Thanksgiving is a time to gather with loved ones, appreciate all that you have, and, of course, eat delicious food! While some options, such as the iconic turkey and the cranberry pecan salads, are inherently healthier choices with nutritional benefits, it’s no secret that many of the side dishes on the table are far from good for you. So which Thanksgiving side dishes are the unhealthiest?
Well, we spoke with Erin George, Chef, RDN for insight on why exactly certain side dishes are less nutritious. While we encourage you to enjoy the holiday and all of the food at the table, you might choose to enjoy smaller portions or make healthier versions of some of these traditional Thanksgiving side dishes if you have any health concerns.
“My philosophy of a healthy lifestyle means that you can in fact eat well, eat for enjoyment, while also having health goals. If you eat food that is unhealthy, it does not make you unhealthy,” George explains. “So, if you want the sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, have it, enjoy it, then get back on track. It’s not about what we eat one day, it’s about what we eat most days.”
Aside from enjoying smaller portions or making simple ingredients swaps, there are other things you can do to avoid having a Thanksgiving meal that leaves you feeling sick or sluggish later in the day.
George warns against skipping breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. The whole concept of saving room for all the food you plan to stuff yourself with later isn’t the best for your health.
“Have a balanced breakfast, and you won’t come into Thanksgiving dinner starving, which allows you to make more mindful decisions when you start dishing up your plate,” Greo explains.
Before you start cooking and digging in, George even recommends finding time for movement, like a quick workout or a walk with family or friends.
“You may be tempted to head straight for the couch after dinner, so opt for some morning movement, if possible,” she says.
When you approach the buffet of foods, don’t be afraid to show favoritism. If you don’t want to eat stuffing but you’d love extra mashed potatoes, leave the foods you dislike off your plate to make more room for items you love.
“Don’t waste your calories on snacks, dishes or desserts you don’t love,” George says. “Grab your favorites and enjoy every bite!”
If you are heading to a loved one’s home and aren’t sure what will be served, offer to make your own dish to bring. You can bring a healthy option you know you will eat, which can help balance out your plate even if everything else available is heavy on the cream and butter.
“It’s Thanksgiving! Enjoy the tasty dishes and time with loved ones,” George says. “Don’t miss out on all of the memories because you were worrying about how many calories were on your plate.”
So now that you’re armed with the tips on exactly how to enjoy your favorite dishes on Turkey Day, it’s time to uncover which side dishes are truly the worst, health-wise. This way, you’ll know which you should be careful around! And while you’re making healthier choices, check out the 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
Sweet Potato Casserole
Sweet potato casserole can be made in a number of ways, but it’s common you’ll find this dish with a lot of brown sugar and a big, fluffy, marshmallow topping. But you can still enjoy the flavors of this dish while minimizing the added sugars.
“Lighten up this family favorite by spicing up the potatoes with only a tablespoon or two of sugar or pure maple syrup, along with seasonal spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger,” George recommends. “You can ditch the marshmallow topping for crispy chopped pecans. Sweet potatoes are already sweet so let them be the star.”
Macaroni and Cheese
This side dish is a popular option on Thanksgiving menus, but clearly anything loaded with cheese, cream, and butter isn’t the best for you. If you are opting for a healthier dinner plate this holiday, simply enjoy a smaller portion of this item.
If you are in charge of making this dish, there are many ways to boost the nutrients without sacrificing flavor. Sneak in pureed veggies like sweet potato or butternut squash in place of some of the cream. Choose more potent cheeses like sharp cheddar, which pack more punch in terms of flavor, so you can use less. You can even swap the regular noodles for a whole wheat or gluten-free option, like chickpea noodles.
Green Bean Casserole
While it isn’t everyone’s favorite, the green bean casserole is still loved by many. Who can resist that creamy green bean filling and all of those crispy, crunchy fried onions on top? If you love this dish but want a healthier dinner plate, opt for a smaller portion.
If the traditional flavors of this side dish aren’t for you, whip up a similar option that lets the delicious flavor of fresh green beans shine.
“If this dish involved a little more green beans and a little less casserole, we would be in good shape,” George says. “Traditionally prepared with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions, lighten this up with fresh French green beans with a dab of butter and crispy slivered almonds to lower the amount of calories and saturated fat and increase fiber.”
Although it typically isn’t the healthiest option—we’re looking at you, boxed stuffing—the great thing about this side dish is that it is so versatile. It’s actually easy to make a homemade stuffing with far less sodium and more fresh ingredients that still tastes delicious. Turn to ingredients like whole wheat bread, low-sodium broth, onion, celery, and fresh herbs to make a side dish that is surprisingly full of fiber and nutrients.
Is it even Thanksgiving if there are no mashed potatoes on the table? But this side dish is often made with a lot of butter and cream, not to mention salt. There’s no need to skip adding this to your plate, though.
“The Thanksgiving go-to starch and one you don’t want to miss out on over the holidays,” George says. “Have your potatoes and eat them too by skipping the bacon, heavy whipping cream and other decadent stir-ins and stick to a little butter, warm milk and herbs.”
It might be a controversial move, but if you are making the potatoes, leave the skins on the potatoes for added fiber and magnesium.
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Gravy is a popular condiment that pairs well with a lot of what goes on a Thanksgiving dinner plate, from the turkey to the potatoes to the stuffing. Store-bought gravy, though, can be high in sodium and contain questionable ingredients. If you have the time or interest in making your own, you can have more control over what ingredients are included. If you want to stick to store-bought, go for a drizzle over your foods rather than coating them in gravy.
“Known as an afterthought condiment, but no Thanksgiving spread is complete without it,” George says. “Let this be the year you put down the canned cranberry sauce, which is loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Although homemade versions can often have a cup or more of sugar, grab a bag of cranberries and add half the amount of sugar (or replace with honey), water, and orange zest and there you have a much lighter (and tastier) homemade cranberry sauce!”
Biscuits and Dinner Rolls
It’s common to find baskets of some kind of bread at the table, and it’s easy to stuff yourself with bread before you even get to the really good stuff. You might consider skipping these all together—after all, these are easy options to enjoy at any time of the year. If you really want a biscuit or roll, keep portions in mind or choose whole wheat options for more nutrients.
Ambrosia is a fruit salad that is far from good for you. Typically filled with syrupy canned fruits, whipped cream, and marshmallows, this dish is filled with added sugars. For a similar dish with far more health benefits, make a simple fruit salad. Chances are everyone at the table will love this swap, too.
Potatoes au Gratin
This potato side dish is high in carbs, fat, and sodium thanks to the potatoes, cream, butter, salt, and loads of cheese. Add a small scoop to your plate if this is a dish you can’t miss. To make this side dish healthier, there are a number of tweaks you can make: swap the cream for low-fat milk, cut back on the butter, swap some of the salt for more seasonings and herbs, or choose a more flavorful cheese that allows you to cut back on the amount needed. Now, it’s time to get eating!