Going into Thanksgiving dinner, we expect to gorge ourselves.
But have you really thought about how much — and what — you are eating?
Many of us will have turkey, or perhaps ham, as a main dish. Then there’s all the trimmings such as dressing — possibly more than one kind — mashed potatoes, gravy, dinner rolls, and hopefully some vegetables including, of course, a green bean casserole.
Don’t forget the pre-dinner cheese and crackers, chips, deviled eggs — and the drinks — then, finally, the desserts, which could include pumpkin, sweet potato or pecan pie.
Add it all up and the typical American consumes about 3,000 calories and 150 grams of fat in a Thanksgiving meal, according to the Calorie Control Council. And that doesn’t count going back for a second wave of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, which can tack on perhaps another 1,000 calories.
You can push that calorie count to 4,500, “depending on your food choices and your portions,” said Ginny Ives, director of nutrition services at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. For moderately active women and men, the Food and Drug Administration’s estimated daily calorie should top out at 2,200 and 2,800, respectively.
Double or triple the sugar? Plus, a stick of butter?
Break down what you are eating and you may be surprised at the amount of certain ingredients involved. For instance, as you gobble up your Thanksgiving dinner you may take in as much as 1⅓ sticks of butter, Ives said. That’s because butter is in the baked goods (pies and rolls), dressing, casseroles and mashed potatoes. Don’t forget the butter you slather on the rolls, too.
A plate with those dishes could hold 80-90 grams of fat, according to calorie counting platform FatSecret — and the recommended daily intake of fat for a 2,000-calorie diet is 80 grams. That plate would also have about 25 grams of saturated fat. Most experts recommend a diet lower in saturated fats — about 13 grams daily — as those fats increase total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, the culprit in arterial blockages.
Then there’s sugar. Eating the big meal, you may consume 75 grams of sugar, which is as much as you’d get from drinking two 12-ounce cans of soda pop, she said. For instance, a can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar, about 9¾ teaspoons. When you consider the American Heart Association recommends no more than about 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily for women, about 9 teaspoons for men, that’s more than three times the daily suggestion for women and more than twice the recommendation for men.
Tips to avoid the added calories
So what can you do to make the dinner healthier? There’s a couple strategies you can deploy to reduce your Thanksgiving dinner intake.
Don’t starve yourself ahead of time. Don’t skip breakfast – or lunch, if your Thanksgiving dinner is literally dinner – on the big day. You will likely overeat and eat more than you would had you had regular meals, Ives said.
Limit alcohol. Beer, wine and mixed drinks served before and during the meal can stimulate your appetite and “lower your resolve” to eat reasonable portions, Ives said.
Be selective. Pick and eat your favorites. Don’t have sweet potato casserole just to make the cook happy. And if you like pumpkin pie, try eating it without the whipped cream or ice cream. “That way you spend the calories that you want to spend on the foods that you really like,” Ives said.
Thanksgiving is one day. Don’t let the big meal become a big month or more of eating and drinking too much. Instead, splurge for the holiday, but get back to your healthy eating plan on Friday.
How Thanksgiving cooks can make a healthier holiday meal
If you are in charge of making most of the meal, or even a part of it, you can help make the meal healthier, too.
Sure, the traditional Thanksgiving favorites are mainstays: Pumpkin pie, turkey, pecan pie, cranberry sauce and stuffing were the top dishes based on about 75,000 recipe searches during Thanksgiving 2020 on the America’s Test Kitchen website.
But a cook can tweak those favorites – or the menu itself – to be more calorie-conscious. ”The cook has a lot of ability to create a meal that is still incredibly satisfying, but ends up being healthier,” said Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen.
For instance, forego the traditional green bean casserole for something such as skillet-charred green beans with a crispy sesame topping. The dish is crunchy, colorful and has a hint of heat from Korean red pepper flakes.
Another possible addition: a Brussels sprout salad. Made with olive oil, pecorino romano cheese, pine nuts, Dijon mustard and lemon juice, “There’s fat in the dish, but it’s good to also get some olive oil, which is healthier fat in there,” he said. “It’s not a diet dish, but it’s better than braising something in cream and adding bacon. … There’s so many sweet starchy things on the table, it’s nice to have something that’s got a little bit of personality to it.”
Bishop would rather update the Thanksgiving menu and forego seconds – and thirds – of dishes than serve low-fat mashed potatoes. But you can try reducing the fat in your dishes on the fly.
Back off on the butter. When making stuffing, substitute chicken bouillon or low sodium chicken broth instead of butter when sautéing celery and onions, says the Calorie Control Council. Chicken broth has about 90% fewer calories than butter. And when making mashed potatoes try using half or two-thirds of the butter you typically fold in, and stir in low-fat milk instead of half-and-half. And fat-free, low sodium soups can be substituted in casseroles, reducing calories by as much as 40%. Similarly, light or fat-free sour cream or Greek yogurt can mean less calories than regular sour cream in recipes. Use flour, cornstarch, potato flakes, yogurt, or non-fat evaporated milk rather than butter or fat should you need to thicken a liquid.
Slash the sugar. Simply reducing sugar in baking recipes isn’t advisable, but you can opt for artificial sweeteners with lower and no calories in baking some dishes. (Thanksgiving Day may not be the best time to experiment, however.)
Among other recommendations from the council: If you are making a dish with gelatin, you can opt for a sugar-free gelatin to cut more than 85% of the calories. And on drinks using cranberry juice, for instance, opt for a juice with no sugar added to cut about 100 calories per serving. In making pies, you can opt for a fruit pie filling with less or no sugar, too.
Slim down a sneaky side dish. The carrot-raisin salad doesn’t get a lot of attention at the big meal, but there’s a reason it should. A cup of the salad, which is made with mayonnaise, can pack more than 400 calories and 30 grams of fat. The Cooper Clinic’s Ives recommends making it with less mayo (¼ cup vs. ½ cup in most recipes) and less sugar (2 tablespoons vs. ½ or more in some recipes). Mix that with the other two ingredients (four cups of shredded carrots and ¾ cup of raisins) and add 2-3 tablespoons of 2% milk until you get the desired consistency. This brings the dish down to about 240 calories per one cup serving.
Start with salad. Everyone wants to go straight to the turkey, but a green salad before the big dishes are served can fill you up so you eat less.
Cook less. Plan your meal for Thanksgiving Day, not for the leftovers. That way you aren’t eating the high-calorie dishes for additional days.