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A nutritionist reveals how to make your Thanksgiving meal healthier without sacrificing the good stuff

A nutritionist reveals how to make your Thanksgiving meal healthier without sacrificing the good stuff


Thanksgiving, for many, is the time of year to enjoy food, family traditions, and memories.

But the holiday season can also be a time when people worry about weight gain.

To get professional tips on how to enjoy Thanksgiving while keeping up with a healthy eating regimen, we turned to Lisa Sasson, a New York University nutrition professor who’s researched successful dieting strategies.

Here’s her advice for making the healthiest – but still delicious – choices on Thanksgiving Day.

This post was initially published in 2016 and has been updated.

Come hungry, but not starving.

Eating breakfast ahead of the big meal is key.

It may seem like a good idea to save your appetite for the main event, but Sasson warned against showing up ravenous for Thanksgiving dinner. When you’re that hungry, your willpower tends to disappear, and you’re likely to eat whatever’s in sight.

Instead, Sasson suggested, eat a satisfying snack before starting your Thanksgiving festivities. Nuts, yogurt, a salad with avocado, or eggs are all good options to consider during the morning before the meal.

Keep your appetizers light.

Carrots and hummus could be a good way to snack throughout the day.

Instead of filling up on heavy appetizers, go for lighter fare, such as fresh veggies, salads, chips and salsa, or a vegetable-based soup like butternut squash soup.

Make sure your plate is colorful and full of veggies.


A good rule for filling up your plate at any kind of buffet or large meal, Sasson said, is to go heavy on vegetables. If you can, choose an array of fresh, grilled, or roasted vegetables like beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower.

Turkey is also a healthy part of the Thanksgiving meal, especially if you avoid the skin.

Keep starchy veggies to the size of an ice cream scoop.

This should be plenty
Daniel Goodman/Business Insider

Although it might be tempting to load your plate with mashed or sweet potatoes, try to limit your intake of starch-heavy items.

Avoid heavy traditional recipes when you can.

Opting for fewer marshmallows on the sweet potatoes can be a good way to lighten up the meal.

Many classic Thanksgiving recipes feature hefty amounts of added sugar and cream. Sasson advises people to avoid them if possible, or try out a lighter recipe if you’re the one cooking.

Easy adjustments involve adding more vegetables to your stuffing and plopping fewer marshmallows or brown sugar bits on top of your sweet potatoes.

If you’re not hosting, offer to bring a healthy dish that you enjoy.

Flickr / jules

If you’re not cooking, Sasson said, “bring what you want to eat.” Consider showing up with a plate of roasted vegetables or a winter fruit salad.

Try not to drink your calories.


It might be tempting to sip on cider or wine throughout the meal. But if you’re looking to trim excess calories, limit the amount of sugary or alcoholic beverages you consume. Try having one glass of cider, for example, and sipping on water or seltzer during the rest of the meal.

Make desserts less crusty.

It’s Thanksgiving, so there will likely be pumpkin pie at your meal. Here’s Sasson’s tip for making (or eating) a bit healthier at dessert: If you’re baking, try cutting down the pie crust so that it’s all about the filling.

For example, an apple cobbler with a crumble on top still gives all the apple goodness with less processed carbohydrates. Though it’s never advisable to waste food, you could also consider leaving the crust behind if you’re not cooking a dessert.

After the meal, move around.

star5112/Flickr Creative Commons

Once you’ve finished eating, consider taking a refreshing stroll outside or playing a game of football in the yard. If you live or are staying nearby, you could also walk or take public transportation home.

Whatever happens, enjoy the holiday.


The important thing is to have a good time with family and friends. As far as eating goes, it’s important to enjoy the holiday since it’s just one day of the year, Sasson said. That just might mean being more mindful about what you eat on Friday or over the weekend.

The turkey you’re about to eat weighs twice as much as it did a few decades ago

The turkey you’re about to eat weighs twice as much as it did a few decades ago

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Turkeys have gotten much bigger than they were half a century ago.
  • To meet growing demand, American turkey farmers began to breed birds for their size and speed of growth in the 1950s.
  • Today, the average turkey weighs around 30.5 pounds, almost twice as much as it did in the 1960s.

The turkey on your Thanksgiving table this week probably won’t look anything like it would have decades ago.

Today’s turkeys are a lot bigger – more than double the size – and faster-growing than the birds our parents or grandparents ate.

For reference, here’s the turkey that President John F. Kennedy pardoned in 1963, compared to the 39-pound bird named Peas that President Donald Trump pardoned 55 years later:

turkeys are twice the size as they were in 1929 2x1

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/NARA; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

That’s a big bird.

Breeding larger turkeys

Demand for turkey is greater than ever. Americans consumed 16 pounds of turkey per person in 2014, and turkey consumption has increased by more than 110% since 1970, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Until the 1950s, farmed turkeys were pretty much the same size as wild ones. But to meet growing demand, American turkey farmers began to breed birds for their size and their speed of growth, according to Mother Jones.

Since 2012, turkeys have weighed roughly 30 pounds.

turkeys are twice the size as they were in 1929

Samantha Lee/Business Insider

The trouble with bigger birds

That increased size has led to fewer turkeys getting slaughtered. According to a USDA report, 232 million turkeys were slaughtered in 2015, down from a peak of 293 million turkeys in 1996.

The consequence of this change, however, is that male turkeys have grown so heavy that they can no longer mate with hens. For this and other reasons, most of today’s turkeys are bred through artificial insemination.

Today, USDA regulations prevent turkey farmers from giving turkeys hormones. As of January 2017, US farmers are not allowed to use antibiotics for growth purposes, either. Giving the animals doses to prevent disease is still allowed, but require a veterinarian to sign off.

So as you enjoy your big turkey, just remember that it isn’t your grandma’s Thanksgiving bird.

Tanya Lewis contributed to an earlier version of this post, which has been updated from a 2016 version.

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