Guide to a Healthy Thanksgiving: Eat This Not That

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I get to spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen making food I almost never eat at any other time of year — something I’ve already started preparing for, even though it’s not until next week. As most “Friendsgivings” go, we’re doing ours potluck-style this year, and I’m making my three favorites: green beans, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie. The rest is up to my friends to put together — and it’ll be a well-deserved treat after spending Thanksgiving morning climbing at Smith Rock! (Never been there before, can’t wait!)

Maintain Don’t Gain

I always tell my coaching clients that this time of year is about maintaining and not gaining. It’s rough to keep strict weight loss in full focus around the holidays, so the goal shifts to maintenance until January. This is true for other health goals as well — dietary restrictions can be difficult to follow when glutenous, dairy-filled, white sugar-laden treats are on every surface at holiday parties. My personal strategy is to do what I’ve done this year (and in years past): to claim my three favorite parts of the Thanksgiving meal so that I can know exactly how they’re being prepared and eat them with abandon (or at least controlled abandon. Is that an oxymoron?)

My strategy works for me, because I can take or leave some of the other traditional foods on the Thanksgiving table. I don’t care about stuffing or mashed potatoes for example. I could also take or leave the cranberry sauce. But I know that’s not everyone, so for those who want something from every casserole dish on their plates this Thanksgiving, I’ve prepared a guide with suggestions for helping you stay on track. It’s intended to offer you some low(er) carb, low(er) sugar options richer in phytonutrients and mindful of at least some of the common dietary restrictions. The idea is to keep the healthy substitutions delicious so that you’re satisfied and not wishing you’d just splurged on the real thing.

I’ll start with my favorite way to prepare Thanksgiving sweet potatoes and then share a few suggestions with you from CWB and around the interwebs that will work as healthy substitutes. As far as the Turkey goes, the best thing you can do is get rid of the skin if it’s not an organic bird. And save the bones so you can make some turkey bone broth!

Rosie’s Sweet Potatoes

Thanksgiving Eat this not thatMy sweet potato recipe is modified from the version my mom makes every year — which I LOVE — chalk-full of butter, heavy cream, and loads of brown sugar. I’m able to accomplish pretty much the exact same thing using substitutions that are a little friendlier to those avoiding lactose and milk proteins. I also sub out the brown sugar for maple syrup and coconut sugar so that you still get the sweet and the crunch but you also get some fiber and micronutrients too. The essence of my mom is still there though, so I’ll still call them Rosie’s Sweets.

Whether you’re talking about the original recipe or my slightly healthier modified version, both of these recipes blow the marshmallow-topped canned sweet potato casserole out of the water. Maybe I’m biased because I grew up with my mom’s masterpiece, but the typical sweet potato mush doesn’t compare in my book. Here’s how you do it — no measuring required: 

  • Roast your sweet potatoes in the skin for an hour or so
  • Remove the skin (or don’t) while they’re still warm
  • Cut into bite-sized chunks and fill the bottom of an oven-safe baking dish
  • Sprinkle cinnamon and a pinch of salt
  • Cover with handfuls of pecan halves or pieces
  • Scoop teaspoon sized dollops of ghee or coconut oil and place them every two or three inches across the dish
  • Drizzle maple syrup and coconut sugar gently over the whole surface of the baking dish 
  • Pour coconut milk over the top (no more than a cup or so)
  • Bake on 375 until sizzling and brown (about 15 minutes)

Eat This Not That for Thanksgiving

Parsnip Mash vs Mashed Potatoes

Thanksgiving Eat this not thatParsnips are among the more underrated roots in the vegetable kingdom. They’re often skipped over for the seemingly more exciting potato or carrot. (They look like white or yellow carrots.) But guess what. Parsnips are awesome, and if you’re avoiding nightshades, they make a delicious substitute for mashed potatoes on the Thanksgiving table. They also have lower net carbs (if you’re counting) and tons of folic acid, calcium, and fiber. The fiber will keep you full for longer and will prevent the insulin spike that comes with peeled white potatoes. I happened to have just posted a perfect parsnip mash recipe this week — skin and all! Check it out and add it to your Thanksgiving lineup. 

Cauliflower Gravy vs Traditional White Flour Gravy

Thanksgiving Eat this not thatWere you wondering why I didn’t suggest a cauliflower mash instead of potatoes up above? It’s not that I don’t love mashed cauliflower, it’s just that I don’t want to tell you to replace your whole Thanksgiving meal with 50 shades of cauliflower. By all means, if you love cauliflower mash, go for it, I just wanted to give you some variety and suggest something you might not have tried before. AND, I wanted to leave room for this cauliflower gravy from The Paleo Mom. I personally cannot wait to try this.

Right now, the only cauliflower we have in the house is purple. I’ll keep you posted should I decide to make purple gravy. Although I haven’t created my own cauliflower gravy recipe, I knew in my gut that a good one must exist, because this nutritious veggie works great in sauces and soups as a substitute for cream. If you’re curious, you can check out my Cauli-Freddo Sauce recipe and prepare for your taste buds to thank you.  

