Thanksgiving is a magical time of the year. You get to take a break from classes and go home, see your high school friends, spend time with your family, and let’s not forget the best part—you get to indulge in the Thanksgiving feast. Right after we finish the meal (our pants a bit tighter than before the feast began), we start counting down the days ‘til next Thanksgiving… and then we proceed to fall into a deep food coma. So is there any way to enjoy this amazing holiday meal without getting a food baby so big that you feel like your jeans are going to rip at the seams?
It is actually possible to be healthy at Thanksgiving—and you’ve got HC to tell you how to do it! Below is a list of Thanksgiving favorites in order of most healthy to least healthy, as well as tips for how to make those less healthy options a bit better for you.
Calories and fat: 30 calories and 0 grams of fat per cup
The lowdown: You already know you’re supposed to eat your greens, and green beans are a great way to go. Not only are they low calorie and nonfat, but they are also full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making them the perfect side dish.
How to make it healthier: The best way to eat green beans is raw or steamed. Squeezing lemon juice on them is a great way to add flavor (without adding any calories!). If the green beans are in a casserole, however, try to steer clear—and same goes for sweet potato casserole. Although green bean casserole may sound deceivingly healthy since it has vegetables in it, it’s actually full of fat and sodium from the canned soup, fried onions, and milk. So stick to fresh green beans!
Calories and fat: 150-180 calories and 1-4 grams of fat per 4 oz (about the size of your palm)
The lowdown: A lean source of protein, turkey is worthy of being the center of the Thanksgiving celebration. According to Livestrong.com, “turkey contains selenium, which is essential for the healthy function of the thyroid and immune system. Selenium also has an essential role to play in your antioxidant defense system, helping to eliminate cancer-friendly free radicals in the body.” Turkey also contains Vitamins B3 and B6.
How to make it healthier: The healthiest way to consume turkey is without the skin, which contains more calories and fat—a turkey wing without skin contains 3 grams of fat, whereas a wing with skin has 14 grams of fat! Also, white meat has fewer calories than dark meat, so go for that first.
Calories and fat: 30-80 calories and 0-6 grams of fat per ¼ cup
The lowdown: Gravy is by no means a health food, but using a reasonable portion (about a ¼ cup) to flavor your turkey and potatoes won’t hurt you.
How to make it healthier: Purchase nonfat gravy if you can or try this recipe for healthy homemade gravy.
Canned Cranberry Sauce
Calories and fat: 110 calories and 22 grams of sugar in a ¼ cup
The lowdown: Cranberry sauce from the can, whether it’s jellied or whole berry, tends to contain tons of added sugar—a quarter cup has about as much sugar as a donut!
How to make it healthier: Fresh cranberries are actually incredibly good for you, so you can make this classic side dish healthier by nixing the can and going fresh. According to World’s Healthiest Foods, cranberries are a great source of fiber, vitamin C, and phytonutrients that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. Try this recipe for sugar-free (yet naturally sweet) homemade cranberry sauce.
Calories and fat: 200-300 calories and 7-14 grams of fat per cup
The lowdown: As with the cranberry sauce, it’s not the potatoes themselves that are unhealthy but rather what’s added to them. In this case, the calories and grams of fat in mashed potatoes depend on how they were prepared—the more milk and butter, the more calories and fat.
How to make it healthier: If Thanksgiving is at your house, prepare the mashed potatoes using skim milk instead of whole milk and go easy on the butter. You can even substitute some of the potatoes for cauliflower, which when blended gets a mashed potato-like consistency! But if you are unable to prepare the mashed potatoes yourself, just go for a small half-cup serving.
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Calories and fat: 200-400 calories per cup
The lowdown: Whether this dish is served as caramelized sweet potatoes or mashed sweet potatoes topped with marshmallow (my personal favorite dish), it consists of adding sugar to an otherwise healthy food.
How to make it healthier: Once again, plain sweet potatoes are very nutritious (you can about their health benefits in this HC article). So if plain sweet potatoes are available or if you’re able to break through the surface of the marshmallow layer on top then go for it, but otherwise just have a tiny portion and save the sugar for dessert!
Calories and fat: 320 calories and 14 grams of fat per slice
The lowdown: Pumpkin pie is the healthiest of all the classic Thanksgiving pie options because not only is it lowest in calories in fat per slice but also pumpkin contains fiber, vitamins, and minerals. That being said, it is still a pie—the filling tends to have a lot sugar and milk or cream, and the crust is what really packs the fat.
How to make it healthier: The easiest way to make pumpkin pie healthier—besides sticking to one slice—is to just eat the filling and skip the crust. If you just can’t pass up the crust (it is what makes the pie complete, after all), then go easy on the ice cream and whipped cream toppings and enjoy the slice by itself. Also, if your family is making the pie, make sure to buy a can that says 100% pure pumpkin for your filling so that you can get the most health benefits of pumpkin!
Calories and fat: 400 calories and 17 grams of fat per cup
The lowdown: Loads of white bread and butter is what makes this one of the more unhealthy side dishes.
How to make it healthier: Using whole grain or whole wheat bread plus minimizing the amount of butter used will lighten this dish up, and adding lots of veggies to it will make it more nutritious. And as always, portion control is the most important part—take a bit to get your Thanksgiving fix, but primarily fill up on turkey and vegetables.
Calories and fat: 400 calories and 19 grams of fat per slice
The lowdown: Same deal as the pumpkin pie, but double the crust—that plus sugary filling equals lots of calories and fat.
How to make it healthier: Going crust-less will definitely cut down your calorie intake. Or, skip the pie and make this delicious fat-free alternative: cut up an apple, spray the slices with a bit of vegetable oil and sprinkle them with some brown sugar, and heat in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. Eat it with a scoop of ice cream and voila—apple pie à la mode!
Calories and fat: 500 calories and 27 grams of fat per slice
The lowdown: While pecans in moderation are healthy, the calories and fat add up fast considering each slice has loads of ‘em covered in sugar and butter.
How to make it healthier: Since this is the least healthy option of all the classic thanksgiving pies, go for pumpkin or apple instead of the pecan. But if pecan is your ultimate fave, try this recipe for healthy pecan pie bites.
At the end of the day, Thanksgiving only comes once a year so you shouldn’t deprive yourself of your favorite dishes. Instead, eat slowly and take everything in moderation; fill up on healthier dishes first and treat less healthy ones as small side dishes or treats. And remember that you don’t have to eat it all in one night—there’s nothing wrong with leftovers!
Check out more tips here in this HC article on staying healthy during the holidays so that you can indulge but still avoid the dreaded food coma.