Tips to Live By

How to Make the Classic Thanksgiving Sides a Little Healthier

Nov. 13, 2023 - Katie McCallum

When it comes to holiday food spreads, nothing compares to the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner.

It's unlike any other, with many of us looking forward to Thanksgiving food the entire year. That said, it's also a meal that we might … skip breakfast for … plan naps around … even expect to make us feel physically unwell afterward.

There's nothing wrong with splurging on what you eat every now and then — especially on a holiday that's all about the food. But you're not alone if you're interested in doing a few things different this Thanksgiving to make your meal a little healthier.

No, this doesn't mean replacing turkey or ham for Tofurky. It also doesn't mean that your favorite Thanksgiving sides, like stuffing and sweet potato casserole, are off the table.

"Every food fits in your Thanksgiving meal," says Lea Obeid, a dietitian at Houston Methodist. "But there are alternative ways to prepare certain dishes, where the base of the dish doesn't change but different ingredients are used to help make the dish better for you."

Ingredient swaps that make your favorite Thanksgiving sides healthier

If you want your Thanksgiving meal to include all of your traditional favorites without overdoing it, here are the ingredient swaps Obeid recommends for each side dish:

Thanksgiving dressing (stuffing)

Arguably the most classic dish of the day, Thanksgiving dressing (also called Thanksgiving stuffing) can be made a little healthier no matter what your family recipe looks like. Just go heavy on the veggies, advises Obeid.

"I recommend a 2:1 ratio of vegetables to breading in your dressing or stuffing," says Obeid. "So, if you're adding a cup of bread, mix in two cups of vegetables. This helps make sure you're getting plenty of veggies during your meal."

This also accounts for the fact that bread likely won't be the only carbohydrate you encounter on Thanksgiving Day, since many other classic dishes are also carb-heavy — like sweet potato casserole and creamed corn.

Candied yams

No Thanksgiving meal is complete without some preparation of sweet potato. As the name implies, these potatoes are sweeter than regular ones, but they also contain more vitamin A and potassium, too.

"A sweet potato is called 'sweet' for a reason," says Obeid. "Rather than coating sweet potatoes in a sugary, buttery sauce, I recommend just enjoying the natural sweetness that develops when roasting them."

To pack more of a flavor punch, you can also sprinkle sweet potatoes with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg before roasting.

Sweet potato casserole

Many sweet potato casserole recipes call for marshmallows, but Obeid recommends an alternative.

"I recommend topping the casserole with pecans instead," says Obeid. "If you have a sweet tooth and think you need more than what comes from roasting sweet potatoes, you can also substitute candied pecans for marshmallows."

A single serving of marshmallows typically contains around 20 grams of sugar, the majority of which comes in the form of added sugar. Pecans, on the other hand, contain many beneficial nutrients, including healthy fats and fiber, making them a healthier option.

Mashed potatoes

It's no secret that mashed potatoes are often heavy on butter and/or cream, and Thanksgiving Day mashed potatoes are no different.

"Instead of adding butter or cream, you can make simple yet delicious mashed potatoes by blending them with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little skimmed milk," explains Obeid. "If you prefer a thicker consistency, you can go with a higher fat milk or even half and half."

Green bean casserole

As a side dish that has "green" in the name, you might wonder why this casserole even makes this list. Obeid says to look no further than what's on top.

"Instead of topping the casserole with crispy fried onion strings, I recommend caramelizing your own onions on the stove," says Obeid. "It's very simple. Chop fresh onion into thin, moon-shaped slices, spray with olive oil and then sauté until brown."

Caramelized onions add plenty of flavor to green bean casserole, bringing a naturally sweet flavor profile to the dish.

"Another tip for green bean casserole is to use frozen green beans instead of canned ones, since this helps reduce the sodium content," adds Obeid.

If all you have on hand is canned, rinsing the green beans first can help reduce saltiness.

Bacon-glazed Brussels sprouts

There's no arguing that bacon is delicious, but it also contains a lot of unhealthy fat and salt. As processed meat, bacon also contains chemical preservatives linked to several types of cancer and other health issues.

"I recommended substituting bacon with Parmesan cheese, which still brings flavor but is a bit better for your heart," says Obeid. "Start by tossing the Brussel sprouts in olive oil and any of your favorite seasonings or spices, and then sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the sprouts right after roasting."

Mac and cheese

Ever heard of chickpea pasta? It's Obeid's recommendation for making this classic dish a little healthier.

"Switching from regular pasta noodles to chickpea pasta provides more protein and fiber," says Obeid.

You can also consider swapping some butter for olive oil and cream for skim milk, but these substitutions are likely to impact the flavor and consistency of the dish.

Creamed corn

Corn is a starchy vegetable that should be eaten in moderation. That said, it's a good source of fiber and contains other beneficial and vitamins, so it certainly has a place on your Thanksgiving table. Where a dish like creamed corn can go from healthy to not-so-healthy, though, is the cream.

"I recommend swapping heavy cream with half and half," says Obeid. "The base is still corn and the half and half helps keep the dish creamy, but the overall fat content of it is reduced."

It's OK to indulge on Thanksgiving Day — try focusing on portion control instead

Thanksgiving is a special day, and even its most decadent dishes can fit into your meal. Obeid's advice for keeping your plate from going "off the rails" is to focus on portion control instead. Everything in moderation, as she puts it.

"Between candied yams, sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes, there might be several different versions of the same food item available to you," says Obeid. "I recommend either picking one type of potato dish to eat or splitting your portion of each dish into thirds. This way you can still enjoy all three options in moderation."

Moderation doesn't just keep us from overeating, it helps us build a balanced meal.

What does a balanced meal even look like on Thanksgiving? Here are Obeid's tips:

  • Start with a 9-inch dinner plate
  • Fill the first half of the plate with vegetables, like Brussels sprouts topped with caramelized onions, green bean casserole or that veggie-heavy Thanksgiving dressing we modified above
  • On the other half of the plate, fill one quarter with turkey and/or ham
  • Fill the last quarter of the plate with carbohydrates, like any corn, sweet potato or regular potato dishes available. By the way, dinner rolls go here, too.

If there's not enough space on your plate to fit everything available to you, Obeid recommends keeping the focus of Thanksgiving in mind. Options like mac and cheese and mashed potatoes are things you can easily find in everyday life, so keep that in mind when choosing how to fill your plate.

"Prioritize the dishes that are special to you or the ones that aren't usually available year-round, like the sweet potato and green bean casseroles," says Obeid. "As for dessert, have the pie — that's no problem. But if you're someone who wants more than one type of pie, take a half slice of apple pie and pumpkin pie instead — that way you're still trying all of the options but staying within a single portion."

Stay up-to-date
By signing up, you will receive our newsletter with articles, videos, health tips and more.
Please Enter Email
Please Enter Valid Email
Categories: Tips to Live By