Italian Green Bean Casserole vs traditional green bean casserole

Thanksgiving Eat this not thatThis substitution is not just a matter of health, it’s a matter of flavor and yum factor. Put these two dishes side by side, and I dare you to choose the one with the cream of mushroom soup in it topped with those weird fried onion that come out of a can.

But the health concern is most certainly part of the equation as well. The sodium alone in the cream of mushroom is cause for concern, not to mention the high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, ultra-pasturized powdered milk solids, and the who-knows-what-else is in that can. Add on top of that the rancid oils used to fry those canned onions, coupled with whatever is added to them to keep them crispy … just seems like a digestive/wellness nightmare to me.

Around this time last year, I shared how to make healthy, delicious gluten-free breadcrumbs for this very dish — the Italian Green Bean Casserole. My mom has been making this my whole life (in fact, back in the day when I only ate beige food, this dish became an exception), and I’ve created a more nutritious, gluten-free version by swapping out some ingredients and making these Italian breadcrumbs. One thing I do to control the sodium is control the beans. I’ve found delicious success with both steamed fresh beans and no-salt-added canned beans. And I always use freshly grated cheese. Deeeelicious!

Grain-free paleo stuffing vs the boxed stuff

Thanksgiving Eat this not thatAs I said before, I could take or leave cornbread stuffing, but when I came across this grain-free recipe at PaleoPorn, I decided a) that it needed to go on the list and b) that I needed to try it as soon as possible. I love this recipe because it could almost be a meal on its own. You could scoop this stuffing onto a bed of greens and have yourself a feast of a salad! It’s not only gluten-free but grain-free, for those who are avoiding grains all together. It’s chock full of veggies, healthy fats, and there’s even some sausage in there to really get the flavor going and the protein count up.

This stuffing works great for those of us who don’t care much about the turkey in our turkey dinner (guilty), and is a creative take on something that’s usually just another carb-y, white dollop on the Thanksgiving plate. Even if you can’t stick with it exactly, shoot for real food ingredients in this year’s stuffing and add in as many fresh herbs as you can to pack a powerful flavor and nutrition punch.

As for the traditional alternative: whether we’re talking about the boxed stuff or stuffing made from scratch, we’re looking at a bready mix of refined flours and white sugar. Might as well save the sugar for dessert and enjoy something that won’t send your blood sugar through the roof before you even get to the dessert table.

Fresh Cranberry Sauce vs the canned stuff

Thanksgiving Eat this not thatI feel like for this substitution, a picture is worth a thousand words. But for the sake of consistency, I’ll point out that this amazing-looking homemade cranberry sauce from Two Healthy Kitchens kicks it up a notch (to say the least). It’s not just a sugar bomb like the canned stuff is. It features whole fruits and nuts to slow some of that sugar down, and it involves zero cooking, so it saves you time too. You can also customize the texture with your food processor — leave it chunky or smooth it out. Up to you! 

To really drive the point home, I looked up the ingredients in the most popular canned cranberry sauce (the kind that remains the shape of the can when it comes out). And guess the ingredients. Guess! Cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, water, corn syrup. That’s it. Side by side with the rich flavors and textures of THK’s recipe (or so many other gorgeous homemade recipes), there’s really no comparison. And again, this one is raw, so one less pot for you to clean!

Pumpkin vs Pumpkin Pie Mix

Thanksgiving Eat this not that

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There’s virtually no way around dessert on Thanksgiving. And that’s fine. It’s one of the best parts of the holiday! I personally consider the sweet potato recipe I just shared to be one of the desserts of the day, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more. For some reason, there’s always room for dessert no matter what else has gone down the gullet — especially on Thanksgiving. Here’s the trick for pumpkin pie: mix the pumpkin yourself. Instead of getting the can that says “Pumpkin Pie Mix,” opt for the box of plain pumpkin (affiliate link) and add in your own sweets and spices. This way, you can control what KIND of sugar goes in and HOW MUCH. Plus, you’ll avoid the BPA from the can. You can even add in extra cinnamon, which has been shown to improve insulin response (might as well throw it in).

More Dessert Advice

Pick your FAVORITES for the holiday season, and enjoy them, guilt-free. Be judicious this time of year when the barrage of sweets is endless, so that when you do choose something sweet, you can be sure that it’s worth it. If there are five different kinds of pie, pick your favorite one or two and do half-slices, rather than trying them all. If lemon meringue isn’t your favorite, leave it for someone else and make every bite count. Just make sure you leave some pecan pie for me. After all, our goal is to live a sweet, rich life — the sweet has to come from somewhere!

Eat This not That Infographic

Here’s a visual guide of everything we just discussed. Click here to download a PDF for reference


FTC DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive monetary compensation for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. I only link to products that I USE and LOVE. All opinions are my own.

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I'm a wellness professional with a Master's in Integrative Health, passionate about spreading health, happiness and personal fulfillment to as many people as possible. I have a professional background in health and wellness, dietary supplements, and nutrition, and embark every day to live a well, balanced, happy life. In being true to myself and what I seek in life, I hope to inspire others to do the same, to cultivate wellbeing in their own lives.

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