Stuffing, or dressing as it is called in some parts of the South, is many people's favorite Thanksgiving dish. But in the time-crunched frenzy of putting together a holiday feast, preparing made-from-scratch stuffing may feel like one task too many.

Still, you don’t want something that you (and your guests) look forward to eating all year to disappoint. To help ease Thanksgiving stress, Consumer Reports' food-testing team put nine packaged stuffing mixes to the test—and found three that you can feel good about serving.  

What Makes for a Good Stuffing?

First, our experts set the criteria for a successful stuffing.

Texture is what stuffing is all about. It should be uniformly moist and soft, not mushy or soggy, with pieces that hold their shape rather than break down into a pastelike consistency.

A few chewy or crunchy bread pieces are fine, but they shouldn’t dominate and should be spread evenly throughout the dish. Cornbread stuffing can have crumbly pieces and the slightly grainy texture that is common to cornbread.

The herb, bread, salt, and fat flavors in the stuffing should be balanced, with no off-notes or particular flavor overwhelming the others. The herbs should have a clean—not harsh—taste, and the flavors should be well blended.  

The Taste Test

In blind tastings, expert tasters reviewed nine stuffings in two categories—herb/chicken and cornbread—in separate taste groups. Over a period of two days, each stuffing was prepared twice following the manufacturers’ instructions. Some called only for the addition of broth or water and butter, while others included fresh onion and celery, and even carrots.

Of the five herb/chicken stuffings—including gluten-free and whole-wheat varieties—Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Classic Stuffing, Stove Top Cornbread Stuffing Mix, and Pepperidge Farm Cornbread Stuffing, ranked in order, received good taste ratings, with a moist and soft (but not mushy) texture and well-balanced flavors. 

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Nutrition Notes

Stuffing is essentially bread, salt, and butter, so it probably comes as no surprise that it isn’t the healthiest food served on Thanksgiving.

All of the stuffings except one received fair nutrition scores. Stove Top Whole Wheat Stuffing Mix for Chicken scored good for nutrition because it was higher in fiber than the others and the directions called for just 1½ tablespoons of butter per package, vs. 4 tablespoons for the other products.

Unfortunately, this stuffing ranked at the bottom of the herb stuffings in our tests for taste. It received a good rating, but the harsh, dehydrated seasonings overwhelmed the flavor, and the stuffing had a slightly bitter taste with chewy dehydrated vegetable pieces.

Per ½ cup prepared, the stuffings we tested ranged from 132 calories to 177 calories. 

To cut back on the sodium in the stuffings, we used 33 percent less sodium chicken broth, and our tasters did not find a big difference in flavor compared with stuffings made with regular broth. We also used unsalted butter. 

Still, the sodium count ranged from 250 mg to 727 mg per serving.

“If sodium is a concern, consider Stove Top Lower Sodium Stuffing Mix for Chicken and make it with lower sodium broth and unsalted butter,” says Ellen Klosz, who oversaw our stuffing testing. “Its mild base lends itself nicely to ‘doctoring up’ with fresh herbs, chestnuts, apples, carrots, or more onion and celery.” 

Making Stuffing Healthier

In addition to using lower sodium broth and unsalted butter, try using less butter than what’s called for in the instructions or switch to olive oil or a lower-fat vegetable oil-based spread. Adding plenty of chopped vegetables—onions, carrots, and celery—or even fruits like apples or pears will stretch the stuffing and lower the calorie, fat, and sodium content per serving.

And if you must have sausage in your stuffing, use chicken or turkey sausage. They're lower in calories and fat than pork sausage, although the sodium count is still high. You can also halve the amount in the recipe and still have the sausage flavor.

Keep an eye on portions. When you’re spooning stuffing out at the dinner table, serve yourself about an ice-cream-scoop-sized helping; that should be about ½ cup. You want to leave room on your plate—and in your Thanksgiving Day calorie budget—for other favorites. But if you really love stuffing and must have more, skip additional starchy sides, such as mashed potatoes and dinner rolls.

Remember, too, that a safe stuffing is a healthier stuffing. Whether in the oven or on the stove, stuffing is best prepared outside the turkey. The juices from the turkey can be absorbed by the stuffing, and could contain salmonella or other food-poisoning-causing bacteria.

To make sure the stuffing inside a bird is safe, you have to cook it until it reaches a temperature of 165°F. By the time it gets there, the turkey itself will likely be overcooked. If you want the flavor of the turkey juices in your stuffing, spoon it out of the roasting pan once the turkey is ready and mix it into the stuffing before serving.  

3 Creative Ways to Spruce Up Stuffing

Stuffing takes well to all kinds of seasonings, so you can easily create different combinations. Start with one of the three stuffings that came out at the top of our tests as your base, follow the stovetop directions on the package, and then pick from the three options here.

Ingredients to spruce up the best stuffing mixes
Photo: James Worrell

Corn, Black Beans, and Chilies
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
2 Tbsp. chipotle chilies, chopped
¾ cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed

Combine corn and chilies with celery and onions called for in the package recipe. Add stuffing mix, broth, and beans. Heat through and serve.

1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced mushrooms
1½ cup toasted pecans
1 Tbsp. finely chopped chives
1 large egg

Using 1 tablespoon of olive oil (instead of the butter called for in the package recipe), sauté mushrooms with celery and onions. Add stuffing mix and broth. When liquid is absorbed, add pecans, chives, and egg, and toss. Place mixture in a buttered 8x8-inch dish; bake for 30 minutes at 400°F.

Sweet Potato-Orange
1 sweet potato, peeled, diced, and roasted
¼ cup orange juice
2 tsp. crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. orange zest

(For this recipe, use ½ cup broth instead of the 1½ cups called for in the package recipe.) Combine roasted potatoes, sautéed celery, and onions. Heat through. Add stuffing mix, broth, and orange juice. Mix well. Reduce heat and add crystallized ginger and orange zest. Heat through and serve.