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It’s that season again: 5K Turkey Trots, empty trails on Black Friday, time with family and friends, running into (or away from) high-school classmates and, most notoriously, cooking, eating and food comas.
For a lot of runners, this means putting aside the strict training and diet and enjoying this time with loved ones. For others, trying to find something that’s both nutritious and traditional brings a little extra stress to the holiday.
Even if you’re looking forward to a traditional table on Thursday, a few little subs and swaps can make traditional Thanksgiving recipes—from stuffing to pumpkin pie—somewhat healthier, without compromising taste.
Of course, there’s no need to be overzealous. “Many runners fear that this once-a-year gluttony will derail months (or years!) of training or weight loss goals,” says Maria Dalzot, a top mountain runner and registered dietitian who writes Trail Runner‘s Ask the Dietitian column. “But the reality is that that is not the case. Thanksgiving is one meal of the year out of 1,095!
“Life is short and holidays are a time to acknowledge that and be present,” she continues. “We need to feed our souls, too.”
And to be clear, I’m not telling you to ditch your family traditions, cut the dessert or try exclusively vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free recipes. Still, if you’re looking to boost nutrients while minimizing saturated fats and refined carbs in your meal, feel a bit more energetic for your Black Friday shakeout run or simply add some variety to your favorite Turkey Day recipes, here are a few tips and tricks to try.
The Low-Down: Packed full of lean protein and B vitamins, turkey is one of the healthier options on the Thanksgiving table. On its own, turkey is a great white meat that will keep you full and energized for the long haul. However, look out for the skin, which is high in saturated fat, frequently doused in butter and gravy and quite calorically dense.
Make The Switch: Skip the butter during meal prep. Choose slices of white meat without skin; you’ll feel full without all of the extra fat and calories. Either pass on the gravy entirely, or find a low-fat gravy recipe—for instance, use skim milk instead of cream, and cut down the oil content—to use instead.
The Low-Down: Though delicious, this bready Thanksgiving staple comes up short nutritionally. Classic stuffing recipes are high in saturated fat (most recipes include a stick of butter and lots of fatty sausage) and consist mainly of simple, processed carbohydrates from white or sourdough bread crumbs. Stuffing also tends to lack enough micronutrients to make up for its heavy caloric load.
Make The Switch: Although often hard to find in the store, whole-wheat bread crumbs or cornbread stuffing can add fiber and complex carbohydrates, keeping you full and energized for longer.
Also, bump up the stuffing’s vegetable content—caramelized onions, spinach, kale, celery, leeks, artichokes and mushrooms work great—and consider skipping the meat entirely. If vegetarian stuffing isn’t your thing, swap in a lean-meat alternative for the usual sausage and bacon.
Some recipes call for dried raisins or cranberries. Instead of these sugary add-ins, we suggest something like chestnuts, which are a great source of flavor and healthy unsaturated fats.
3. Sweet-Potato Casserole
The Low-Down: Sweet potatoes are pretty good for you—they’re full of essential vitamins (especially A and C), complex carbohydrates and fiber, plus enough antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to keep you going through Christmas.
However, most sweet-potato (or yam) casseroles call for a lot more than just sweet potatoes—namely, a bag of marshmallows, a stick of butter and anywhere from a half-cup to a cup of brown sugar. And some recipes use canned candied yams, drowned in syrupy goodness.
Make The Switch: Ditch the canned yams and go for fresh ingredients whenever possible. Also, experiment with all that autumn root vegetables have to offer. Instead of a casserole, for example, roast a medley of butternut squash, acorn squash, beets and sweet potatoes in herbs—rosemary is a great option—and healthy extra-virgin olive oil or a small serving of natural sweetener like maple syrup.
If you’re set on a casserole, swap the marshmallows for a layer of pecans, which, although calorically dense, offer far more nutritional benefits than a sugary alternative.
4. Green Beans
The Low-Down: At last, something green! Green beans are rich with Vitamins K, C and B2, plus plenty of dietary fiber. And the almonds that are often a part of this quintessential vegetable dish are a great source of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and protein.
