Baked or fried turkey? Pumpkin or apple pie? Candied yams or sweet potato casserole? Menus vary, yet 96 percent of American adults indulge in Thanksgiving dinner, according to a 2016 Harris Poll. Although most consider the company more important than the fare, food is still the holiday’s centerpiece. Read on for tips and recipes from healthy living luminaries to help you balance decadence and wellness this Turkey Day.

How to prepare a healthier meal

Here’s what you can do to make the meal good-for-you vs. a guilty indulgence.

Choose whole foods

“Just because it’s a feast doesn’t mean it has to be unhealthy,” says Elizabeth Rider, health coach and author of “The Health Habit” (Hay House, 2019). “When you add a few healthful dishes to your Thanksgiving table, you’ll feel a little less guilty about that second helping.” To amp up the nourishment factor, avoid highly processed foods, such as canned cream of mushroom soup or cranberry sauce or boxed stuffing. For instance, Rider recently prepared this whole-foods spin on green bean casserole with almonds and mushrooms. When planning the menu, base dishes on whole foods, such as butternut squash, turkey, kale and mushrooms.

Play with spices and herbs, and use “good” fats

Rely on flavorful ingredients, such as rosemary, garlic, sage and thyme so you can cut back on salt, suggests Anna Kippen, RD, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. Also, try poultry seasoning, garlic powder, black pepper, pumpkin pie spice, chopped flat-leaf parsley and freshly grated lemon zest. To reduce saturated fat, Kippen bakes instead of fries, and she opts for olive or avocado oil rather than butter. Olive oil can even be used in many desserts, for instance, moist almond cake. (Just avoid extra-virgin, which lacks a neutral flavor.)

Try healthy substitutions

Swap in almond flour for white flour in baking and cauliflower or sweet potatoes for white potatoes, suggests Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of “The New Keto-Friendly South Beach Diet” (Hay House, 2019). He recommends making mashed cauliflower (instead of potatoes) and sweet potato fries sprinkled with cinnamon (rather than sweet potato casserole). Also, try using chestnuts, potatoes, quinoa, cauliflower rice or more meat instead of bread in stuffing. [note to editor: insert link to my article about lighter Thanksgiving stuffings, also in this issue; best to publish both stories simultaneously].

For a lighter, dairy-free take on a classic dish, certified nutritionist Kimberly Snyder, author of “Recipes for Your Perfectly Imperfect Life” (Harmony, 2019), prepares a white sauce with butternut squash, coconut milk and vegetable broth for her vegetable lasagna with butternut béchamel.

Make veggies the star

Make Turkey Day about the vegetables, Kippen urges. She starts by serving a crudité plate with hummus as an appetizer. “We load up on fiber to prevent overeating later,” she says. Also, try beginning your meal with a starter, such as pureed parsnip-celery root-apple soup or a radicchio, endive, fresh parsley and walnut salad with lemon vinaigrette. Including at least one dish featuring raw produce helps balance out richer dishes starring cooked varieties.

For the main meal, Kippen tries to include vegetables in several hues in each side dish, for instance, roasted Brussels sprouts, squash, purple onion and cauliflower. She also integrates cauliflower rice into her stuffing and whips up mashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon and a bit of olive oil. For an intensely flavored veggie side, try the pan-roasted pumpkin wedges (recipe below) from Gaz Oakley, author of “Vegan Christmas” (Quadrille Publishing, 2018).

Base sweets on nourishing ingredients

Kippen tries to be creative with various fruits, striving to make them feel indulgent. For instance, she roasts apples with ground cinnamon and prepares berry sorbet with frozen fruit. She also stirs canned pumpkin into Greek yogurt for a granola-topped parfait (recipe below), while Carla Oates, author of “The Beauty Chef” (Hardie Grant Books, 2017), makes a sweet potato and pecan tart with a modest amount of added sugar (recipe below).

For an extremely healthful option, arrange sliced fresh pears and apples, toasted walnuts and pitted dates on a platter. Sprinkle the pears and apples with salt, ground cinnamon and fresh lemon juice and serve. Since apples, pears, pumpkins and butternut squash are naturally sweet, transforming them into desserts shouldn’t require much added fat or sugar.

Make bone broth with the turkey carcass

Take advantage of a usually discarded leftover that’s a nutritional gold mine: turkey bones. Leverage them (along with vegetable trimmings, such as carrot tops and parsley stems) for a collagen-rich bone broth or turkey stock, Rider suggests. Make a huge pot of her recipe after your meal, and sip on it all week long, she suggests. For ease, she uses a slow cooker.

How to balance health and pleasure at the table

Just because your meal is healthy doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

Savor the meal, but be choosy 

“Just because I’m a health coach doesn’t mean I don’t throw down and participate in the feast,” Rider admits. After all, “from a body perspective, one meal—the feast—will not cause you to gain weight or do a 180 to your health,” she says. So relish your favorite dishes without guilt. “Negative self-talk after eating creates a toxic environment in your body. Decide what you will enjoy, and savor what is on your plate,” she says. Still, Rider cautions against eating indulgent dishes that aren’t to your taste, even if they are on the table. “Often at large meals, we eat what’s in front of us. But before you add something to your plate, ask yourself, ‘Do I really enjoy the taste of this?’”

Fill up on veggies and protein

“Make proteins, such as turkey and other meats, along with vegetables, the focus of your meal,” Agatston suggests. “The protein in meats and poultry and the fiber in vegetables will keep you satisfied at holiday meals so you’ll be better able to manage [limiting portion sizes] when dessert is served.”

