Long after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has ended, after Aunt Martha has pressured me to try her annual culinary experiment (one year it was candied yams carved into the shape of pilgrim hats), after I give in to that second (or third) slice of pumpkin pie, I ask myself the inevitable Thanksgiving question, pondered by hundreds of Americans each year: “Why didn’t I wear sweatpants?”
Most people eat more on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year, heading off to bed feeling as stuffed as Tom Turkey and vowing never to eat that much again. But then the next Thanksgiving rolls around and suddenly it seems like an olympic feat to balance the healthy options (if there are any) with the indulgences. The average American consumes about 4,000 calories on Thanksgiving. That’s twice as much as what doctors recommend for daily caloric intake.
“Now, it’s an all-day affair,” registered dietitian Leslie Bullock of Catholic Medical Center’s OPTIFAST program said. “Thanksgiving isn’t one meal anymore; it’s all day eating, and at night having a turkey sandwich or a slice of pie.”
Dietitians like Bullock encourage their clients to enjoy the day. There are a number of ways to do that, like planning ahead and preparing dishes a little differently.
So, here it is: the Thanksgiving dinner survival guide. Local nutritionists share their thoughts on how to approach the day, and local chefs have contributed some of their favorite recipes. As it turns out, you can have your turkey, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole and eat it, too.
“I think the last thing we need is a bunch of spoilers at Thanksgiving saying, ‘This is bad and that’s bad,’ and saying, ‘Do you know how many calories that is?’... I really think people should eat what they want for Thanksgiving,” said Hilary Warner, registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist, health and fitness specialist and wellness coach of Nutrition Works! in Concord. “I really believe our bodies count calories themselves; our bodies tell us when we have had enough.”
Indulge - mindfully
“From the point [of view] of an educator, you have to go both ways,” chef Stefan Ryll, assistant professor of Culinary Arts at Southern New Hampshire University, said. “As such a traditional meal, we’ll work with the basics, but then there’s also many opportunities to change. … In these modern times, especially in these last couple years, you have to go in the direction of making it more nutritional. … We should teach [students] how to make a meal that still tastes good, but still going a nutritional route.”
Ryll said that for him, flavor, presentation and moderation are the key ingredients to a big holiday dinner.
“As a chef, personally I usually like to have my food on Thanksgiving very flavorful,” he said. “Flavor is key. The turkey has to have a great gravy, but also as a chef you go in moderation. … Flavor doesn't always come from the fat … you can use fresh herbs and garlic.”
For Warner, there are two key approaches to any meal: what you eat and how you go about eating it.
“The ‘how’ also has to do with listening to your body and respecting your fullness,” she said. “I think we tend to eat very unconsciously with very little thought and planning. Being more mindful and more intentional … we often have a general idea of what's going to be there.”
Warner argues that one of the reasons for overeating at holiday meals, if not the main reason, is the thought that what’s on the table is only available on this one day of the year.
“Any food that’s served at Thanksgiving can be made at any other time, so it’s not the last time you’re ever going to have it,” she said. “When it comes to the eating part, it can feel sad to realize that there’s still all this fabulous food and you’ve had as much as you really need.”
Since the meal is predictable, Warner said to think ahead about what it is that you really want to eat. If pumpkin pie is your favorite dish, cut back on the turkey or pass on the appetizers. She also said to keep in mind that leftovers can be taken home.
“One meal doesn’t make or break it [a healthy lifestyle],” Warner said. “Healthy eating and good nutrition are a function of many meals over a course of days.”
Watch what you don’t eat
One of the most common mistakes to make is the pre-Thanksgiving dinner fast.
“Some people will go into Thanksgiving and not eat breakfast prior because they know they’re going to have this big meal,” Bullock said.
But skipping earlier meals in preparation for the big dinner won’t help you enjoy the feast.
“The trouble is that there’s really good research — you don’t even need the research actually — that when you get too hungry you end up wanting to eat everything in sight,” Warner said. “It’s easy to go from starving to overly full. That can set us up for overeating.”
Warner added that it doesn’t help when the meal is at a different time than typical eating schedules. Often, Thanksgiving dinner will start at 1 or 4 p.m., and even then, the turkey might not be carved until an hour after guests arrive. So what happens? Starving diners fill up on appetizers and hors d’oeuvres.
Instead of fasting, have breakfast or even a light lunch depending on what time the meal is scheduled.
“If it’s not till 4, I would have a regular lunch,” Warner said. “You’re going to be much calmer, more rational, in a more pleasant state of mind. You lack that whole ability to be intentional or moderate if you get there too hungry.”
The company you keep
“[Thanksgiving] should be more of the social aspect and less about the food aspect,” Bullock said. “If you can, spend more time focusing on family and talking to relatives that you haven’t seen in a while and staying away from the buffet table. Just maybe have a soda water in one hand and your cell phone in another.”
On a similar note, Bullock added that eating family-style — with dishes spread across the table — isn’t helpful to anybody. It encourages us to keep picking at the food in front of us. A better strategy is to plate everything in the kitchen, away from the line of vision.
