Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Healthier Thanksgiving? Yes!

Thanksgiving is here again.  And so are those wonderful foods we save just for this time of year.

I have fond memories of Thanksgiving.  Every year, my Mom and Aunt would gather our families together for a day of laughter, food, beautiful weather, food, UT football and food.

Did I mention the food?  Ambrosia salad, sweet potatoes, cornbread dressing, homemade pies and roasted turkey - yum.

Today, I make some of those same dishes for my own Thanksgiving feast.  I just do it a bit healthier.  Instead of using the traditional heavy ingredients Mom used, I make a few key substitutions.  By doing this (instead of making over the entire recipe), I keep the wonderful tastes I remember – just without some of the unhealthy results.

Check out my tips on how to give your favorite Thanksgiving dishes a health boost without losing the flavor you love.

And one more thing.  Relax.  Go ahead - eat your favorite foods during this one-time-a-year meal.  Don't stress out about indulging a bit.  It is a special holiday, after all.

Have fun, be thankful and enjoy this time with family and friends.

Mashed Potatoes
Traditional: Lots of butter, whole milk and cream

New Way: In place of butter, try fat-free sour cream for rich flavor and texture (low-fat plain yogurt works great, too).  You can also use 2% milk or low-fat buttermilk in place of whole milk or cream (low fat, low sodium chicken broth also lends a nice flavor).  And don’t be shy about spices – garlic, parsley flakes and fresh pepper add dimension.

Sweet Potatoes
Traditional: Hands down, my favorite dish.  However, the amount of butter in the original recipe is ridiculous.

New Way: I cut the butter down to one tablespoon and go heavy with seasonal spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice and cloves.  I also broil a few big marshmallows on top for a toasty taste.  The result? Fluffy and spicy, not heavy and buttery.  And still my favorite (and my kids’).

Green Bean Casserole
Traditional: Condensed soups and fried onion topping make this dish loaded with fat and salt (the onions alone contain more fat than you need for an entire day).

New Way: Switch to low fat/low sodium condensed soups – tastes exactly the same but at half the fat, sodium and calories.  Try 2% milk in place of cream.  And for the topping, ditch the fried onions and try caramelized onions topped with toasted, slivered almonds.  You’ll get that onion flavor with a nice, hearty crunch.

Traditional: Still using those jellied, canned cranberries (you know, the ones that slide out of the can, shaped like the can)?  Get this: one can contains as much sugar as three Cokes (not to mention other unnecessary additives).

New Way: Try fresh cranberries this year.  Combine one 12-oz package of berries (discard any green ones) with ½ cup each of sugar and apple cider, bring to a boil and simmer until berries start to pop (about 10 minutes).  Super easy and tastes refreshingly tart and sweet.  And it’s a great way to control sugar and reap the berry’s antioxidant benefits.

Traditional: Turkey fat, flour and butter, anyone?

New Way: Use the flavorful turkey juices and bits, minus the fat.   Here’s an easy technique: Place a gallon-size, ziptop bag into a small bowl; pour all liquid from the roasting pan into the bag; seal and let sit for a few minutes.  Once the fat rises to the top, snip a corner of the bag and let the juices run into your bowl – remove the bag (and all the fat) and discard.  The result? Just the flavorful juices minus the fat.  Use to season your gravy and dressing.  And instead of thickening the gravy with butter and flour, try a little cornstarch instead.

Traditional: Pies – pumpkin, apple, pecan, chocolate, you name it.

New Way: I don’t substitute desserts on holidays.  Seriously, if you wait around all year to have your favorite pumpkin pie, you don’t want some pie imposter.  Go for the real deal.

But if you truly desire a lower-fat pie, remember most of the unhealthy ingredients (trans and saturated fats) are in the pie crust.  Try crustless mini pies, puddings or mousses; or make cream pies with low-fat milk and sugar-free pudding mixes.  Seasonal apple or pear fruit crisps can be divine – use oatmeal for a healthy topping.  Check out www.eatingwell.com for easy recipes.


  1. So many great cooking tips here, Susan! As an RD, I also use some traditional recipes from my family with healthier twists. I love making a fresh cranberry mixture (not really sauce) by adding fresh cranberries + 1 cut up Clementine orange w/ skin + 1/2 large apple w/ skin + sugar to taste into the food processor. Pulse until well chopped and mixed. Yum. Also, my hat is off to those who politely leave the pumpkin pie crust on their dessert plate! Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Cindy,
    Yum! That cranberry sounds great; I will have to try it out. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - I always love hearing from other RDs out there. Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving, as well! Susan