9 Ways to Slash Salt From Your Holiday Meals

by Laurel Leicht Health Writer

“We had a nice, light Thanksgiving dinner,” said no one ever. Holiday meals are notoriously decadent, and it's not just the fat and calories you need to keep an eye on. Many dishes served between Thanksgiving and New Year’s pack a serious sodium punch as well—from turkey stuffing to apple pie. The good news: If your doctor has told you to watch your salt intake, it doesn’t mean you need to deprive yourself. Keep reading for sneaky swaps and easy fixes so you can steer clear of the salt while enjoying holiday favorites.

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Don’t Brine Your Bird

In the supermarket, make sure to go for a turkey—fresh or frozen—that hasn’t been in a salt or saline solution, recommends Jen Bruning, R.D., a nutritionist and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago. Once you’re home, skip the brine; yes, it’s a popular way to prep the holiday bird and give it a juicy taste, but the solution is packed with salt. Instead, amp up the flavor by basting it with unsalted butter (just a little though, as it's high in cholesterol) and fresh herbs like rosemary, sage, and bay leaves.

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Make Gravy, But Better

Packaged gravy is loaded with sodium, and it’s a miserable loser to the homemade variety in the flavor department. “Prepare your own instead—that way, you’re in control of how much salt is added,” says Sara Haas, R.D., a nutritionist and chef in Chicago. It’s best if you start with a low-sodium broth and go from there. If you’re in a time crunch and need to go the instant route, buy a mix with lower sodium on the label. Either way, keep an eye on the cholesterol.

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Pump Up Your Potatoes

Spuds are a staple at any holiday meal, but depending on how they’re cooked, they can also cause sodium content to skyrocket. First step: Buy fresh. “Forgo the frozen and prepared versions, unless they’re labeled ‘sodium-free,’” advises Haas. Further keep the sodium in check by not adding salt to the boiling water, using unsalted butter when mashing, and adding spices and herbs (think thyme and sage for holiday flavor) or a splash of vinegar.

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Steer Clear of Stuffing Mix

We know, we know. It’s so good. But a single serving of stuffing from a box can top 500 mg of sodium. For the sake of your blood pressure, you should start from scratch. Use a fresh loaf of low-sodium bread. Then choose a low-sodium broth, and add lots of flavor with diced onion and chopped fresh herbs, says Haas. Tossing in more vegetables, like mushrooms, celery, and leeks, also amps up flavor without adding sodium.

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Try This Ham Hack

This holiday-dinner centerpiece isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think “low sodium.” But you can still enjoy it if you’re smart! First, opt for a ham that is labeled as lower in sodium. Second, says Bruning, choose your sauce wisely. Glazing your ham with a mixture of brown sugar and canned pineapple or orange juice will add sweet tang with very little extra sodium. And while most recipes call for placing the ham in a shallow pool of brine before cooking, you can swap for orange juice or another low-sodium juice instead.

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Lighten Up Your Veggies

A plate of broccoli, green beans, or brussel sprouts hardly seems like the worst choice on a crowded holiday table. But preparation is everything: When vegetables are cooked with canned soup or topped with a creamy sauce, they are likely teeming with salt. Buy low- or no-sodium soups and broths to whip up your veggie casserole. And choose steaming over sautéing when possible. You can also add fresh or dried herbs to round out the flavor rather than sprinkling with salt.

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Bake Your Own Pie Crust

Bummer, we know, but just because your dessert is sweet doesn’t mean it’s free of salt. “Sodium hides out in desserts and dessert ingredients,” warns Bruning. Frozen pie crust, for one, has more than 100 mg of sodium per serving—and that’s before you add the filling and topping. Make the crust yourself to control the salt content. If a doughy dessert isn’t your thing, finish your meal with fresh fruit like strawberries—sweet but also low in salt.

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Say Yes to Whipped Cream

OK, so it’s a bit of a nutritional wasteland, with high sugar content and some cholesterol. But if you’re dying for dessert (it is the holidays, after all), you could do worse than adding a dollop of whipped cream to top a wafer, bowl of berries, or (go ahead, we won’t tell), have it by itself. While a same-size spoonful of vanilla ice cream will add about 50 mg of sodium, whipped cream is virtually sodium-free, says Bruning. Bonus: If you use it on sliced fresh fruit, you’re getting a healthy dose of vitamins and other nutrients as well.

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Have a Little!

We all have them: The been-in-the-family-forever dishes you’re obligated to make without tweaking the recipe lest you start a civil war. By all means, keep the tradition alive. But after your serve it up, practice maximum willpower and take just a small sliver for yourself, filling the rest of your plate with fresh produce. Then, go take a long walk with the family after your meal. There's no better way to enjoy the holidays than to share your favorite foods and exercise, too.

Laurel Leicht
Meet Our Writer
Laurel Leicht

Laurel Leicht is a writer and editor in Brooklyn specializing in health, fitness, lifestyle, and travel. Her work has appeared in outlets including O the Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, Marie Claire, and Well+Good.