The priority placed on food over the social occasion even comes down to the stress placed on the hosts and those preparing the food. Overall, Thanksgiving can turn into a day filled with anxiety, from who’s making what, to getting the kids in the car, not to mention all the social interaction, which for some can be daunting.
“I think from that perspective the whole day can be difficult,” Warner said. “Probably even without food, if we could be more gentle and compassionate with ourselves when we’re with our families [the holiday would be better].”
“There’s a lot of stress eating that goes on during the holidays, and for everybody it’s something different,” Bullock said.
Bullock added that exercise is the best way to relieve stress, and recommended going for a walk after dinner. Not only does it help relieve any anxieties, but it’s a good way to guarantee some physical activity in a day of eating. She also added to remind ourselves that it’s OK to say “no” — to that extra helping of mashed potatoes and to Aunt Milly, who made that extra batch of cookies.
“People are afraid of insulting other people, but you can't eat everything,” she said.
It’s particularly difficult to set weight loss goals during this time of year. A slice of pie can turn into a slice of regret. And that’s not what’s important during the holidays. Instead, set realistic goals.
“What I say to a lot of my patients during that time is you want to focus on maintaining your weight and not trying to lose weight during the holidays,” Bullock said.
Forget the Tofurkey (unless you like it — then help yourself). The truth is, turkey is a great lean protein.
“The dark meat has a few more calories than the white meat, but it really isn't enough calories to worry about,” Bullock said. “It’s a very lean protein. It’s good for you; you just don’t want to eat the skin.”
The skin is high in fat and in calories, so nutritionists agree that it should just be ignored.
Ryll recommended spraying the turkey with Pam instead of butter and using fresh herbs for flavoring. He said when the stuffing is cooked inside the bird, the fat from the turkey drips down into the stuffing (which makes for great flavor, he admitted, so take your pick). He suggested preparing the stuffing in a separate dish and using a grain like wild rice with celery, shallots and fresh herbs instead of bread stuffing, which has more calories.
For a lighter gravy, take a low-fat broth (turkey or chicken), cornstarch and water then mix together. Or, Bullock said, in her house, she puts the juices from the pan into a plastic bag. Naturally, the fat will rise to the top, so cut a hole in the corner of the bag to separate the meat juices. She adds flour as a thickening agent with skim milk.
Then again, it is Thanksgiving. So for a decadent turkey, the pros recommend a secret ingredient: bacon.
“If no calories exist, I would cover the bird with some nice flavored bacon,” Ryll said. “This way as the turkey cooks, the bacon will melt. It keeps the turkey breast from drying out.”
Michelle Pillsbury, who owns Shellie’s Neighborhood Butcher Shop in Derry, sees a lot of turkeys going out the door for the holiday, and a few prime ribs and roasts, too. Her secret to a delicious turkey is also bacon.
“All those vapors and all that steam just keeps it moist and delicious,” she said. “A lot of people are deep frying turkeys, too, because it’s fast, but I'm still a traditionalist.”
Pillsbury layers strips of bacon over the breast. She also lines the pan with carrots and celery and stuffs the cavity with a citrus stuffing with cranberries and white wine. She also recommended combining melted butter, spices, like parsley, and orange juice in a separate pot. Pillsbury then pulls the skin up from the neck of the bird, and pours the mixture down. She also brushes the remaining liquid on the body.
Eat the rainbow
Traditionally, the Thanksgiving feast celebrates the harvest with side dishes made from seasonal produce — squash, beets, parsnips, Brussels sprouts and so on. They’re important to a healthy Thanksgiving dinner, too.
“I would urge people to include a variety of different colors of vegetables,” Warner said.
Warner added that the best advice is to “eat the rainbow,” so that your Thanksgiving plate represents a variety of colors, from bright orange carrots and vibrant beets to onions, kale, green beans and chard. She also recommended roasting vegetables — “Even vegetable haters tend to be enthusiastic about vegetables [when roasted],” she said.
Bullock takes more of an “any vegetable is a good vegetable” approach.
“Try to fill your plate with the vegetables,” Bullock said. “We’re always promoting the colorful vegetables, but even mushrooms, onions and cauliflower have good stuff, too.”
Green bean casserole is often a holiday favorite, although it might not be the healthiest vegetable dish.
“Most people do put a lot of cream into it and put fried onions on top,” Ryll said. “If you were to do this modern, blanch the green beans, [add] red onions, seasoning, low fat vegetable stock, crispy shallots and [sprinkle with] chopped herbs with parsley and chives.”
The Red Blazer in Concord prepares an annual Thanksgiving buffet, and it’s a guarantee that green bean casserole will be on the menu.
“It’s definitely not a healthy vegetable. If you’re looking for the healthy side of things, you should not have the green bean casserole, that’s for sure,” Red Blazer chef Pedro Godoi said. “We do our own twist on it. We bake the green beans separate and toss it with mushroom sauce [with butter and flour] and crispy onions. The biggest tip I have to say is be careful not to overcook the green beans, because it’s going to go in the oven again.”
