Tips to Live By

Tips for Making a Plant-Forward Thanksgiving

Nov. 15, 2023 - Katie McCallum

More and more people are going plant-based with their diet these days, but it's no secret that this healthy eating pattern takes some getting used to — especially for those of us whose taste buds have come to expect the sweet, salty, and fatty foods so prevalent in the standard American diet.

And upholding a plant-based diet might feel downright impossible on a day like Thanksgiving, America's favorite food holiday.

But don't give up just yet! Lea Obeid, a dietitian at Houston Methodist, is here to offer tips for making a Thanksgiving meal that delivers on plants without sacrificing on flavor.

"Having a plant-based Thanksgiving doesn't necessarily mean getting rid of the traditional dishes you're used to having," says Lea Obeid, a dietitian at Houston Methodist. "It simply means that we're including more plants — non-starchy vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds — in our starters and sides, even if it just means adding them in as toppings."

Yes, you can still have turkey at your plant-based Thanksgiving

First thing's first, let's address the elephant in the room. Making your Thanksgiving meal plant-based doesn't mean you need to swap turkey for Tofurkey or some other wannabe meat dish.

Remember: Going more plant-based doesn't necessarily require eliminating meat. It's to prioritize plants.

"When we're talking about protein in a plant-based diet, I like to look at the frequency of protein sources on a weekly basis," says Obeid. "For example, in a given week, I recommend eating plant-based proteins about three to four times per week, fish two to three times per week, chicken or turkey three to four times per week and a lean cut of beef once or twice per week."

So you can easily see that having turkey on Thanksgiving Day is no problem when following a more plant-based diet. And eating the leftovers the day after isn't either.

Obeid points out that moderation is, of course, still key.

"If you take a 9-inch dinner plate, one quarter of it should be your turkey," adds Obeid.

(Related: Dark Meat Vs. White Meat: Is One Healthier Than the Other?)

Rethink the traditional types of appetizers

A meal that takes several hours to prepare often calls for having snacks out in case people get hungry, whether that's meat, cheese and crackers, or chips and dips.

But you might try these plant-based appetizers instead:

  • Hummus with carrots, bell peppers and celery sticks
  • Steamed edamame (lightly salted)
  • A bowl of mixed nuts (lightly salted)
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Lupini beans

"Part of the goal of a plant-based diet is to reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates and saturated fats you are eating, replacing those with complex carbohydrates, non-starchy vegetables, beans, and healthier fats," adds Obeid. "All foods are OK on a special day like Thanksgiving, but there is also plenty of opportunity to incorporate more plants if that's your goal."

Plant-forward sides to pair with your turkey

Sweet potato casserole, candied yams, dressing/stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, dinner rolls, creamed corn, mac and cheese — everyone has their own favorite Thanksgiving side dish.

You won't need to get rid of any of these for your plant-based meal, but some of these dishes lend themselves to prioritizing plants more easily than others.

For instance, take Thanksgiving dressing (or as it's also known, Thanksgiving stuffing). The alteration Obeid suggests is to increase the amount of veggies you use.

"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."

Green bean casserole is another traditional Thanksgiving side that's easy to keep plant-forward. Rather than burying the green beans with crispy fried onion strings, try topping them with caramelized onions.

"This is very easy to do on the stove," adds Obeid. "Simply chop fresh onion into thin, moon-shaped slices, spray them with oil and then sauté until brown."

For the various dishes that call for sweet potato, Obeid recommends letting their natural sweetness shine.

"A sweet potato is called 'sweet' for a reason," says Obeid. "Rather than coating it in a sugary, buttery sauce, I recommend just enjoying the sweetness that develops naturally as they're roasted."

To pack more of a flavor punch, you can also sprinkle sweet potatoes with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg before roasting. And instead of topping sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, a healthier swap is to sprinkle chopped pecans over the top or candied pecans!

For side dishes like mashed potatoes, mac and cheese and creamed corn, Obeid shares an interesting perspective.

"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, rather than the foods you can easily find in your everyday life," says Obeid.

This mindset is a good one. It helps remind us that Thanksgiving is a time to gather and have a communal, shared experience.

It's also practical since it helps cut back on the amount of starchy and carb-heavy options on our plates. Do we really need three types of potatoes, corn and mac and cheese all in one meal?? If your answer is, 'Yes!' — it's a special day, so that's ok — Obeid has plenty of ingredient swaps to make any of the classic Thanksgiving sides healthier.

When it comes to piling all of these Thanksgiving sides on the remaining three-quarters of your plate, there's strategy to consider. First, know that half of it should contain non-starchy veggies, like green bean casserole and that veggie-heavy dressing. If you made a salad or roasted Brussels sprouts, those fit on this half of your plate, too. The last quarter is where carbs and starchy veggies should go — such as any corn, sweet potato or regular potato dishes available. Dinner rolls go here, too.

Yes, you can also still have the classic Thanksgiving desserts

Plant-based diets, like the Mediterranean diet, don't eliminate sweets and desserts, but they do recommend limiting the amount of processed foods and refined sugars you eat.

"Here again, I recommend looking at dessert across the entirety of your week," says Obeid. "Maybe we choose to limit ourselves to sweets just one to two times per week, and that gives us room to enjoy dessert on Thanksgiving."

Everything in moderation, though. Obeid recommends aiming for just one portion of dessert, but feel free to get creative with how you divvy that up.

"If there are a few types of pie you want to have, just cut the slices into halves or thirds," adds Obeid. "That way you can enjoy a little bit of apple pie, pumpkin pie and pecan pie without overdoing it."

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Categories: Tips to Live By