However, before you pile up your plate with green beans, consider that many Thanksgiving green-bean recipes (not to mention many other holiday vegetable side dishes) contain high servings of butter, oil and, in many cases, processed, fatty meats like bacon. Sensing a theme here? (Even the almonds, though great for you, are calorically quite dense because of their fat content; vegetarian greens aren’t necessarily a free pass if overall caloric intake is a concern.)
Make the Switch: Ditch or cut down on the processed meat and butter, and swap in spices and olive oil instead. Try adding in other kinds of vegetables—Brussels sprouts are another popular Thanksgiving veggie—to boost nutritional content even further.
5. Cranberry Sauce
The Low-Down: This sugary, stain-prone condiment is an obvious Thanksgiving staple, not to mention a necessity for Thanksgiving-leftover sandwiches.
Nutritionally, cranberries are on fire: They’re full of healthy antioxidants that can do everything from improving immune function and decreasing blood pressure to lowering the risk of certain types of cancer. However, most homemade recipes and canned cranberry sauces are full of processed sugar, which can put them on the conscious eater’s black list.
Make The Switch: If you’re buying premade, make sure to read the nutrition label for a natural, low-sugar option.
When making cranberry sauce from scratch, again, the key is to use ingredients that don’t contain added, processed sugar. Use fresh or frozen cranberries and sweeten the sauce with naturally sweet ingredients like pineapple juice, unsweetened applesauce, orange juice or honey.
6. Bread Rolls
The Low-Down: Although some prefer to keep these in the pantry until it’s time to make sandwiches from the leftovers, bread rolls, crescent rolls and other buttery breads are a frequent occurrence on the holiday table.
These days, it’s common to hear polarized opinions about carbohydrates, especially among athletes. Some swear by low-carb diets, while others carbo-load constantly. Regardless of your stance, when you do reach for the baked goods, complex carbs are your friends, providing longer-lasting energy and more nutrients than the simple carbohydrates found in white breads.
Make the Switch: Always read the nutrition label. Do the rolls have “enriched iron niacin” in them? That means the carbs are as simple as it gets. Instead, try to find a nutty, whole-wheat alternative with a short list of natural ingredients. Multi-grain options offer richer flavors, and some include nuts and seeds (think flax and chia for those healthy omega-3s) that add nutritious heartiness to the bread.
Even with whole-grain rolls, however, keep in mind that both stuffing and sweet potatoes dishes are also carbohydrate heavy—making it easy to inadvertently carbo-load.
7. Pumpkin Pie
The Low-Down: My personal favorite part of Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie is a delicious and—yes—potentially nutritious dessert staple.
On its own, pumpkin is full of Vitamin A, fiber, potassium and antioxidants, and is relatively low in calories. However, most pumpkin-pie recipes call for a lot of sugar in the filling, and plenty of butter and white flour for the crust. And we haven’t even gotten to the whipped cream yet.
Make the Switch: It’s surprisingly easy to boost the nutritional content of pumpkin pie. Although it might take some work, making the pumpkin puree from scratch—buy a whole pumpkin, slice into small cubes, boil and mash—not only tastes great, but is an easy way to limit the chemical add-ins usually present in canned purees.
Use natural sweeteners like applesauce, pineapple juice and honey instead of white sugar. If you’re making the crust from scratch, try whole-wheat pastry flour or another whole-grain alternative to processed flour, or find a crust recipe that calls for extra-virgin olive oil or eggs instead of butter.
8. Apple Pie
The Low-Down: Although an apple a day might keep the doctor away, apple pie probably won’t have the same effect.
While apples are full of fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, apple pie struggles with the same high sugar and fatty crust that pumpkin pie does. Most recipes call for a cup of sugar in the pie filling, and the crust’s delicious flakiness comes from processed, buttery goodness. The high saturated-fat and sugar content makes this treat hard to pass up, but equally hard for your body to run on.
Make the Switch: As with pumpkin pie, use fresh apples, natural sweeteners and a whole-grain, butter-free crust.
Alternatively, try baking a low-sugar apple crisp or an apple crumble, with whole-grain oats for a crunchy topping full of fiber.
And of course, “Remember what Thanksgiving is about: tradition, being with family and friends and expressing gratitude for all that we have,” says Dalzot. “Eating a piece of your grandmother’s pie can be nostalgic and tied to memories of your childhood; that is a very powerful thing.”