To ensure vegetables will be an option at your feast, bring some with you, as Kippen does. “Don’t count on your host to serve you the vegetables you need to keep yourself full,” she says. When it comes time to eat the main meal, she fills half her plate with low-starch vegetables (such as cauliflower, broccoli and green beans), a quarter with protein and a quarter with starch, such as sweet potatoes or brown rice. “This helps ensure that I don’t overdo the stuffing (my favorite part), which also helps me control how many calories I’m taking in for my meal,” Kippen says.

Watch the leftovers

“It’s what you do before and after [the meal] that counts the most,” Rider explains. Speaking of afterward, according to the above-mentioned poll, 73 percent of Americans consider leftovers the best part of hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Yet as Rider reminds us, “leftovers for three meals a day for a week after the feast might have adverse side effects,” such as weight gain. Overall, “honor the feast in a way that feels good to you, then make good decisions after.”

For instance, include that extra turkey in a stew with kale and sweet potato rather than blanketing it with mayonnaise and sandwiching it between brioche bun halves. If you have lots of extra desserts, bring them to the office or freeze them.

The Recipes

Try out some of the tips above, in the recipes below.

Anna Kippen’s Fall Pumpkin Yogurt


½ cup canned or mashed pumpkin
6 oz fat-free plain Greek yogurt
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp pumpkin pie spice
pinch of stevia (optional)
granola or pumpkin seeds (optional


  1. Combine all ingredients (other than granola or pumpkin seeds) in a bowl and mix well. Sprinkle with toppings, if desired.

Carla Oates’ Sweet Potato and Pecan Tart

Serves 6-8

Pastry Ingredients:

1½ cups (6 oz) pecans
1 cup (3½ oz) almond meal
2 tbsp arrowroot
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp macadamia oil, plus extra for greasing

Filling Ingredients:

14 oz sweet potato, peeled and cut into chunks
½ cup (4 fl oz) almond milk
3 large eggs
¼ cup (2 fl oz) maple syrup
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp vanilla bean powder
½ tsp ground nutmeg
⅛ tsp ground cloves
pinch of salt

Glazed Salted Pecans Ingredients:

¼ cup (2 fl oz) maple syru
¾ cup (3½ oz) pecans
¼ teaspoon salt


1½ cups yogurt


  1. To make the pastry, blend pecans in a food processor or high-speed blender until finely ground. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add almond meal, arrowroot and cinnamon and stir to combine. Add egg, syrup and oil and mix until crust begins to bind together. Press mixture into an 8-inch pie dish lightly greased with oil to make an even layer on the base and sides.
  2. Cover and refrigerate 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 F. Cover base with a piece of parchment paper and fill with baking weights, dry rice or beans. Bake 10 minutes. Remove baking weights and paper and bake 5 more minutes, or until golden brown.
  3. To prepare filling, steam sweet potatoes 10 to 15 minutes until tender. Place sweet potatoes and remaining ingredients in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Pour into prepared base and spread to make a smooth surface. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until set. Cover pastry edge with foil if it begins to darken too much. Set aside to cool.
  4. Meanwhile, to make the salted glazed pecans, line a small baking sheet with parchment paper. Heat maple syrup in a small saucepan over low heat until simmering. Add pecans and salt and toss to coat. Continue to heat, tossing occasionally, until syrup reduces to a thick and sticky coating over nuts. Drop glazed pecans in small clusters on prepared baking sheet. Set aside to cool and harden.
  5. Spoon yogurt in center of cooled tart and spread out. Decorate with pecans.

Adapted recipe excerpted with permission from “The Beauty Chef” by Carla Oates, published by Hardie Grant Books in August 2017, RRP $35.

Gaz Oakley’s Pan-Roasted Pumpkin Wedges

Serves 6


1 small pumpkin or squash
3 tbsp canola oil, plus a little extra
1 tbsp miso paste
pinches of sea salt and cracked black pepper
3 tbsp maple syrup
12 fresh sage leaves


seeds from 1 pomegranate
pumpkin seeds


  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. With a serrated knife, cut top and bottom off pumpkin. Cut in half down middle and scoop out seeds. Wash pulp off seeds and roast seeds in oven for 12 minutes. (Leave oven on.)
  2. Slice pumpkin into 1-inch-thick wedges. Bring a large saucepot of water to a boil, carefully add wedges and cook 6 to 8 minutes. Drain in a colander, return to empty pot, and let steam-dry and cool slightly.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together oil and miso. Add pumpkin and toss to coat.
  4. Heat oil in a large, nonstick saute pan over medium heat. When hot, fry a few wedges at a time (don’t overcrowd the pan) for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until golden. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper, and drizzle with some syrup. Once golden on both sides, remove wedges and transfer to a baking sheet to keep warm in oven. Repeat until all wedges are fried.
  5. Leave pan on the heat, adding a couple tablespoons more oil if none is left in pan. Throw in sage leaves and cook 2 minutes, or until crisp. Drain fried leaves on paper towel. Serve, sprinkling pumpkin wedges with fried sage leaves and pomegranate and pumpkin seeds.

Adapted recipe excerpted with permission from “Vegan Christmas” by Gaz Oakley, published by Quadrille Publishing in October 2018, RRP $19.99 hardcover.


Photo credit: GMVozd, Getty Images