Lisa Cooper Orlando Health
Lisa Cooper, RD

Licensed Dietician
Orlando Health

Thanksgiving Day is all about gratitude — and the traditional food on your table. But that doesn’t mean that the holiday menu has to be a nutritional nightmare. There are ways to keep calories in check without missing out on the flavors you love.

The classic Thanksgiving meal is actually packed with nutrition. The turkey is a lean protein, and many of the side dishes are phytonutrient-packed vegetables like Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. Even the ultimate Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie, is a squash — loaded with good nutrition.

Here are a few ways to rein in fat and calories while still enjoying a flavorful holiday meal.

1. Skip the Deep Fryer and Roast Your Bird Instead
While turkey is a lean protein, how you prepare it can make a difference in how healthy it is. Instead of dipping your bird in hot oil for a deep-fried calorie bomb, roast the turkey in the oven instead. Skip treating yourself to the crispy skin and choose breast meat to save 75 calories per 3-ounce portion.

2. Get Clever with Carbs
When it comes to dressing, potatoes, and gravy, there are options for improving the nutritional quality of these favorite dishes.

Use whole-wheat breadcrumbs in place of white bread to boost fiber and nutrition.

Cream the potatoes with fat-free half and half or skim milk instead of cream or whole milk. To cut calories and fat, try chicken broth as a flavorful substitution.

Making gravy with pan drippings creates a high saturated fat dish. Instead, use low-sodium chicken broth as a gravy base and season it with herbs and spices to your liking.

3. Amp Up Your Sides
A mix of colorful vegetables adds both visual appeal and nutritional value to your table. Spinach salad, sweet potatoes, carrots and squash are all great choices. Try them steamed or prepared with olive oil.

Add one new healthy side dish to your usual Thanksgiving spread. Try Brussels sprouts, which are packed with folate, vitamin C, fiber and magnesium. They also contain glucosinolates, a phytonutrient that helps prevent cancer.

Put a twist on a traditional dish, green bean casserole, by using low-fat creamed soup, a smaller portion of shredded cheese and fewer fried onions than the recipe calls for. Guests will never know the difference.

Cranberry sauce is an excellent accompaniment to your turkey for flavor and nutrition. If canned cranberries are not your thing, try a simple homemade cranberry marmalade and surprise your guests with something new.

4. Make Dessert Delightful
Can’t resist a slice of pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner? You don’t have to. Use skim evaporated milk in place of whole evaporated milk and skip the crust by pouring the filling directly into the pie pan. The mixture molds to the pan and you can scoop out “pieces” for your family to enjoy.

Watching your weight? Try These Tips

  • Don’t skip meals earlier in the day. This will make it less likely that you’ll overeat later.
  • Choose salad, vegetables and fruit as your first helping. Foods high in dietary fiber fill you up, slow down the pace of eating and help you eat smaller portions of high-calorie items.
  • Take vegetables and fruit as a side dish. If you’re a guest at Thanksgiving dinner, you know your side dish will be a healthy option.
  • Fill half of your plate with a low-calorie vegetable. Add small tastes of higher fat sides. Select turkey breast and keep the portion to the size of a deck of cards.
  • Pick pumpkin over pecan pie and choose a fruit pie with one crust over a pie with both an upper and lower crust.
  • Stick to water or other low-calorie beverages. If consuming alcohol, pick a light beer or dilute a half-glass of wine with some sparkling water to make a spritzer.

You don’t have to entirely change your Thanksgiving menu to eat healthy during the holiday.

The key is to make a few ingredient substitutions and balance high-calorie items with nutritious lower-calorie fare. This will help keep your nutrition on track while still enjoying a relaxing day with family — and that’s plenty to be thankful for.