When you think of Thanksgiving side dishes, which favorite comes to mind? Is it mashed potatoes? Stuffing? Sweet potato casserole? Maybe roasted vegetables?
According to Campbell’s 2023 “State of the Sides” report, 67% of those surveyed said they prefer side dishes to the main entrée. As for America’s favorite dish, mashed potatoes take the cake, and stuffing comes in second place.
But holiday eating can also bring a lot of anxiety to those who have health goals or struggle with moderation. Here’s what registered dietitians told USA TODAY about building a healthy Thanksgiving dinner.
What are the healthiest Thanksgiving side dishes?
Thanksgiving classics are a must, but licensed dietitian nutritionist Abra Pappa says the healthiest way to enjoy the holiday is by shaking up the side dish options.
Many of the staples have a mushy, dense feel – delicious, sure, but it might not leave us feeling our best. The healthiest side dishes switch up the flavor, texture and nutritional profile.
“What I think a lot of people don’t put on the table that makes a difference is something with acid and something fresh,” she says.
You could try a cranberry sauce or chutney (try these classic, mint and pineapple recipes), a sweet and tart homemade applesauce or even a fall platter that incorporates fruit.
But the easiest way to do this is a salad, which will have cool, crunchy greens and a hint of acid in the salad dressing. It doesn’t have to be elaborate roasted vegetables, Pappa says. You can go for a simple salad of greens and a fun dressing.
“Certainly from a nutrition perspective, that’s a nice bonus because we’re getting in more fresh, punchy, vibrant vegetables, but it also dramatically improves the balance of the meal from a flavor perspective,” she says.
In general, vegetables are going to be the healthiest side dish to include this Thanksgiving. Aside from contributing to your daily recommended intake – which only 10% of adults reach – it will also diversify your plate.
“It’s autumnal vegetable season, so I love really leaning into a variety of veggie dishes that we can put on the table,” Pappa says. “There’s 1,000 ways to make Brussel sprouts and they should be on the table in my opinion.”
The “healthier” decisions also start in the kitchen well before it’s time to sit down to eat. Pappa recalls her mom’s family stuffing recipe, which involves sausage from a local farm, bakery bread laid out overnight and ripped by hand and a homemade turkey stock made from discarded turkey parts. We can all learn a little from these techniques, Pappa says, whether it’s shopping from small businesses, using fresh herbs or even just starting with quality produce.
“It’s worth the extra step to sift through and make sure that the produce you’re buying looks really fresh, so if the Brussel sprouts are super brown and starting to discolor, they’re older and they’re not going to be as good,” she says. “You’re going to have to use a lot more (seasoning) to make those Brussel sprouts taste good.”
Healthy salad dressing recipes: Make these dietitian-approved dressings at home
What a healthy Thanksgiving plate looks like
A few components make up a healthy Thanksgiving dinner plate that’ll leave you satisfied and feeling good – no one wants to spend the rest of the night uncomfortable and sick from overeating.
Start by making sure you have a vegetable on your plate to balance out the carb-heavy dishes.
You’ll also want to get your favorite foods in there. Maybe that’s trying a little bit of everything, maybe that’s prioritizing treasured dishes.
Pappa gives an example: “Mashed potatoes and stuffing are absolute necessities, there is no Thanksgiving worth it if I’m not having (them),” she says. But tacking on her mom’s homemade biscuits always leaves her feeling overly full, so she’ll take them home as leftovers for next-day Thanksgiving enjoyment.
“This idea of FoMO, like you have to have every single solitary thing on your plate – check in with yourself to see how much you can handle,” she says. “What is your limit? How much do you actually want to eat in the moment?”
The old saying “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” also applies here. A study published in Food Quality and Preference found we often serve ourselves to the size of the plate, so be mindful of portion sizes, especially if you’re using large dinner plates. You can always go back and grab more food if you’re not satisfied by the time your plate is clean.
There’s also a healthiest way to eat that plate.
Eating protein first is the best way to manage your blood sugar levels, which will prevent an energy crash and help you feel more satisfied, according to Kara Collier, a registered dietitian and the co-founder and VP of Health at wellness-tech startup Nutrisense. Next, you’ll want to support that with non-starchy vegetables, which will add fiber to your meal. Fiber helps the body digest and control blood sugar levels.
Diabetic individuals have to be particularly careful balancing carb-heavy Thanksgiving meals with other dishes, says Collier, whose work with Nutrisense helps with glucose monitoring.
“It can add up pretty quickly, especially for folks with diabetes,” she says. “So (be) a little more selective of which carbohydrate choices you pick.”
She also recommends bringing a low-carb side dish or dessert, like this keto stuffing or keto-friendly pecan pie, so you know you’ll have something glucose-friendly to enjoy.
How to eat healthy at Thanksgiving
We ascribe cultural and emotional meaning to food – it’s why our celebratory holidays involve gathering with friends and family to enjoy a meal. The key to eating healthy on Thanksgiving then is to honor traditions and treats while sticking to the basic principles of moderate eating.
“We can shift our mindset to make sure we’re still prioritizing nourishment throughout the season and that leaves us plenty of room to be able to have these beautiful traditional meals,” Pappa says. “Yes, they might be denser in calories than what we’re used to consuming on a Monday night, but … our bodies can handle a couple of meals a year that are super dense (in) calories.”
This means enjoying both your Thanksgiving favorites and food that nourishes and makes you feel good.
“I will continue to eat the way that I normally eat on Thanksgiving, meaning that I love balancing all of my meals with vegetables … and that’s not going to go away for me on Thanksgiving,” Pappa says.
If you’re heading to multiple Thanksgiving dinners, that could also mean making some choices so you don’t feel overstuffed and sick. Look at the “big picture,” Collier says: Can you prioritize your favorite dishes at some meals and favorite dessert at others?
Remember to also take care of your health in aspects other than food – are you getting good quality sleep? Managing your stress levels? Drinking too much, which lowers inhibitions and causes us to overeat? Getting in a walk or exercise?
“You’d be surprised at how much just 10 minutes of movement after eating helps,” Collier says.
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