You already know not to eat yourself into a stupor on Thanksgiving Day and spend the weekend regretting it. You probably guessed that the mashed potatoes erupting with a lava flow of butter aren’t the best thing to ask for seconds and thirds of. But believe it or not, you’ll probably find some really healthy foods on that overloaded table—and those are the things your plate should make a beeline for.
While many of the ingredients of traditional Thanksgiving feasts are good for you, the way they are often prepared makes them less so. Many holiday favorites have a lot of added sugar, and many cooks prepare things like gravy, stuffing and casseroles with processed, pre-packaged mixes to save time—and those tend to be loaded with chemicals and additives in addition to sugar. So maybe you’ll want to be the one preparing these dishes and treating your family and friends to a healthier holiday. Here are a few things to consider before you head to the market this weekend.
1. Cranberries are a superfood, packed with antioxidants that help prevent cancer and a constellation of chronic degenerative diseases. They can help strengthen your immune system, lower blood pressure and ward off urinary tract infections. They provide fiber, and a lot of vitamins C and E, both powerful antioxidants. But that cranberry sauce is also one of the prime candidates for sugar overload. Cut down the sugar and add some orange juice, tangy orange zest, chopped apple bits or raisins. Or try flavoring it with cinnamon, cloves and a small amount of brown sugar.
2. Those sweet potatoes or their relative, yams, that you usually eat only once a year on this holiday are a good candidate for inclusion in your diet more often. They’ve got plenty of fiber to keep your digestive system humming, potassium for heart health and antioxidants for your overall health. A serving of sweet potatoes contains more than your daily requirement of vitamin A, a building block for teeth, bones and eyes. But STOP before you slather the marshmallows on top. Try roasting them, brushed with olive oil, perhaps with some other fall vegetables like squash and onions. Toss in a sprig of rosemary or some chopped fresh ginger for extra flavor.
3. What about that turkey? Like all meats, it’s an excellent source of protein, and it contains minerals like iron, zinc and potassium. It builds strength and energy and may lower cholesterol levels. That tryptophan you’ve heard makes you sleepy after a big meal can also boost your immune system. If you don’t eat the skin, it’s low in fat content. While turkey itself offers a lot of health benefits, but it is definitely better to seek out a local supplier of organic, pastured-raised turkeys. But don’t overindulge. You’re not that little kid bragging to grandma about how many slices you put away anymore. And please don’t nag your vegetarian friends to have “Just one slice.” There’s plenty else on the table they can eat.
4. When you’re preparing those casseroles, like the ever-popular green bean casserole, go lean and clean instead of glopping them up with ingredients like canned mushroom soup. Try tossing in some fresh mushroom slices or almonds instead. Think fresh and seasonal. There are plenty of root vegetables around that would make a delicious casserole, spiced up with some of the herbs you dried last month.
5. Speaking of herbs, make them your go-to seasonings while you’re preparing the meal. Remember the song “Scarborough Fair,” with its “savory, sage, rosemary and thyme” refrain? All make excellent seasonings for just about anything on your holiday table, and eliminate the need to add salt and sugar.
6. Watch that stuffing! If you’re going to buy a packaged stuffing mix, check to see what’s in it and avoid the ones with a plethora of additives. If you really need to buy those ready-to-use supermarket stuffings, take Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores app to the store with you to tell you on the spot what’s in that stuffing mix. But it’s not that hard to make your own, with healthy ingredients like wild rice, ground nuts, celery and mushrooms and none of the sodium overload found in some packaged stuffings.
7. Pumpkin pie and other traditional Thanksgiving desserts tend to be high in calories, although if they are made with healthy ingredients they’re not bad for you. Pumpkin has fiber and lots of vitamin A and C. Since most of the calories and fat are in the crust, try a crustless pumpkin pie. But for those who don’t want to overindulge, offer some dried fruit and nut mix as an alternative that can be munched on all evening rather than gulped down all at once.
8. Above all, don’t eat like you won’t have another meal for a week. Save some for later. And instead of watching that football game, go for a brisk walk!
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