Then there’s the cranberry sauce — essentially sugar disguised as a healthy fruit-like substance.
“It’s got a lot of sugar in it,” Bullock said. “A quarter cup of cranberry sauce is about 100 calories, but it’s a traditional food. You should be able to eat a little bit of these foods each year. You don’t want to deprive yourself.”
Ryll recommended creating a cranberry relish, with fresh cranberries, orange juice, sugar, vanilla for flavor and zest from the orange for texture.
There are a lot of starches at the Thanksgiving banquet, which also contribute to filling up fast. From potatoes to stuffing to rolls, your plate can quickly overflow with carbohydrate-heavy starches. The My Plate nutrition guide (a reinvented food pyramid) says only one quarter of the plate should be a starch. So, it might be more appropriate to choose either the roll, a helping of potatoes or the stuffing, depending on your holiday favorite.
“Again, people should be thinking about that they have a finite capacity, and do they want to use it all up on potatoes?” Warner said. “I think we want to have plates that are colorful and not beige. … Potatoes are not super helpful.”
For sweet potato fans, Ryll recommended using margarine instead of butter and using almond milk and light brown sugar for seasoning.
Chef Devin Clark at Colby Hill Inn recommends roasting fingerling potatoes, like Russian yellow fingerlings, or mixed purple, yellow and red. Clark said to cut the fingerling potatoes into even chunks, toss in olive oil with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, then toss in sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary before roasting at 350 degrees.
“It’s decadent in a different way, in a more health-conscious way,” he said. “One of the benefits of those is that it’s something that doesn’t require as much labor as far as mashing. … It makes the potato side of things easier.”
At the Thanksgiving dinner seating at Colby Hill Inn, Clark said, they usually take the traditional mashed potato route with a bit of a guilty pleasure.
“We don’t try and overthink Thanksgiving too much,” he said. “We like to keep it fairly traditional, but at the same time, as far as decadence goes, we like to use the best potatoes we can find.”
Clark said German butterball potatoes are a real treat, with a natural rich, buttery flavor of their own. At the Inn, Clark said, he removes the skin and purees the potato through a food mill, then folds melted butter and cold cream into the potato puree.
“Because there’s so much fat going into them you can’t melt your butter with your cream,” he said.
“It’s what I would call the once-a-year potato. It’s saved for that special occasion,” Clark said. “You don’t count calories. … You can omit some of your butter and cream, or both, and one thing we like to do occasionally is fold in some boursin cheese.”
Worth a pie
Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without dessert, whether or not you remembered to save room.
“If you want to have dessert, you should leave some room for it,” Warner said. “I think I’ve spent my whole life trying to navigate Thanksgiving. I consider it a huge victory to finish Thanksgiving and not feel uncomfortable.”
Warner recommended selecting just one dessert and taking home any other treats as leftovers if you want to sample a variety.
For healthy choices, Bullock suggested putting a fruit platter out, or making a fruit compote. She also suggested a yogurt parfait or a pie with a light pudding filling.
But when it comes to dessert, most of us really want to indulge, so Ryll recommended transforming the pumpkin pie in a new way by making a pumpkin rice pudding. While cooking the rice, add in honey, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, salt, pumpkin puree or pumpkin pie filling and serve in a martini or cocktail glass with fruit garnish.
“You’d probably cut your calories at least in half and it still looks very good and tastes very good, too,” he said.
What often causes the calories to climb for desserts is the amount of butter in the pie crust, Ryll said.
The Pie Guy is based in Salem, and every pie is made with all-natural ingredients, no preservatives and no trans fats.
“If you’re going to eat those calories, we’re the pie to eat, because it’s all natural,” manager Merri Carlson said.
Carlson said that although a lot of pumpkin and apple pies are sold during the holidays, the No. 1 seller all year long is the Chocolate Cream Pie.
“Not because I work here, but our chocolate cream pie is phenomenal,” she said. “It’s chocolate pudding in a pastry crust with our homemade whipped cream — which is out of this world — and it’s covered with chocolate shavings.”
The Pie Guy makes pie varieties like apple crumb, blueberry, Key Lime pie, whoopee pies, cranberry apple orange, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, a s’more pie and a triple chocolate chunk pie, a variation of the pecan pie.
“It’s a pecan-based pie and we enrich it by adding chocolate,” Carlson said. “It’s a very rich, decadent pie. I love it personally. A lot of people look for that around the holidays because they treat themselves.”
Carlson did recommend for pie-lovers to contact their local Pie Guy distributor to see what will be available, because pies like strawberry rhubarb and cherry won’t be available.
“At the holidays we do cut back because we’re making so many pies that some of the least popular flavors get cut back,” she said.
Pecan, triple chocolate chunk, apple, apple crumb, blueberry, blueberry crumb, pumpkin and others will be available for a sweet (and local) treat.