Rather than skipping or regretting your Thanksgiving feast, boost the flavor and healthfulness of your meal. You can do this without relying on excess butter, sugar and salt. Focus on filling your plate with color, texture and variety while serving smaller portions, and you’ll have a holiday meal that’s nutrient-dense and still indulgent.
“Sometimes I wonder if the reason why people eat so much on Thanksgiving is because they are simply seeking more flavor,” says Susan Bowerman, RD, senior director of worldwide nutrition education and training at Herbalife Nutrition. “The traditional foods that are on most tables are, for the most part, somewhat bland and salty.”
To keep your meal delicious — yet healthy — try these seven RD-approved strategies:
START WITH A TANGY SALAD
“So much of what we eat on Thanksgiving tends to taste the same, and the contrast of a fresh, crisp salad or slaw is really refreshing,” says Bowerman. For a healthier side, toss antioxidant-rich cabbage in a tangy dressing of olive oil, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, garlic (which provides antioxidant sulfur compounds) and a pinch of salt and pepper.
MAKE YOUR OWN CRANBERRY SAUCE
When you make your own cranberry sauce, you can significantly lower the sugar content and beat the taste of typical canned sauce, says Mitri. Simply cook down fresh cranberries and add unsweetened applesauce for a naturally sweet, fruity flavor.
ADD EXTRA ZEST
“Whenever a recipe calls for citrus juice, I always add in the zest from the peel because it is packed with zingy flavor,” says Micah Siva, RD, a chef and founder of NutritionXKitchen. Plus, the colorful peel of your favorite citrus fruits (Think: orange, lemon, lime) is filled with powerful polyphenols (aka plant-based antioxidants). Instead of extra sugar and salt, opt for a touch of grated lemon zest in your stuffing, and add orange zest to your sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, too, she suggests.
VARY YOUR VEGGIES
Rather than focusing on just one vegetable, “feature a roasted veggie medley like carrots, parsnips, fennel and Brussels sprouts, each of which contributes unique health-promoting antioxidants,” says Bowerman. Place them on a sheet pan, drizzle them in some heart-healthy olive oil, add salt-free seasonings and then roast them until they’re tender and just beginning to caramelize. “This creates a wonderfully nutty, toasted and sometimes sweet flavor profile,” says Melissa Mitri, RD.
“For a healthier take on sweet potato casserole, skip the marshmallows and roast the potatoes to allow their natural sugars to caramelize before mashing them and topping with pecans,” suggests Siva.
UPGRADE YOUR STUFFING
Boost the nutrition and texture of your holiday stuffing by using cubes of whole-grain bread as a base and sprinkling in nuts, fruit and vegetables, says Bowerman. Toast the nuts to bring out even more flavor and mix in diced apple, dried cranberries and lots of celery, parsley and green onion, she suggests.
USE FRAGRANT FRESH HERBS
“Fresh herbs pack a ton of flavor without relying on salt or heavier, more traditional ingredients,” says Siva. Even better, they’re filled with antioxidant flavonoids and polyphenols, vitamins and minerals.
To lighten up your mashed potatoes, “add roasted garlic and chopped parsley and chives for more flavor without so much cream or butter,” sasy Mitri. For your turkey, “you can’t go wrong with fresh thyme, rosemary and sage.” Pro tip: Mix in herbs at the end of your cooking or use them as a garnish so they retain their color and taste.
SPICE UP DESSERT
Rather than reaching for pie, consider a cinnamon-spiced apple crisp. “With a crumb topping instead of a double crust, you eliminate a lot of fat and calories, and you can appreciate the flavor of the apples much more,” says Bowerman. Ramp up the flavor with plenty of lemon juice and cinnamon, and add rolled oats into the topping to increase the fiber content.