Thanksgiving tends to be associated with overindulgence followed by extreme guilt. But with some planning and a little shift in our mindset, Thanksgiving doesn’t have to leave us feeling bad, physically or emotionally. In fact, when you think about it, many of the traditional dishes on the Thanksgiving table have nutritional benefit.
“We look forward to Thanksgiving all year because everybody showcases their best dishes, and so you want to try everything,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, and owner of Active Eating Advice. “There’s nothing wrong with that. These foods are delicious and someone spent a lot of time and love making them.” There are subtle ways to plan for this day that are completely doable. “Take your time to chew your food and really enjoy it and chances are you won’t overdo it,” Bonci says. Also, add an extra workout or two that week to balance out any indulgences on your favorite side dishes.
Plus, try to shift your focus away from the food and instead tap into the joy of reconnecting with family and friends. “It’s only one meal. So you overeat? Big deal. You shouldn’t feel guilty,” says Keri Gans, RDN, author of “The Small Change Diet.”
These five traditional Thanksgiving dishes have considerable nutritional benefits and can be lightened up — or enjoyed in moderation:
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Healthy Highlights: High in protein; low in fat; good source of choline, iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins
Skinless turkey breast provides about 26 grams of protein for 125 calories and 2 grams of fat per 3 ounces. The same portion of skinless thigh meat gives you about 24 grams of protein for 140 calories and 5 grams of fat — it’s still very lean. Dark meat is not only more flavorful, it also has more iron, which supports metabolism and plays a role in many other bodily functions. “Eat whichever you prefer; I’d rather you enjoy your meal,” Gans says.
Healthy Highlights: High in potassium, fiber and vitamin C
The soluble fiber in potatoes helps control blood glucose levels and cholesterol. Compared with a medium banana, a cup of homemade mashed potatoes has more than double the amount of potassium (about 1,000 milligrams), a mineral and electrolyte that helps our nerves and heart function properly and our muscles contract. Bonci recommends blending your potatoes with Greek yogurt to add creaminess and a boost of protein, while Gans makes hers with butter and nonfat milk. “If you’re going to make them the traditional way, go for it — and watch your portion size,” she says.
Healthy Highlights: Fiber, beta carotene, vitamin A
A medium sweet potato has about 4 grams of fiber and is high in beta carotene, a carotenoid that’s important for eye health and immune function. Be mindful of the sugar in sweet potato casserole. As a lower-sugar alternative, Bonci suggests seasoning with grated orange rind, cinnamon and ginger to enhance the spuds’ natural sweetness.
Healthy Highlights: Low in calories; good source of vitamin C, manganese, fiber and quercetin
A cup of cranberries has less than 50 calories, about 3.5 grams of fiber and only 4 grams of natural sugars. A slice of canned, jellied cranberry sauce has about 90 calories, less than 1 gram of fiber and more sugar than three Oreos. Try making your own cranberry sauce, blending the cooked berries with fresh orange juice, zest and a little sugar. “The tartness complements the meal,” Bonci says. Plus, cranberries contain quercetin, a flavonoid that may decrease the risk of breast and colon cancers.
Healthy Highlights: Vitamin A, beta carotene
Despite being the other star of the show, pumpkin pie will never be a superfood. However, pumpkin itself is low in calories and high in fiber. Pumpkin pie is still high in vitamin A, providing between 73–94% of your daily recommended amount (in the form of beta-carotene). Just watch the whipped cream. “Or do whatever you want and forget about it the next day,” says Gans, who recommends sending leftovers home with your guests to keep temptation at bay.