NOURISHMENT – Stoke the Fire

Secrets of Lighter Stuffing

By Dina Cheney

Tender bread cubes, aromatic vegetables and rich sausage make it all too easy to get seriously stuffed on stuffing. Yet the holiday favorite doesn’t have to be quite so filling. Read on for tips from wellness experts on turning out a lighter dish that will leave plenty of room for turkey and pumpkin pie.

Opt for whole grains

Bread is the centerpiece of stuffing, so try to up the nutrients in the loaf you choose. Go for 100 percent whole-grain bread or 100 percent whole-wheat breadcrumbs, suggests Anna Kippen, RD, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. Anna Victoria, creator of the Fit Body app and Fit Body guides, vouches for Food for Life’s line of Ezekiel sprouted grain breads, as in her stuffing method below. “Ezekiel breads have a higher protein content and don’t get as soggy as other breads,” she explains.

Alternatively, go with whole-grain cornbread or brown or wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat or farro. For instance, try the wild rice vegan stuffing with roasted sweet potato and apple from Gena Hamshaw, RD, author of “Power Plates (Ten Speed Press, 2018) and creator of The Full Helping blog.

Or skip the bread

To reduce carbs and starch, try substituting steamed cauliflower “rice” for bread cubes, Kippen says. Or use ground walnuts or hempseeds in place of breadcrumbs, Hamshaw suggests. In another clever strategy, try a combination of sweet potatoes, chestnuts and chickpeas, which U.K.-based cookbook author Gaz Oakley, author of “Vegan Christmas” (Quadrille Publishing, 2018), wields in his sweet potato and chestnut stuffing (recipe below).

Add tons of veggies

“I love to mix lots of vegetables into my stuffing to incorporate more flavor, fiber and nutrients, and to make the dish more filling,” says Kippen, who tends to double the quantities of celery, mushrooms, carrots, onions and spinach. In fact, Hamshaw recommends swapping half the starch or meat for celery, carrots, celery root or Brussels sprouts. For vegetable-averse diners, Kippen cuts the produce in small dice so it’s less noticeable.

While Victoria features rainbow carrots, onions, butternut squash and celery in her stuffing, Australia-based chef Darren Purchese, author of “Chefs Host Christmas Too” (Hardie Grant, 2019), includes caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms in his holiday dish. In addition to nutrients (such as antioxidants, selenium and vitamin D), the latter adds notes of umami (the savory fifth flavor).

Include healthier proteins

Don’t feel that you must include meat, says Kippen, who increases the amount of spices she uses when cutting back on red meat in particular. If you want to go the meat route, though, opt for turkey or chicken sausage, recommends Victoria, who suggests brands with low sodium and as few ingredients as possible. (In another way to reduce the saturated fat in your stuffing, opt for olive oil rather than butter,  Kippen recommends.) Or try plant-based sausage or crumbles instead, Hamshaw suggests. For a 100 percent plant-based, unprocessed meat alternative, go with legumes, such as lentils, white beans or chickpeas, or plenty of nuts.

Throw in sweet ingredients

For sweetness, add fresh or dried fruit, such as cubed apples or pears or dried cranberries or apricots. Root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips, and butternut squash contribute similar notes. Meanwhile, sweeter nuts (such as chestnuts, pecans and pistachios) also add crunchiness.

Don’t forget herbs and spices

Sage is the defining flavor in many a Thanksgiving stuffing, balancing out rich, sweet ingredients with its peppery, woodsy notes. If you’re not a fan, try fresh rosemary, thyme and flat-leaf parsley. On the spice front, consider pungent and slightly sweet garlic powder, in addition to salt and black pepper. If your flavor profile is Italian, stir in oregano and crushed red chile flakes; French, herbes de Provence; and Middle Eastern, cinnamon, cumin and coriander.


Gaz Oakley’s Sweet Potato and Chestnut Stuffing

Serves 6

  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tbsp dried sage
  • 2 tsp dried rosemary
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 5½ oz sweet potato, peeled, cubed and steamed
  • ½ cup dried apricots, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
  • ¾ cup breadcrumbs (gluten-free, if necessary)
  • 3½ oz vacuum-packed chestnuts, chopped
  • 1 cup canned chickpeas
  • zest of 1 lemon
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F and line a medium-size baking dish with parchment paper. Heat oil in a large, nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add leek, garlic, herbs, cinnamon and cooked sweet potato, and saute until leek has softened and potatoes have browned. Add all remaining ingredients and toss until well-combined.
  2. Turn heat off and, using a potato masher, lightly mash the mix. Break down any large chunks of sweet potato and chickpeas. Spoon mixture into lined baking dish and press it in to compact mixture. Place dish onto baking sheet and bake 35 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool before taking it out of dish and peeling off paper.

(Slightly adapted) recipe excerpted with permission from “Vegan Christmas by Gaz Oakley, published by Quadrille Publishing, October 2018, RRP $19.99 hardcover.

Anna Victoria’s Stuffing Method

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut Ezekiel or whole-grain bread into 1-by-1-inch squares. Bake 25 minutes, shaking pan halfway through. Meanwhile, chop carrots, onions, butternut squash and celery and mince garlic. Cook veggies in a pan over medium heat for 7 to 10 minutes, or until soft.
  2. Turn heat down to low, and add chopped sage, parsley and thyme, along with butter, sea salt and pepper. Stir and cook an additional minute. Remove from heat.
  3. In a separate pan, cook sausages 12 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally. (Alternatively, you can cook sausage in the pan along with the veggies, noting that the sausage will need additional time to cook.)
  4. In a large bowl, whisk free-range eggs and chicken broth. Remove bread from the oven and transfer to a glass baking dish. Stir in veggies, chopped sausage and liquid.
  5. Bake 30 minutes, covering the dish in foil for the first 15 minutes.

Video credit: blackboxguild, Adobe Stock
Photo credit: skynesher, Getty Images; bhofack2, Getty Images; Ockra, Getty Images; AmalliaEka, Getty Images; Janine Lamontagne, Getty Images; bhofack2, Getty Images; merc67, Getty Images


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Dina Cheney

Dina Cheney is a writer and recipe developer whose cookbooks include “The New Milks,” “Mug Meals,” “Meatless All Day,” “Year-Round Slow Cooker,” “Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Salads,” and “Tasting Club.” She has contributed articles and recipes to Every Day with Rachel Ray, Parents, Fine Cooking, Clean Eating, Specialty Food, Coastal Living, The Huffington Post, and more. Cheney is a graduate of The Institute of Culinary Education and Columbia University. Find her online at, and her complete collection of non-dairy resources at