12 Cooking Tips for a Healthy Twist on Classic Thanksgiving Foods

Thanksgiving is easily the most American of the holidays, seeing as it celebrates food and the colonization of indigenous peoples. It truly is THEE American day, celebrated at the crack of dawn with adults prepping in the kitchen and children huddled around the TV to watch the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City. While we like to believe that Thanksgiving is about saying thanks for all things, I think what most Americans are thankful for is the food.

However, I hope that with the year we've all had, we take time to recognize how much we do have to be thankful for. We have seen a year of record-breaking voter turnout, representation and social justice reckoning. While much of the work is still to be done, we can all come together and reflect on what we must be thankful for this year (while maintaining social distance, of course). I personally am thankful for the people of Pittsburgh, a liberal education, my friends, my family and honestly just getting through the year. It has been so hard on all of us emotionally, physically, mentally, financially, all the -lly’s. I hope that this article and its laid-back nature give you a healthy (pun-intended) escape and get you excited for the holiday season.

So, as a child raised by a Wellness & Sports Sciences Professor, with a Registered Dietician for a sister, here are some of my suggested substitutions and straight-up healthified recipes for all your Thanksgiving favorites.

  1. 1. Eat a meal before Thanksgiving Dinner to prevent overeating.

    tray of food on a counter
  2. 2. Eat till satisfied, not stuffed. Your turkey should be stuffed, not you!

  3. 3.  Swap applesauce for oils in baked goods.

    apple pie
  4. 4. Bake your turkey instead of frying it.

  5. 5. Use 100% whole wheat flour instead of white flour, and swap evaporated skim milk for heavy cream in baked goods. 

  6. 6. Steam or roast your green beans, corn and other favorite vegetables.

    Roased Veg
  7. 7.  Choose sorbet or frozen yogurt instead of ice cream.

  8. 8. Make sure there are a variety of colors on your plate. The more colorful, the more likely you are getting a healthy plate.

    And now for the recipes for healthified versions of your holiday favorites...

  9. 9. Healthy Green Bean Casserole

    You will need 2.5 pounds of green beans, 2-4 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 medium onion (any type), 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, a splash of salt, a splash of black pepper and 2.5 cups of low-fat milk.

    First, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. While the oven preheats, toss the green beans in half of the olive oil until well-coated. Spread an even layer of green beans on the baking sheets and roast for 20-25 minutes. Check and rotate halfway through.

    While the green beans are roasting, heat the other half of the oil in a large saucepan with the diced onion, until soft and brown (around 6-8 minutes). Pour in the flour, salt and pepper, and cook for another minute. Then, add the milk, continuously stirring for an even texture until sauce bubbles up and the mixture thickens.

    When the green beans are done roasting, preheat the broiler and transfer ½ of the green beans to a broiler-safe baking dish. Spread ½ of the prepared sauce over the green beans, then add the other half along with the rest of the sauce.

    Combine breadcrumbs and 1 tablespoon of oil in a small bowl, then sprinkle over the finished mixture for a gratin. Place under broiler and broil until gratin bubbles.

    This recipe is courtesy of Eating Well.

  10. 10. Healthy Mashed Potatoes

    You will need: 1 head of cauliflower, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 clove of garlic, ¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon of cream cheese, ½ teaspoon of kosher salt and a splash of black pepper.

    First, steam cauliflower until tender. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small pan under medium heat, and cook the garlic until soft.

    Transfer half the cooked cauliflower to a food processor and blend on high. Add the remaining cauliflower until the vegetable is creamy, then add cooked garlic, cream cheese, parmesan cheese and pepper.

    Recipe courtesy of All Recipes.

  11. 11. Healthy Mashed Sweet Potatoe Casserole

    You will need 3 pounds of sweet potatoes, 2 tablespoons of light brown sugar, 3 tablespoons of melted butter, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, a splash of salt, a splash of pepper, a splash of nutmeg, ½ cup of mini marshmallows, ½ cup of toasted pecans and a splash of ground cinnamon for taste.

    First, you will need to peel and dice the potatoes (1/2 slices). Then, place the sweet potatoes, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg in a 6-quart slow cooker. Cook on high for 3 hours, stirring every so often.

    Transfer the cooked potatoes to a serving dish, then top with marshmallows and pecans.

    Recipe courtesy of Eating Well.

  12. 12. Healthy Apple Pie

    Apple Pie

    You will need 2/3 cup of brown sugar, 2/3 cup nonfat buttermilk, 1/3 cup of canola oil, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 eggs, 7 ½ ounces of whole-wheat pastry flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger, 2 cups of peeled apples (gala), baking spray, 3 tablespoons of quick-cooking oats, 2 cups of chopped walnuts, 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, 1 ½ tablespoons of unsalted butter, a splash of salt, ½ cup of reduced fat Greek yogurt, 3 tablespoons of heavy whipping cream and 1 tablespoon brown sugar.

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix 2/3 cup of brown sugar, 2/3 cup nonfat buttermilk, 1/3 cup of canola oil, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 2 eggs together in a large bowl. Then mix on medium speed for 30 seconds or until well combined. Combine the pastry flour with 1 teaspoon of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon kosher salt and 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger in a medium bowl. Whisk, then add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture. Beat on low until combined, then stir in the apple by hand.

    Coat pan with baking spray. Spread batter into a 9-inch pan.

    Streusel is prepared with 3 tablespoons of quick-cooking oats, 2 cups of chopped walnuts, 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, 1 ½ tablespoons of unsalted butter and a splash of salt. This should be combined with a tossing motion. Then sprinkle the streusel over the top of the batter.

    Bake for 45 minutes. Cool. Prepare cream while cooling.

    The cream contains  ½ cup of reduced fat Greek yogurt, 3 tablespoons of heavy whipping cream and 1 tablespoon brown sugar, which should be beaten at medium speed. Serve on top of warm cake.

    Recipe courtesy of MyRecipes.

I have personally tried the apple pie recipe, and might I say, *chefs kiss*. Growing up in a household of health, I was used to substitutions and alterations for traditional recipes. I think that a little alteration is good for Thanksgiving recipes. Not only does it make the day less procedural, but more of a fun experience, to cook a new-ish recipe with family and friends. With the monotony of quarantine thanks to COVID-19, why not try a new recipe for the big ole turkey day? We have literally nothing but time during the holiday season. So go ahead, try a recipe or two, experiment with different spices and substitutions and you just might find a healthier alternative that is even better than the original.

Also, remember, that in America, Thanksgiving is a nationwide celebration of friends, family and food, so it is okay if you are feeling a little heavier or look a little bloated once all is said and done. The day should not be tarnished because you are worried about the impact of your sustenance intake; rather, it should be focused on family, friends and recognizing that most Americans live on stolen land.