Tips for a Healthier Thanksgiving

Easy ways to cut calories and avoid overeating

Thanksgiving is known for quality time around the table with friends and family — and for its large portions of indulgent dishes.

It’s ridiculously easy to overeat when faced with so many delicious foods — the average Thanksgiving meal contains a whopping 3,000 to 4,500 calories — and there's more to it than that inviting menu.

“The holidays are time of joy as well as stress, so emotional overeating is a common problem,” says Elizabeth Simkus, NP, medical director of the RUSH Prevention Center and co-director of the Center for Metabolic Diseases. “Overindulging during the long holiday season can wreak havoc on your health and derail your health goals.”

So as we head into the season of eating, here are some tips to lighten up some of your favorite dishes and resist the urge to overindulge.

‘Trim what you can’

When cooking your holiday meal, Simkus suggests thinking of ways to cut back on fat, salt and sugar.

“Many favorite Thanksgiving side dishes combine a lot of carbohydrates with a heavy amount of fat and salt, so trim what you can,” she says.

To reduce sodium:

  • Use reduced sodium, or unsalted chicken broth or stock when making mashed potatoes or stuffing.
  • Add flavor with herbs and spices like rosemary, thyme and garlic instead of salt.
  • Canned vegetables tend to be high in sodium, so read the labels and choose low sodium varieties. Or opt for fresh or frozen veggies instead.
  • Avoid packaged and processed foods, which are higher in sodium. “It’s better to make food from scratch, so you can control what goes into the recipe,” Simkus says.

To cut sugar:

  • Start by reducing the sugar by one quarter. If you're satisfied with the taste and texture, try cutting the sugar in half. This can save you approximately 200 to 400 calories (for ¼ cup and ½ cup of sugar, respectively) per recipe.
  • Tip: If you replace oil with yogurt, applesauce or prune puree in your recipe, you'll be adding some natural sweetness, which can help offset the missing sugar.

To trim fat:

  • When baking, try using applesauce, plain low-fat yogurt or prune puree in any recipe that calls for oil. Applesauce and yogurt work really well as an oil substitute in baked goods like cakes, brownies and cupcakes. When swapping out oil for applesauce, use half of the amount of oil indicated in the recipe
  • When preparing your turkey, skip the deep fryer. Instead, roast your turkey, and coat the skin with olive oil instead of butter to avoid extra saturated fats. You'll also save calories and fat by eating white meat instead of dark.
  • When making mashed potatoes, use skim milk instead of whole milk, and add low-fat sour cream or low-fat cream cheese to provide extra flavor instead of butter. As with the turkey, don't overindulge: Stick with a small scoop of potatoes, and don't have seconds.

Other helpful tips

Simkus provides other ways to keep your Thanksgiving meal healthy — whether you’re hosting or going someone’s house:

  • Don’t “save calories” before the big meal. You don’t want to go to Thanksgiving dinner overly hungry because then it is harder to monitor portion sizes and choices.
  • Decide ahead of time what treat you’ll have and which you’ll let pass by. Which do you want more, the slice of pie or the glass of wine, dinner roll or cake?
  • Fill half of your plate with veggies. “Start by filling half your plate with vegetables before adding the other items,” Simkus says. “Then eat your veggies first.” This will help keep you full, so you are not as likely to overindulge.
  • Have to-go boxes to hand out, and freeze what is left behind, if you’re hosting. You can meal plan with those leftovers, too.
  • Be sure to include a healthy dish in your menu and be creative. Maybe grill sweet potatoes with a little olive oil instead of baking them into a casserole with marshmallows, butter and brown sugar.
  • Bring a healthy dish to pass. If you’re going to someone else’s home, bring something you know will be helpful to you and others and that tastes good, such as a salad or a healthier side dish like cauliflower macaroni and cheese.
  • Be mindful this holiday season. “It’s easy to get distracted and overeat in the excitement of the day,” Simkus says. “Having the right mindset and a plan can help you enjoy the holiday without losing control.”

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