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Written by Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD

From Thanksgiving until the New Year, temptations to eat foods we normally would never have in our homes, let alone consume, confront us. It’s almost as if the world were conspiring to undo all we have accomplished by making unhealthy fats, sodium, and empty calories as attractive as possible. And many of us will fall prey to the “come on; it’s the holidays” argument.

Facing this barrage from advertisements and well-meaning friends, family, and coworkers, it would be easy to throw up our arms, give up and toss caution to the wind for the next six weeks. After all, studies show that most people only gain a pound or two during the holidays, right? But these same studies also caution that many people never lose those pounds and are more likely to develop obesity-related health problems such as diabetes and hypertension. 

But I have good news for you!

To paraphrase a popular saying, you really can have your pumpkin pie and eat it too this season. Holiday feasts with family and friends can be nutritious (and delicious) and help set the stage for healthier eating by you and your loved ones during the next year and beyond.

Follow the suggestions below, and I guarantee you that you and your family will never even know they are “eating healthy.” They may even like your healthier versions of their favorite Thanksgiving and holiday dishes even more. 

We can swap unhealthy choices for healthier equivalents.

One of the good things about experimenting with new ingredients in our favorite recipes is discovering that replacing less healthy versions with healthier ones may be rare. For example, substituting chicken broth for unhealthier fat drippings to make gravy can actually make these dishes tastier while making them better (or at least not as bad) for our health.

Other healthier tricks and replacements you could use include:

  • Purchasing a turkey breast rather than the entire turkey and serving this since breast meat is lower in calories than dark meat.
  • Ditching the omnipresent green-bean-and-mushroom-soup casserole with steamed or sautéed green beans – add some garlic, black pepper, mushrooms, and sea salt to give them some zing (you can do the same with Brussels sprouts to change things up a bit).
  • Instead of using white bread (which is basically empty calories) for your stuffing, consider using whole wheat bread and replacing the typical sausage with apples or cranberries – and instead of cooking the stuffing inside the bird, where it absorbs fat, cook it as a casserole.
  • Reducing the indicated amounts of butter or sugar in a recipe or replacing them altogether with broth, fruit purees, or stevia (no one will notice). Pies, for example, pecan pie, can be made with egg whites, no crust, and light corn syrup, which will greatly reduce the fat and calorie content without impacting taste or texture (as a point of reference, one slice of pecan pie can clock in at over 500 calories, and this is not counting if you serve it with whipped cream) – or instead of pies, you could offer sweet fruits such as dates for dessert.
  • Have lots of fresh vegetables (call them crudité if you’d like) with fat-free yogurt as a dip – these will help fill you up, so you won’t be famished and overeat when the bird is done.
  • While one favorite Thanksgiving staple is jellied cranberries (some people eat it right out of the can), the problem is that it is also packed with added sugars – instead of the canned variety, try making a fresh cranberry relish with oranges, apples, and other fruits.
  • Consider mashed parsnips or mashed turnips instead of mashed potatoes, or if you can’t do without the potatoes, mix the parsnips or turnips in for added nutrients and flavor.
  • Also, remember that you can add a wide variety of herbs and spices, such as basil, cilantro, parsley, cumin, sage, dill, and ginger, to take the place of added salt and fats. You can also use common condiments such as mustard, vinegar, and hot peppers.
  • Use healthier cooking methods.

You can also do a lot to increase the “health quotient” of your Thanksgiving and other holiday foods by using healthier cooking methods. Some of these include:

  • Bake, braise, roast, and broil instead of frying – while deep frying turkeys may be the trend in certain parts of the country, it is probably one of the unhealthiest things you could do to a turkey and any other food out there!
  • Trim visible fat from meats before cooking, and be sure to use a baking rack so that your meats don’t sit in and re-absorb fats (you can get added healthy points by also removing skin from the turkey and other poultry).
  • Don’t overcook vegetables since doing so robs them of flavor and nutrients – you want them to be a little crispy or crunchy.
  • Also, do as much cooking as you can in your own kitchen – this ensures you know what you are eating and what ingredients are going in each dish.

Make it a family affair within your household.

 Thanksgiving and the holidays are a time to be with family, which is a great time to introduce – or reintroduce- your kids and other family members to healthier eating. Ask your kids or partner to help in the kitchen (with age-appropriate tasks for young children).

You may wonder why I would recommend involving children, and the answer is simple. Children who are regularly involved in healthy meal preparation at home are more likely to have the skills and confidence to make better food choices outside of the home. On top of that, these children are more likely to enjoy eating a larger variety of fruits and vegetables. And, the earlier children start with healthier eating, the more likely they are to carry this habit into adulthood and subsequently teach their children about healthy eating. 

The best part here is that none of us are ever “too old” to learn about healthy eating and change our eating habits.

Enjoy healthy leftovers confidently.

 One of my favorite parts of holiday meals is the leftovers! To make sure that your family can enjoy them without worrying about getting sick, you need to take a few precautions when storing them and preparing them for snacking during the holiday football games.

  •  Do not store previously cooked food at room temperature or even leave it out overnight – store in appropriate containers or wrappings in the fridge until you’re ready to reheat and serve (or serve cold, depending on the dish)
  • If you freeze any leftovers or have frozen food that you have not yet prepared, thaw them in cold water or the microwave – don’t leave them out on the counter to thaw.
  • Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before, during, and after any food prep (this holds for all foods, not just leftovers).
  • Remember that microwaves do not kill any bacteria that may have decided to use your leftovers as their own meal – whether you use the microwave or stove, make sure that the reheated food has reached a safe internal temperature.
  • If you take the leftovers out of the fridge and are unsure if they are still OK to eat, throw them out. I hate wasting food just as much as the next person, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. And, of course, if the food has an odor or mold, throw it out immediately.

One last thing to keep in mind. 

Don’t beat yourself up if you have that extra piece of pie or have too much turkey.  Just don’t let it lull you into thinking, “Well, now that I ate what I shouldn’t have, I might as well just throw all caution to the wind until January.” Just resume your healthy eating the next day – and throw in some extra exercise for good measure.

Enjoy your healthy Thanksgiving and holiday season!

About Joy Stephenson-Laws

Joy Stephenson-Laws, is the founder of the Burbank-based non-profit, Proactive Health Labs (pH) and the founding and managing partner of Stephenson, Acquisto & Colman (SAC), the healthcare industry’s premier litigation law firm. She is also the co-founder and president of MoJo Marketing & Media, a boutique creative agency specializing in brand development and content creation, and of The Bili Project Foundation, a nonprofit organization that creates awareness of bile duct cancer and raises funds for research relating to this cancer. She received her B.A. from Loma Linda University in 1980 and Juris Doctor from Loyola University in 1983 and was admitted to the California Bar in 1984.

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