A woman passing a green bean vegetable side dish at the dinner table.

Keeping your meat-free friends and family happy with vegetable sides at Thanksgiving dinner can be nerve-wracking. After all, the holiday is centered around turkey. But it doesn’t have to be.

"Frankly, while the turkey may be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, when you look at most people's plates, the meat often takes up less room than all the sides," says Consumer Reports Nutritionist Amy Keating, R.D.

Serving vegetables for Thanksgiving dinner can be a great opportunity to experiment with vegetarian and vegan recipes. Plus you can offer a taste of the season with fewer calories and less prep time than meat dishes.

1. Vegetables Are Good for Your Heart and Your Waistline

It may be tempting to overindulge in bacon-wrapped appetizers this holiday, but your heart will be happier if you swap them out for crudité or roasted nuts.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., beating out cancer, stroke, and diabetes. But plant-based diets can reduce cardiovascular disease risks by lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol, among other things. Incorporating fall staples such as nuts and seeds—almonds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts, for example—and cooking with canola or olive oil instead of butter will give your heart a boost by raising "good" HDL cholesterol.

And there’s another perk: A plant-centric diet can help you lose weight.  

Go to Consumer Reports' 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.

2. Vegetables Are Better for the Environment

Producing any kind of food on an industrial scale is environmentally taxing, but the meat industry is especially resource-heavy, requiring more land, energy, and water than growing vegetables.

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Livestock alone account for 12 percent of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, a major driver of climate change. University of Manchester researchers once calculated that in a meal with a turkey, vegetables, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other sides, the turkey alone is responsible for 60 percent of the meal’s carbon footprint.

And while beef uses up more resources than any other meat by far, “turkey is about two to 10 times more energy- and resource-intensive than an alternative plant,” says Gidon Eshel, Ph.D., a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

Instead of focusing on savory side dishes that incorporate bacon, beef, or turkey this year, replace them with savory vegetables like roasted or sautéed carrots, brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes. Plants like those have such a small environmental impact, Eshel says, “you can basically eat them to your heart’s content” without a side of guilt.

Not sure what to make? Below are three recipes to get your creative juices flowing. The first one can serve as the Thanksgiving dinner main course for vegan or vegetarian guests.

3. Veggies Are Gut-Friendly

If you’re loading up on sausage stuffing and buttered rolls at Thanksgiving dinner, you might feel well-fed, but the trillions of beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms living in your gut could still be hungry. High-fiber cruciferous fall vegetables, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, are especially gut-friendly.

healthy gut is full of microbes that help digest your food and strengthen your immune system. When you eat poorly—meals high in saturated fat and sugars instead of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, for example—you can negatively affect the composition of your gut flora, studies have shown.

That has been linked to an increased risk of allergies, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Acorn Squash Stuffed With Quinoa, Pecans, and Cranberries

2 acorn squash (about 1 pound each)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 cup cooked quinoa (cooked in vegetable broth)
½ cup toasted pecans, chopped
¼ cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons fresh sage leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon each salt and black pepper

Heat oven to 400° F. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds; brush flesh with olive oil and place cut side down on baking sheet. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until fork-tender.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet over medium heat and sauté garlic and onions until soft. Stir in remaining ingredients and heat through.

To serve, fill the acorn squash halves with the quinoa mixture.

Makes 4 servings. 

Green Beans With Almonds and Smoked Paprika

12 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut in half on the diagonal
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced, about  cup
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
¼ cup sliced almonds
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon salt

In a large pot of boiling water, blanch green beans until just tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Cool under cold water. Drain well.

Heat oil over medium heat in large nonstick skillet; add shallots and cook, stirring until golden, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and stir constantly until the shallots are golden all over, about 1 minute. Add the almonds, stir, and add beans, paprika, and salt. Cook, stirring until heated through, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Makes 4 servings. 

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips With Shallot-Herb Butter

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 small shallot, minced
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon thyme leaves

Heat oven to 450° F. Toss carrots and parsnips in large bowl with oil, salt, and pepper. Spray 10x15-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Place vegetables in pan and roast until browned, 40 to 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the butter, shallot, chives, and thyme in a small bowl.

When vegetables are done, toss them with the butter and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings. 

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