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Published on November 25, 2014

Give Traditional Thanksgiving Meal a Makeover With Healthy Changes

The traditional foods we often eat for Thanksgiving are actually very healthy, according to dietitians at University of Missouri Health Care. But how we prepare those foods makes all the difference.

“Turkey, cranberries, green beans, sweet potatoes and pumpkin are all healthy foods,” said Kayla Otteson, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at MU Health Care. “But we mask these healthy foods with fat, sugar and salt. All it takes is making some healthier substitutions.”

Here are some quick and easy changes you can make to keep your holiday meal healthy.

  • Use reduced sodium chicken broth instead of regular chicken broth.
  • Use fresh cranberries instead of canned jellied cranberries.
  • Use canned, evaporated, skim (fat-free) milk instead of heavy cream.
  • Use spices and herbs like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and orange or lemon zest to replace sugar and salt.
  • Roasted sweet potatoes can substitute for candied yams with marshmallows and butter or mashed potatoes and gravy.
  • Choose whole-wheat bread for stuffing and rolls instead of white bread.
  • Pick pumpkin pie over pecan pie to save about 200 calories. If you have a crust-free pumpkin pie you save even more calories.
  • For appetizers, set out a vegetable tray instead of chips and dip or sausage and cheese.
  • Drink water or zero-calorie beverages instead of soda.

Kayla Oetting, RNH

Kayla Otteson, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at MU Health Care, offers recommendations for healthier substitutions and food preparation tips for your Thanksgiving meal planning.

As for the turkey, the main dish, Otteson says how it’s cooked whether in the oven — a roaster or fried — doesn’t make a huge nutritional difference. The skin is where you will find most of the fat.

“Turkey in general is a really lean source of protein,” said Otteson. “But the skin is all fat. If you avoid the skin, by peeling it off after the turkey is prepared you will be cutting back on a lot of fat.”

White meat is leaner than dark meat, so choosing the turkey leg means more fat and calories.

Plate size and portions are another way to control your holiday eating. You may not always have control of the plate size, and many families use the biggest plate they can find. In this case, try to fill it up with fruits and vegetables. Leafy greens take up a lot of space, leaving you little room for the foods with more fat and calories.

Serving sizes should be as follows: three ounces of turkey, which is about a quarter of the plate stacked only about an inch high; another quarter of your plate for the starch or grains, like the whole wheat bread and stuffing; and half of the plate for your fruits and vegetables.

“If you are filling up on fruits and vegetables, you might be less likely to go back for seconds,” said Otteson. “Drinking a zero-calorie drink with your meal can help you feel full, and also make you less likely to feel the need for a second plate.”

Otteson offers a few other healthy food preparation tricks:

  • Make healthier gravy by chilling your turkey drippings and skimming the fat off. Combine those drippings with reduced sodium chicken broth and dry white wine.
  • Roast cubed sweet potatoes with olive oil, cinnamon and a small amount of maple syrup.
  • Make cranberry relish with whole fresh cranberries, orange zest and sugar substitute (sweetener).
  • Make pumpkin pie without the crust.