The healthy side of Thanksgiving

The traditional Thanksgiving meal is considered laden with fatty foods and excess calories. Is there anyway to enjoy this time-honored dinner and still eat healthfully? Well, if you think about it, individual components of the meal score pretty high in nutrition and can actually be low in calories. It’s just knowing how to prepare these foods.

Turkey: White meat sans skin provides more protein per calorie than almost any other meat. A three ounce serving — about the size of a deck of cards — provides just 120 calories and 26 grams of protein. Think dark meat is verboten? Think again. A three ounce serving of thigh meat provides just 135 calories. Either type is a source of iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorus and B vitamins.

Gravy: Depending on the skill of the cook, homemade gravy can either be fatty or lean. But cooks who “cheat” by using jarred or canned gravy are actually doing you a favor since it’s virtually fat free.

Dressing: Make this healthier by sneaking in extra veggies such as chopped onions, celery, leeks, and shallots. Instead of sweating them in butter, use broth. Include whole wheat bread for at least half of the bread cubes.

Sweet potatoes: These tubers are loaded with beta-carotene, potassium, fiber and vitamin C and also provide magnesium, phosphorus, choline, iron and calcium for just 90 calories per half cup. Try scraping off the marshmallows and butter if they’re served that way.

Cranberries: These gorgeous red orbs contain anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin, resveratrol, selenium and vitamins A, C and E.

Green beans: Prepared without soup mix or butter, they’re a good source of vitamin C at a calorie cost of just 22 per half cup.

Brussels sprouts: These little cabbages are high in vitamin C and are a good source of folate and beta carotene, as well as a myriad of phytochemicals.

Mixed nuts: Nuts contain protein, healthy fat and plenty of antioxidants, so crack away when the nut bowl gets passed. For example, walnuts are a particularly high source of melatonin, a compound linked to good health.

Pie: Even dessert, such as pumpkin or apple pie can provide nutrients. Pumpkin provides beta carotene, while apple contains quercetin, both powerful antioxidants. To minimize calories, eat just the filling and skip the crust.

• • •

In general, nothing should be off limits. As you know, it’s all about portion size. Encourage children to sample whatever appeals to them and talk about how yummy the healthier foods are.

And keep them involved in the day, too.

“Have them draw what they are thankful for and incorporate the pictures into your table centerpiece,” says Diane Sowa, MS, RD, Assistant Director, Clinical Nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and mother of two college-aged sons. “Create a family heirloom by having an empty album on hand for their works of art and pictures from the day. After dinner, share memories by watching family movies and looking at photo albums.”

Children can also make placemats, napkin rings or place cards for the dinner table.

Sowa also suggests making Thanksgiving an active day, and encourages a family touch football game before dinner, followed by a light walk after the meal.

“Get the kids involved by making some homemade ‘hand turkey’ invitations with details about signing up for a Turkey Trot.”

With a little advance planning and tweaks in the usual schedule, Thanksgiving can be a day of healthful eating and activity to burn it off.

Christine M. Palumbo, RD is a Naperville, Illinois-based nutrition speaker and a mother of three. Her favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal is, well, all of it. Send your questions and column ideas to her at (630) 369-8495 or

Cranberry Pear Tarts

Makes 30 tiny desserts.
Prep time: 10 min. Cook time: 15 min.


1/2 cup fresh cranberries

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and chopped

2 (2.1-oz.) boxes mini phyllo shells, thawed

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Finely grated orange zest

INSTRUCTIONS: Place cranberries, honey, allspice and cinnamon in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Stir in pears and simmer for 10 minutes or until excess liquid has cooked off. Let cool, then spoon mixture into phyllo cups. Top with walnuts, then lightly grate orange zest over the top.

NUTRITION FACTS: 110 calories, 21 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, 2.5 grams fat, 0 saturated fat and cholesterol, 60 milligrams sodium, 2 gram fiber and 12 grams sugar (per 3 tarts).

Recipe courtesy of Patty Mastracco of I Do Food