Even the most healthnuttiest among us can short circuit upon sitting down to a holiday table set with massive dinner plates, buttered everything and the copious amounts of wine we think we'll need to survive this year's family drama. Mindfully indulging this Thanksgiving by making small tweaks to traditional favorites and remembering a few moderation tricks can be a big help in kicking off the holiday season without feeling deprived or as though you've abandoned a year's worth of healthy living.
We've tapped two of San Francisco's healthiest gastronomes to share their best advice on healthy substitutions, favorite TG indulgences and how to prepare delicious plant-based alternatives. Here are Edwina Clark, MS, RD, CSSD and head of nutrition and wellness at Yummly, and Mahin Arastu, neurobiologist-turned-healthy living expert on making this Thanksgiving your most balanced yet.
7x7: How do you plan to cook a family Thanksgiving meal with healthier options?
EC: If I am preparing a meal for others, I will always have plant-heavy options on the table in addition to protein. Crispy roasted veggies with salt, pepper and olive oil, and a hearty salad like this one are two of my go-tos.
In addition, I think carefully about the starch. I will often sub-out mashed potatoes for roasted sweet potatoes with caramelized onions for extra fiber, vitamin A, and anti-inflammatory components such as quercetin. Sometimes I will do a quinoa salad as well, with fresh herbs, spices, and dried fruit. I love the heartiness of quinoa—it's one of the few grains that's also a complete protein, and it's packed with fiber for extra filling power.
My go-to for an appetizer is a revamped version of the cheese plate. I do one strong cheese like a sharp cheddar, and the rest of the plate will be packed with nuts, fresh and dried fruit, whole grain crackers (Mary's Gone Crackers are my favorite), hummus, and crudites.
Are there certain Thanksgiving items that are naturally healthy? Do you have any clever tricks to making traditional dishes better for you?
EC: How healthy a specific dish is really depends on how it's prepared. For example, roasted veggies are full of nutrients, but if you use a stick of butter to prepare them the saturated fat goes through the roof, and they become a less healthy option. Similarly sweet potatoes become less healthy when you add buckets of marshmallows to them.
I substitute butter for olive oil or vegetable oil wherever I can. It doesn't work for pie crust, but for many other dishes the end product is nearly the same. I also titrate down cream in dishes by adding plain Greek yogurt instead. Again, this doesn't work for everything, but it's a great substitute in many dishes.
If I am preparing something like cranberry sauce, I look for recipes that derive sweetness from natural sources such as dried fruit and orange juice, rather than buckets of added sugar. For stuffing and dinner rolls, swapping white bread for 100% whole grain bread is a simple substitute that provides additional fiber. In my experience, people won't notice the difference, particularly when you're using in a recipe!
MA: I love French green beans because they are so healthy boiled or roasted, then drizzled with olive oil and French sea salt and top with sliced almonds. They are filled with Vitamin C, potassium and protein.
What are the most nutritious Thanksgiving staples?
EC: I am a firm believer that there is room for everything in moderation. If you love stuffing, put stuffing on your plate, but do it in moderation and enjoy every bite rather than woofing it down! Thanksgiving is only one meal one day of the year.
MA: If you cook your food at home, most foods are fairly nutritious, believe it or not. Definitely stick with the green beans for a must-have. Also a homemade cranberry sauce prepared with fresh cranberries, orange peel and a little sugar is a great upgrade from its preservative-filled canned counterpart. Making a fresh loaf of bread is well worth it. I make my bread with only flour, salt, yeast and water. This recipe is a great place to start.
For those who choose to save a turkey and go for a plant-based alternative instead, what do you recommend?
EC: 'Going tofurky' can be intimidating for many family members, so I recommend doing something more familiar if you're diving into a vegetarian Thanksgiving for the first time. Winter squash stuffed with beans and rice/quinoa, quinoa salads, and vegetable tarts/galettes are all colorful, delicious vegetarian dishes that can be a hit with non-vegetarian family members.
MA: A hearty favorite is a porcini mushroom ragout served with or without a poached duck egg on San Francisco sourdough. It's one of many great vegetarian dishes from Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook, Plenty. This dish is so flavorful, and pairs well with traditional Thanksgiving sides. Let's face it, I've never met person who's said "I love turkey," so why not give something else a try?
Are there certain spices or condiments that can make a Thanksgiving meal healthier?
EC: Spices are filled with anti-inflammatory components and are a great way to add flavor and aroma to food over the holidays. Although there is still much to be learned about how specific spices impact health, emerging evidence indicates the following:
- Cinnamon may help lower blood sugar levels
- Turmeric has strong anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce oxidative damage, ease gastrointestinal issues, control cholesterol, reduce joint pain, and ward-off heart disease
- Ginger helps alleviate nausea and motion sickness, and may be beneficial for relieving arthritis pain
- Garlic has anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, and may help deactivate carcinogens, and keep blood vessels elastic
For condiments: Homemade cranberry sauce is a rich source of antioxidants and may help ward-off and treat UTIs.
MA: Yes, nigella seeds sprinkled on your green beans adds a peppery flavor and has historically been known to battle diabetes and many cancers. I also am adding my own naturally fermented pickled vegetables as a condiment to the starter cheese plate as a raw, vegan, whole, probiotic food with Ayurvedic spices such as turmeric. I also love adding a little wasabi and chopped raw shallots to mashed potatoes.
And what about healthy desserts?
EC: Most of the traditional Thanksgiving desserts are on the calorie-dense side, however you can lighten them up with a little creativity. For example, pumpkin mousse made with Greek yogurt, baked apples with a crisp topping, and mini pie bites (instead of the whole pie) are great ways to keep dessert on the light side.
MA: Saffron poached pears are a nice addition to pumpkin pies or ice cream. Medjool dates stuffed with fresh mascarpone from Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building and sprinkled with chocolate is so delicious. If your guests do not have nut allergies, I also like to top the dates with crushed pistachio or almond. It's a great way to add protein, especially for the vegetarians in the group!
Any rules on Thanksgiving and alcohol?
EC: I recommend keeping your drinks simple and boozing in moderation. Skip the creamy, sugary cocktails, and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer instead. Some cocktails can provide north of 300 kcal per serving—personally I would rather enjoy that as pie! The other thing about alcohol is that it has a blood-sugar lowering effect by reducing a process called gluconeogenesis. This can ultimately make you hungrier, and lead to needless snacking.
MA: Keep it light on the alcohol, as Thanksgiving often turns into an all-day eating event. My favorite alternative to alcohol is fresh apple cider with mulling spices—it brings me back to autumn in New England.