How to Build a Healthier Thanksgiving Plate

Experts estimate the average American can consume thousands of calories at Thanksgiving dinner. Here's how to approach the holiday like a nutrition pro.

thanksgiving-plate
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No one ever said Thanksgiving dinner was healthy. But there are certain tricks to make it a little healthier—and to avoid riding out an uncomfortable food coma on the couch for the rest of the night. Whether you’re doling out your own portions, or you’re at the mercy of Aunt Ida passing out plates piled high with “a little bit of everything,” knowing which foods you should be eating more of—and which you should only enjoy a few bites of—will help you make the best possible choices.



Start by filling half your plate with vegetables, then pile one-quarter up with turkey breast, and leave the remaining one-quarter for starchy sides. Here, some more expert-approved guidelines for keeping portions in check this Thanksgiving Day.

Start with soup.

Pour yourself a bowl of seasonal veggie soup, suggests Katherine Tallmadge, RD, author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations. She recommends a butternut squash soup, or a broccoli and carrot soup with potatoes and thyme. Kicking off your meal with soup will help you slow down while eating, and research has shown it may even reduce the number of calories you consume at your main meal.

Go crazy with the right veggies.

Fill up 50 percent of your plate with non-starchy veggies. This may include Brussels sprouts, green beans, carrots, bell peppers, or a green salad, says Lori Zanini, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Stick with smaller portions of starchy (read: higher-calorie) veggies, such as corn, potatoes, green peas, and winter squashes.

In charge of the prep? Put colorful vegetables together in dishes and use herbs, spices, onions and garlic to flavor them with fewer calories—try cooked carrots and cumin or Brussels sprouts with garlic. You can also add a healthy twist to classic comfort foods, like replacing green bean casserole with some grilled green beans flavored with garlic and red pepper flakes, Zanini says.

Make an array of interesting vegetable dishes, instead of lots of starchy dishes, suggests Tallmadge. “We tend to passively overeat when presented with variety, so if you want to give your guests a medley of dishes, have them be veggie-based,” she says.

Fill up on skinless turkey breast.

The turkey itself is relatively low in calories if you stick to skinless white meat, so most of our nutritionists don’t mind if you eat a little more than the recommended 3 ounces of protein (about a size of a deck of cards or an iPhone 6 Plus, which is 5.5 inches long). “I have certainly seen individuals pile their plates with more than three times the appropriate portion size on Thanksgiving Day,” says Zanini.

“I am a big fan of protein because it keeps you fuller for longer so I would serve myself the equivalent of nearly two decks of playing cards of turkey,” says Liz Ward, RD, author of MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better.

Scoop sides on sparingly.

Choose your favorite “special” sides that you only see around the holidays and keep servings to a half-cup. Stuffing? Worth it. A plain-old everyday roll? Not so much. One serving of starchy sides like mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, and cranberry sauce is equal to ½ cup, which would look like half of a baseball.

Count “casseroles” of any type as your starch. “Since I am originally from the South, I know too well that even ‘veggie’ casseroles, like broccoli casserole and green bean casserole, often call for creamy soups, sticks of butter, and large amounts of cheese in their ingredient lists,” says Zanini. “Not only do these types of dishes contribute excessive amounts of calories, but they’re also very high in sodium.” Remember sodium leads to water retention and belly bloat (a.k.a. one more reason your pants won’t button tomorrow).

Practice portion control with your favorite dessert.

Most 9-inch pies are meant to be cut into eight slices. If your pie is only sliced into six pieces, your portions are probably too large. One trick if you’re trying to cut back? Tallmadge recommends limiting variety—if there’s only one type of pie to choose from, you’ll probably stick to one slice. Don’t feel like additional ice cream or whipped topping is a requirement, but if you are going to finish a slice off with some, keep it to a golf ball-sized amount.

Beware sneaky calories.

You might be patting yourself on the back for bypassing the stuffing and gravy, but if you munched on cheese and crackers all day while cooking, know that those calories add up, as well. If you’re hungry while cooking, nosh on raw veggies and hummus or fruit, suggests Tallmadge.

Drinks count, too. Many of us have large wine goblets and beer mugs and don’t even know what a proper serving looks like in those glasses. Using a measuring cup if you need to, pour 5 ounces of wine into a glass so you know the line that marks one serving.  “And never refill your wine glass when you've had just a few sips,” Ward says. “Drink it to the last drop and then pour some more. That's how you keep track.”  A serving of beer is 12 ounces, and a serving of 80-proof distilled spirits (like gin, vodka, whiskey) is 1.5 ounces. The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily intake to one drink for women and two for men.

And remember, the first couple of bites of any food are often the most enjoyable. “Don't waste your calories, but don't avoid your favorite foods, either,” Ward says. “Eat foods that you love and that aren't available at other times of the year, like homemade cranberry sauce, specialty sides, and pumpkin pie, and forgo everyday foods like chips, rolls, and mashed potatoes.”