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Healthy Thanksgiving Recipes for the Whole Family

Updated: May 22, 2020

By Kristen Kimble

When you hear Happy Thanksgiving, what image comes to mind? Your family gathered around the just-barely-big-enough dining room table, which is topped with the day’s sumptuous feast; the faint sound of TV announcers calling the football game playing in the background; your children’s laughter floating in from outside as they jump in the pile of leaves that were never bagged up.

Staff the bird, not yourself: Thanksgiving is the beginning of the holiday season; the kids have a long weekend off from school, families travel back home to be with loved ones, to share in special memories, and to give thanks. There’s usually a golden turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, buttery stuffing, crunchy green bean casserole; don’t forget to save room for luscious pumpkin pie & grandma’s iconic apple streusel! On Thanksgiving, people generally put aside their thoughts about nutrition & allow themselves to binge without guilt. In fact, according to the Calorie Control Council, the average American will consume 4,500 calories after a full day of celebrating Thanksgiving; this is over twice the recommended daily amount!But who said that Thanksgiving and healthful eating have to play for two separate teams? Could we actually make room for nutrition at the Thanksgiving table?

You only serve your family oven roasted turkey once a year, so by all means, indulge! But that doesn’t mean that the entire Thanksgiving dinner should be devoid of nutritious foods that provide you & your children with vitamins, minerals, & fiber. In the nutrition world, we prefer to add to your dinner repertoire rather than take something away. A few kid-friendly strategies to ensure nutrition has a place at your Thanksgiving table include swapping out healthier ingredients to your turkey day favorites, as well as adding extra vegetable side dishes to the line-up.

Strategy 1: The Ingredient Do-Si-Do: Eating healthy on Thanksgiving doesn’t mean giving up kid-approved favorites. Sometimes all it takes to ‘healthy’ up a dish is a little creative thinking & a bit of slight-of-hand. My guess is your kids won’t even notice the difference in flavor (that is, if you want to keep your tricks a secret…)

#1. Mashed potatoes:Two tricks to make this fan favorite more nutritious include cutting down the amount of potatoes by ½ and using cauliflower in its place. This trick will cut out 80 calories & 20 carbs per serving! That’s 20 minutes of raking leaves you can leave to the kids! Trick #2 – reducing the cream & butter by 50% & replacing it with non-fat Greek yogurt – increases the amount of protein per serving, which is essential for the growth spurt your 10-year-old is going through.

#2.Stuffing: Create a heart healthy stuffing by removing the sausage & adding in mushrooms. Mushrooms have an ‘umami’ flavor, so the savory taste of stuffing won’t be compromised. Up the veggie factor even more by including extra celery, carrots, & parsnips. The dull beige of stuffing quickly becomes a colorful rainbow, a swap that your kids will surely love.

#3.Mac N’ Cheese:Mac N’ Cheese is a kiddie favorite, so it might be intimidating to alter the recipe. This year try using butternut squash in place of half the cream and butter. The outcome is a rich, golden dish with the creaminess of traditional macaroni and with the added bonus of more vitamin A, vitamin E, & potassium. Your kids will be half-way through devouring this delicious pasta before even realizing that they are eating veggies!

#4.Green Bean Casserole: Replace the ole’ standby Cream of Mushroom soup with a homemade version made with whole wheat flour, 1% milk, & low-fat Greek yogurt. The sauce comes together quick & is lower in saturated fat than the original. You can even play with the ratio of beans-to-sauce & increase the amount of green beans by 1/3. This trick increases the amount of Vitamin C per serving, which is essential for your little ones to help heal their scraps, boost their immune system, and keep infections away. Bonus tip – have the kids snap off the ends of the beans before company arrives; having them help in the kitchen for such an important meal will enhance their culinary confidence.

Strategy 2: Veggie Turkey Trot. If you’re hesitant to modify great grandma Sue’s famous green bean casserole recipe that has been passed down through generations by swapping ingredients, you can introduce a simple vegetable side to this year’s dinner. The dish can be in lieu of a heavier, cream & butter laden side, or it can be set out in addition. As the saying goes, dip your toes in the water before jumping head first. By slowly introducing vegetable sides to your kids, you’re more likely to garner a positive reaction and entice them to join the veggie turkey trot. A few fall-inspired favorites include:

#1. Rosemary Roasted Carrots:Carrots are a great veggie to add to your turkey day feast; they’re nutrient dense, filling, & low in calories, while still offering a natural sweetness that kids love. Pick up a bag of medium-size carrots in a mix of colors like purple, yellow & orange to pique interest & add color to the meal. The below recipe adds rosemary for a kick of flavor & removes the maple syrup that is commonly found in carrot dishes during this season, cutting down on unnecessary added sugars.

#2. Slow-cooker Butternut Squash Soup: Soup on Thanksgiving? You bet! This golden soup is creamy without having any dairy ingredients, is low-fat, & provides a hefty amount of potassium & B-Vitamins. The ‘set-and-forget’ cooking technique adds to its appeal, ensuring that you’ll have time to join the kids in a game of backyard touch football while the soup cooks.

#3. Harvest Salad: Adding a salad to the dinner table encourages starting the meal off on a lighter note, helping to discourage over-eating later. This colorful salad features fall staples that kids love, such as sweet apples & tart cranberries. It’s also high in antioxidants & provides you with a dose of Vitamin C & K.

#4. Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Pecans: This dish contains quintessential fall flavors, comes together in 30 minutes, & provides your little one with 20% of their daily fiber and 6 grams of plant protein per serving. By roasting the sprouts on high heat, you cut down on the bitterness that they can have when eaten raw & instead create a balanced flavor profile of savory & sweet that children love.

The take away:

Whether your strategy is to include an extra kid-approved, veggie-filled dish in between the mac n’ cheese & cranberry sauce, or to do a healthy ingredient swap in a classic favorite, on this November 22nd, remember - Thanksgiving is a day of family, football, food, AND nutrition, as there’s always room for one more at the turkey day table.

About the Author: Kristen Kimble is a dietetic student and intern currently earning her MS degree in clinical nutrition at UIC. Kristen has a passion for bringing food, nutrition, and cooking into the lives of children, and hopes to continue working with kids after graduating this December.

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