Tulane Medical Center - October 24, 2022
by Bana Jobe

A grandmother and granddaughter roll out bread for a Thanksgiving dish.

By making some simple substitutions, you can create healthy Thanksgiving recipes that the whole family will love.

For many families, Thanksgiving is known for its casserole, desserts and, of course, turkey – sometimes deep-fried. But with a table full of temptations, it can be hard to stick to the everyday nutrition that doctors advise.

Fortunately, there are many healthy and delicious Thanksgiving recipes. Home cooks and professional chefs alike have mastered the art of wholesome holiday meals that don't skimp on taste, and it often comes down to making just a few changes or substitutions.

Taking inspiration from the American Heart Association (AHA), American Diabetes Association (ADA) and others, here's what experts suggest you do to dress your table with a healthy twist, plus three recipes that put that advice to work.

Easy swaps to try when cooking or baking

One of the first recommendations nutritionists offer on healthy meal prepping is to substitute certain ingredients for healthier ones. If you've never tried it, you might be surprised at how much plain yogurt tastes like sour cream, or how easy it is to use low-fat milk or cheese instead of their whole-fat counterparts.

Try these other substitutions to reimagine family recipes with health and wellness in mind:

  • Use olive oil in place of butter for cooking, or avocado in place of butter for baking.
  • Use applesauce in place of sugar in dessert recipes.
  • Use evaporated skim milk in place of heavy cream.
  • Use whole wheat flour in place of white flour for baking.
  • Use herbs and spices in place of salt.
  • Use fresh fruits and vegetables in place of their canned counterparts, which tend to have more salt or sugar.
  • Use oats instead of breadcrumbs in meatloaves and other dishes.
  • Use water flavored with fresh fruits instead of sugary soft drinks.

Healthier food prep for any dish

Healthy cooking isn't just about picking the right ingredients. Many techniques in the kitchen can help you transform traditional dishes and take advantage of healthy Thanksgiving recipes. For example, instead of frying the turkey, consider one of the 10 cooking methods the AHA suggests. You could roast it whole – a classic – or do something radically different with poached turkey breasts.

Make the most of plant-based mains and sides by preparing them in ways that will retain the most nutrients. For example, you could opt to steam or sauté your vegetables, as boiling them would mean missing out on some essentials, like folic acid and vitamin C.

Be sure to watch the heat when you're cooking meat. High-temperature cooking, such as pan frying, may produce chemicals that are suspected to increase cancer risk. Although research in this area is still ongoing, you can preempt that risk by avoiding gravy recipes that use turkey drippings.

3 recipes to try this Thanksgiving

If you'd like some inspiration for healthier dishes to serve this Thanksgiving, The ADA, AHA and other organizations have loads of recipes worth trying. Here are a few fun ones to add to your Thanksgiving recipe collection:

1. Southwest-style turkey meatloaf

This tasty recipe from the ADA gives November's favorite bird the starring role, with oats, bell peppers and herbs adding a healthy touch. It has a 15-minute prep time and an hour-long cook time, and it's the perfect recipe to make with and for your loved ones.

2. Indian-spiced pumpkin-apple soup

You might put pumpkins and apples in pies, but why not make them into a soup instead? Cozy up with this fiber powerhouse from the AHA that will delight guests with fall's classic produce. It's absolutely delectable, but the best part of this soup recipe is that you can make leftover bowls after the big meal. When you've got holiday house guests, those big-batch dishes can make quite a difference.

3. Cranberry winter crisp

Tap into the tartness of cranberries with this cobbler-like dessert from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Featuring margarine (not butter) and whole wheat flour, this crisp is a sweet and savory choice for any cold weather gathering.

Gratitude for good food

There's nothing wrong with indulging a little on Thanksgiving. After all, eating treats in moderation generally isn't an issue. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to recreate legacy dishes with added spice, flavor and health benefits. This holiday season, take a look at your planned meals and challenge yourself to make some enhancements.

Will you substitute new ingredients, prepare a classic dish in a healthier way or choose a new recipe to go along with family favorites? The choice is yours, and the possibilities are endless. Happy Thanksgiving!

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