Health & Environment

How To Make Healthier Thanksgiving Recipes

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension experts say minor changes can reduce fat, sugar and calories without affecting flavor.
By Paul Schattenberg, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications November 20, 2020

Dining table filled with thanksgiving food
A few simple modifications can make for more healthy Thanksgiving dishes.

Getty Images


Holiday meals can be made healthier, without any significant difference in taste, by using some basic recipe substitutions or alterations, said Jenna Anding,  Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences.

“The sugar, fat or sodium content of many holiday recipes can be reduced without a noticeable difference in taste,” Anding said. “If a recipe calls for a cup of sugar, try using three-fourths or two-thirds of a cup. If it calls for a half-cup of oil, shortening or other fat, try one-third of a cup instead.”

Anding also suggests using reduced-fat or non-fat cheese, milk, cream cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt or mayonnaise instead of higher-fat counterparts like regular cheese or cream.

“For mashed potatoes, try using defatted broth instead of butter to reduce both fat and calories,” she said.

Modifying a complicated recipe may not always produce the desired texture, so Anding suggests testing the recipe on friends or family before going “all in” on a holiday meal.

Making Traditional Holiday Foods Nutritious

Many traditional holiday foods are by themselves healthful and nutritious but are “embellished” in ways that take away from their innate nutritional value.

“The sweet potato, for example, contains fiber as well as vitamins A and C,” Anding said. “A medium-sized baked sweet potato contains about 100 calories, but many people add sugar, butter and other ingredients, which really ups the calorie count. A baked sweet potato with a little brown sugar and cinnamon is far healthier than one topped with butter, sugar and marshmallows.”

Fresh cranberries are another healthy option for holiday recipes, she said. Unlike canned cranberries or cranberry sauce, which often contain added sugar, fresh cranberries are naturally healthful.

“Fresh cranberries contain phytonutrients and have anti-inflammatory properties that can promote health and may reduce the risk of disease,” Anding said. “Adding fresh cranberries to salads and baked items such as muffins, cookies and pies is also a good way to sneak in some extra nutrition and flavor.”

fresh cranberries against dark background
Fresh cranberries are an easy way to add nutritional value to your meal.

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Cooking Methods For Healthier Eating

Anding also suggests leaving the skin on a turkey during cooking and removing it before serving to reduce the overall fat content.

For vegetable dishes, the healthiest method of cooking is either steaming or roasting, using a small amount of oil or cooking spray, Anding said.

And, for many dishes, adding herbs and spices can enhance flavor without adding fat or calories.

Low-Calorie And Healthy Recipes From Dinner Tonight

One source of healthy holiday recipes is AgriLife Extension’s Dinner Tonight website. The Dinner Tonight program aims to promote family mealtime by providing quick, easy, healthful and cost-effective recipes. In addition to recipes, the program provides free weekly video demonstrations of cooking tips and techniques along with information on nutrition, menu planning and healthy living.

“The goal of the Dinner Tonight program is to improve health and wellness through nutrition education,” said Odessa Keenan, AgriLife Extension program specialist for the Healthy Texas initiative. “We try to make recipes healthful and nutritious, and we have assembled a variety of recipes for dishes that are 400 calories or less.”

Keenen said a number of these recipes could serve as main or side dishes for the holidays.

“In my experience, however, people usually know what their holiday meal main course is going to be — turkey, chicken, brisket, ham, etc. — but the sides are more difficult to decide on,” she said.

Keenan recommended the following recipes as healthy versions of some classic holiday sides:

Roasted Green Beans and Mushrooms

Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes

Roasted Cauliflower and Grapes

Parmesan Asparagus

Cranberry Crunch Salad

Broccoli Salad 

Cornbread Fiesta Muffins

Balance Is Key

Even with healthier ingredients and preparation techniques, it is important to practice restraint when eating holiday meals.

“You can expect you’ll take in some extra calories during the holidays, but try to plan accordingly so you can keep your calorie intake in check,” Anding said. “And don’t forget to schedule in some type of physical activity to help burn off those extra calories. Take a walk or do some light exercise.”

For more information about healthful recipe substitutions, see the AgriLife Extension publication Altering Recipes for Good Health.

This article by Paul Schattenberg originally appeared on AgriLife Today.

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