiety, which may help you with portion control throughout the Thanksgiving feast.

Jazz up your dishes with more herbs rather than salt.

herbs and spices on wooden spoons and wooden surface

Salt, without a doubt, adds flavor to any dish, but too much of it can leave you feeling dehydrated and bloated. There are plenty of other ways you can spruce up the main meal or side dish, and that can be achieved by simply experimenting with herbs and spices.

"Fresh herbs and dried spices are like a gift from nature—they make your food taste amazing, and they're loaded with health benefits," says Lipton. "If a recipe calls for herbs or spices already, add a touch more."

You can garnish just about any dish, whether it be the turkey or roasted vegetables, with chopped fresh herbs such as cilantro and dill. Lipton likes to toss whole parsley leaves in her salads and basil and thyme atop of her fruit-based desserts.

Make your roux for gravy with corn starch.

roux gravy made with cornstarch poured on to turkey

Sebastien Rondier, the executive chef of Brabo Brasserie and Brabo Tasting Room, offers a great solution to making gravy gluten-free for those who may have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Roux, which is a mixture of butter and flour, is used as a thickening agent in various soups and sauces, including gravy. But instead of flour, there's another ingredient you can use to produce the same thick texture.

"Thickening with corn starch gives a very similar texture to a roux," he says. "The corn starch will take on the same flavors."

Try this Roux Recipe.

Eliminate the pie crust.

pumpkin pie slices on pink backdrop

"You can't make some pies without the crust, like apple or cherry, but pumpkin holds up perfectly well without it," says Sass. "Many people eat around the crust anyway, and it's a simple way to shave off some surplus calories and carbs."

However, if you do want to make an apple or cherry pie, Sydney Greene, MS, RD, has a healthier crust alternative for you.

"Swap the butter and white flour in generic pie crusts for coconut oil and whole wheat flour. Your dairy-free loved ones will thank you," she says.

The easy way to make healthier comfort foods.

Make pumpkin pudding instead of pie.

pumpkin pudding with whipped cream on top

In a similar vein, Rondier has another way you can incorporate pumpkin into a healthier dessert option.

"Instead of a pumpkin pie, make pumpkin pudding with an option to add whipped cream. Pumpkin pudding is made with pumpkin puree, spices, and pudding mix," he says.

Pour the pudding into a cup, and finish with whipped cream (if your guests prefer) and cinnamon.

Make homemade cranberry sauce.

homemade cranberry sauce with cranberries outside the bowl

Sass says to forgo canned cranberry sauce, which often contains additional sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, and instead make your own.

"Boil fresh cranberries in 100 percent orange juice seasoned with a touch of pure maple syrup, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and orange zest," she says. "It's literally bursting with antioxidants as well as flavor and can be used as a topping for both sweet and savory dishes and leftovers."

Try this Cranberry and Orange Relish Recipe.

You can make a compote.

berry compote with spoon on top of bowl

Nicolette M. Pace, MS, RDN, CDE, and chef says if you're looking for another healthier alternative to cranberry sauce, try making your own fruit compote to go with your Thanksgiving turkey.

"Make compote with your favorite fruit, which can be apple, cranberries, prunes or apricots—maybe throw in some nuts, too," she says. "When you pair fruit with your main course, you have incorporated the sweetness that people can crave, so you won't desire it after and may go lighter on dessert too."

Swap out pie for cobbler.

peach cherry cobbler in a pie dish

"Make one of your pies a cobbler instead, topped with a crumble made from a combination of rolled oats, almond butter, maple syrup, and cinnamon," says Sass. "You'll cut calories and carbs and up your intake of fiber, antioxidants, and good fat."

Try this Blueberry-Peach Cobbler Recipe.

Make your own stuffing.

homemade stuffing with rosemary on top

"First of all, don't bring chemicals into your dinner with items that have already been prepared for you in a box or [are] frozen," says Pace. "These may be easier and convenient, but they're not healthy and can be loaded with chemicals and sugar that you don't even know you're eating."

Instead, she suggests making your own stuffing made with artisan bread and fresh herbs instead of white bread and dried herbs. Chef Rondier suggests making your own stuffing from a more airy and crusty bread such as sourdough or a walnut loaf. 

Try this Apple-Sausage Stuffing Recipe.

Make your own candied yams.

candied yams in a slow cooker pot

"Conventional candied yams are full of refined sugar with little protein or fiber," says Greene. "Choose fresh yams over canned, opt for maple syrup or coconut sugar instead of refined cane sugar, and swap the marshmallows for plain Greek yogurt."

Turn green bean casserole into green bean almondine.

green bean almondine on white plate

While Ashley Kennedy, MS, RDN identifies that it's alright to splurge every so often, she does offer a healthier alternative to green bean casserole.

"Green bean almondine is a healthier alternative because you ditch the cream-based soup used in green bean casserole, which is high in calories and saturated fat."

In contrast, green bean almondine typically comprises less than 2 tablespoons of butter in the whole dish. In addition, Kennedy notes that you consume slices of nutrient-dense almonds—which are loaded in healthy fats and fiber—instead of canned fried onions which typically top green bean casseroles.

Try this Healthy Green Bean Casserole Recipe.

Add some greens to the table.

fresh arugula salad with feta, onion, and pomegranate

One of the simplest ways to make any meal more nutritious is to include a salad made of leafy greens such as kale and spinach and topped with various other vegetables and maybe even fruit.

"Adding a salad to the menu is a fabulous way to add color, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals to the menu," says Kennedy.

Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemical compounds in plants that are believed to provide certain health benefits, such as stimulating the immune system and reducing oxidative damage in cells.

Lipton also concurs that a salad makes for a great side dish, but she does point out that not all salads are healthy, especially ones that are served at holiday get-togethers.

"The temptation is to embellish every dish to make it special for the holiday, so you end up with salads loaded with sugary dried cranberries and candied nuts," she says. "Balance your plate better and boost nutrition by making a simple salad with just some greens, maybe a little celery or fennel to cleanse the palate, and a lemon vinaigrette, with just lemon juice, olive oil, a tiny bit of honey, and some salt and pepper."

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne