Thanksgiving Tips: Lighten the Calories, Not the Flavor

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

This Thanksgiving you’ll be able to gobble up your meal without too much guilt, if you plan ahead and lighten the calorie load!

Consider making some non-meat dishes as the star of the meal, and home cook as many dishes as possible, since a recent study suggests that home cooking reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes. Using fruits and vegetables in most dishes can reduce calories, bump up fiber, and add a variety of colors to the festive meal. The Thanksgiving meal also tends to be quite starchy carb heavy so consider choosing whole grains and ancient grains that are filling, fiber and nutrient-rich, and watch portion sizes. Here are tips, recipe ideas, and swap outs that will help to make the Thanksgiving meal rich in flavor, not calories.

First things, first

Limit the hors d’oeuvres to one or two selections so guests don’t over induldge before the main event. My favorite healthy and tasty choices are cut up vegetables and sweet potato hummus (yes, you can add sweet potatoes to embrace Thanksgiving) and spicy baked garbanzo beans made with cumin, chili powder and cayenne pepper.

Start the meal with a root vegetable soup or consider swapping out traditional heavy cream in your pumpkin or squash soup with silken tofu or evaporated skim milk. You can also make nut-based cream by blending cashews with water.

Recipe: Soak 1 cup of raw unprocessed cashews in water for 2 hours. Discard the water and blend the cashews with one quarter to one half cup of filtered water and a pinch of sea salt. You can also add a half teaspoon of vanilla and/or 1 tablespoon of Maple syrup to flavor it.

Consider adding a light splash of nuts to a large tossed salad and serve appetizer-size portions after or in lieu of the soup course. Make sure the salad has a minimum of seven vegetables and dress it with a light olive oil and vinegar dressing. One new trend is a hot-cold salad. After plating the traditional tossed salad, top with a large spoonful of sautéed hot vegetables. Add several walnuts or blanched almonds to each plate to make the salad appetizer protein-rich and filling. Starting the meal with a vegetable soup and salad, will help your family to feel full and take smaller portions of the main entrée and side dishes.

Healthy swap outs for the main event

Make a vegetable based dish the centerpiece of the meal. This Vegetarian Shephard’s Pie uses chick peas (garbanzo beans, rinsed), sweet potatoes and vegetables to create a filling dish. You can then make the turkey a side dish instead of the main dish.

This year use olive oil instead of butter when dressing the turkey and choose extra virgin olive oil which won’t add too much flavor or conflict with your traditional recipe. Also consider stuffing the bird with halved oranges, limes and lemons which will boost flavor without adding significant calories.

Instead of traditional cranberry sauce, consider a pickled beet and fennel salad which you can make in advance. This recipe has 6 easy-to-get ingredients and the longer you leave it in the fridge before serving, the more robust the flavor.

Buckwheat, also known as kasha once it’s toasted is high in rutin, a flavonoid that may protect against heart disease by strengthening capillaries. It’s also high in magnesium which helps to lower blood pressure. Use 2 cups of water for every one cup of kasha. Kasha can be topped with gravy as a delicious side dish. Remember to refrigerate your turkey gravy to allow any fat to rise to the top surface, so you can skim it off. You can also make a vegetable and kasha dish with about 150 calories per serving.

Another way to use the kasha is as a stuffing in small halves of baked butternut squash. The kasha, mixed with onions, broccoli and walnuts, provides a tasty filling that is about 250 calories per serving and bursting with nutrients. You can pass on the feta recommended in the recipe to save a few calories for dessert.

Don't skip the dessert—just make it skinny

I’m a big fan of having your favorite desserts, whether pumpkin pie, apple pie or decadent chocolate cake, but you have to be able to just take a few bites and then push back. Most people who struggle with weight may find it difficult to just take a few bites. Why not consider a pumpkin pudding recipe, and though it suggests a yield of four servings, I stretch the recipe to six or eight individual servings, with a side of fresh fruit salad. You can also check out the Pumpkin Pie Bites for a recipe that offers a bite-size dessert with about 94 calories each. If you’d like to make the fruit salad the main dish, consider mixing low fat Greek vanilla yogurt with pumpkin spice and use it as a dip for your favorite cut up fruits.

Other quick tips:

  • Use tall thin glasses for beverages.

  • Flavor carbonated water with a dash of juice or splash of lemon or lime or add frozen grapes or berries to the water.

  • Serve wine spritzers to lighten calories.

  • Use smaller serving spoons and tools so guests are naturally prompted to take less.

  • Only serve the salad and fruit salad family style. Plate the rest of the foods for portion control.

  • Get up and move around between the meal and dessert.

  • Give away the more caloric leftovers so you create a less tempting post-meal environment. You will not out-smart cravings.

  • Try and focus on family and the social aspect of the holiday so the experience is not solely food-focused.


Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”