6 Ways to Eat Healthier at Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s easy to boost the nutrition and healthfulness of this traditional meal

thanksgiving dinner Photo: iStock

With the majority of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s likely that many people will return to their pre-pandemic traditions of gathering in large groups of friends and family for Thanksgiving dinner. You don’t want to dampen the celebration by focusing too much on calories or avoiding certain foods. (It’s just one day!) Still, it doesn’t hurt to sneak a little nutrition into the meal. Some tweaks to your menu, recipes, or traditions can give you a health boost without affecting flavor. Here are some strategies to try.

Eat Breakfast

And have lunch, too, if your holiday meal will be served later in the day. You want to arrive at the Thanksgiving table hungry but not ravenous, which may lead to overeating.

For Appetizers, Think Fresh

Boiled shrimp with lemon or cocktail sauce is a healthier pick than fried hors d’oeuvres. Try having a pot of a roasted vegetable soup, such as carrot or butternut squash, on offer for guests to enjoy. Other healthful starters include stuffed mushrooms, raw veggies with hummus, and seasonal fruit.

Make a Spritzer

In addition to providing calories (125 in a 5-ounce glass of wine), there’s some evidence that drinking alcohol stimulates appetite. Plus too much alcohol can lower inhibitions, so you may be more likely to overeat when you’re drinking.

More on Healthy Holidays

Mix half red or white wine and half seltzer in a wine glass, add a slice of lime, and you have a festive drink with half the calories and alcohol content.

Another option is to have a glass of sparkling water in between each drink. It will serve as a palate cleanser that will help slow your intake.

Consider glass size, too. A study from the U.K. found that today’s larger wine glass size may be a factor in that country’s increased wine consumption. A "drink" is 5 ounces of wine, but that amount looks different in different-sized glasses, and many people pour far more.

Lighten Your Recipes

Thanksgiving is a great time to serve family recipes like Grandma’s pumpkin pie or your dad’s dinner rolls. Our advice: Don’t mess with your favorite holiday dishes. But do try swapping or adding ingredients to less sacred one.

• Skip the cream. Use Greek yogurt or whole milk instead in mashed potatoes, creamy soups, and creamed onion or spinach recipes.

• Reduce the sugar. Cut it back by 10 to 25 percent in baking recipes. You’ll barely taste the difference.

• Add some fiber. Replace 25 to 50 percent of the all-purpose flour called for in recipes with whole-wheat flour. Or try half all-purpose, half white whole-wheat flour, a lighter, milder version of the whole grain. If your recipe calls for breadcrumbs or panko, opt for whole wheat.

• Upgrade the stuffing. Replace half the white bread with whole wheat, use low-sodium chicken broth, and add extra vegetables, such as carrots, mushrooms, and peppers.

• Be sodium savvy. Using the flavors of the season—thyme, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves—will cut the need for salt. Choose low-sodium broths and homemade dressings (which tend to be lower in sodium than many bottled ones).

• Boost nutrition. Adding small but mighty nutrition powerhouses can make food healthier and more flavorful. Try pomegranate seeds, dried cranberries, or chopped dried apricots in salads, and roasted pumpkin seeds or chopped nuts in stuffings.


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Concentrate on Your Meal

Mindfulness can be the key to maximizing your mealtime pleasure, so pay attention to the flavor and texture of each bite. It will make you appreciate each dish more, but that’s not all. Research shows that eating while distracted can lead you to consume more calories.

Take a Walk Between Dinner and Dessert

For some families, this is an annual tradition. But it’s more than just a way of bonding with relatives and staying active. “We know that your satiety can lag somewhat,” says Amy Keating RD, a Consumer Reports dietitian. “If you go straight from the meal to dessert, your brain may not have time to register how full you actually are.” And you’ll probably enjoy dessert more if you aren’t completely stuffed.