14 Foods Nutritionists Try To Avoid Eating on Thanksgiving
We asked nutrition pros about the dishes and desserts they tend to steer clear of during this traditional holiday feast.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.
Do you really have to be wary on Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is one of the days people feel it’s OK to unbuckle their belts and be indulgent. The holiday meal is full of delicious dishes and hey, it’s only once a year. However, eating all that food over a few hours can lead to bloating and may make you feel not-so-great. “Holidays are tricky because there is temptation everywhere,” says Chanel Kenner, a nutritionist in Los Angeles Find out what foods nutritionists say they generally try to avoid eating on turkey day.
Sugar, marshmallows, and butter make candied yams a poor choice. You don’t really have to sweeten yams, says Ailsa Cowell, MS, an integrative clinical nutritionist who runs Food to Feel Good. Yams alone have plenty of sweetness plus nutrients and antioxidants that help fight inflammation, she says. “Yams are super healthy. They’re richer in potassium and fiber than white potatoes. Avoid marshmallows to enjoy the natural flavors of yams without destroying their health benefits.” She suggests making them with coconut milk, cinnamon, and sea salt. Or you could opt for a plain baked sweet potato or roasted sweet potato chunks.
“Skip stuffing and load up on other veggie-based dishes instead,” says Cowell. Prepackaged stuffings often contain ingredients you may want to avoid. “Store-bought stuffing is loaded with salt and chemicals,” says Georgette Schwartz, a holistic nutritionist at Integrative Acupuncture in Delray Beach, Florida. If you want stuffing, try to make your own. Swap out white bread or cornbread for whole-grain bread. Add fresh or dried fruits like cranberries, pears, or apples and sautéed vegetables such as celery, carrots, mushrooms, or onions. “Apples are full of vitamins and minerals, contain disease-fighting antioxidants, and are packed with dietary fiber which will help keep you feeling full and satisfied,” says Jenna Appel, MS, RD, of Appel Nutrition. Learn how to recover from a Thanksgiving binge.
“I’m skipping cornbread on Thanksgiving because it’s available any old time,” says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition. This small square typically contains milk or buttermilk and eggs, with some versions having added sugar or bacon. Add a pat of butter and you pile on more calories and saturated fat. “If a lighter version isn’t offered at your Thanksgiving dinner, practice good portion control. This food is easy to overeat,” says Appel. Also try to avoid using a store-bought mix. “A mix usually contains way too much added sugar and a lot of unnecessary artificial additives and preservatives,” says Liza Baker, an integrative nutrition health coach, chef and author of an e-book on Thanksgiving menus. “To make cornbread a little healthier, I replace milk with almond milk, sugar with stevia or monk fruit, and all-purpose flour with cassava, tigernut, or coconut flour, which are healthier alternatives,” says Kenner.
Green bean casserole
There may be a vegetable in the name, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. This holiday classic can boast processed cheese, French-friend onions, canned soup, and butter. That makes it high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. “Fill your plate with low-calorie choices and small amounts of high-calorie favorites,” says Janet Brill, PhD, RDN, and author of Blood Pressure Down. When done right, green beans are a healthy food. Add slivered almonds to steamed or sautéed green beans. Or try sautéed or steamed green beans tossed with diced roasted red bell peppers and minced with salt and pepper, says Baker. “You can make it ahead and serve it at room temperature, freeing up stove or oven space for other menu items,” she says.
If the biscuits are from a bakery or a store-bought tube, they’re typically made with flour, baking powder, butter, salt, and milk or cream. The tube ones are chock full of “hyper-processed ingredients,” says Baker. Those ingredients provide little nutritional value, a lot of calories, and they won’t really fill you up. “They’ll raise blood sugar, lack nutrients and take away room from eating more nutrient-dense foods,” says Cowell. Plus, chances are you’re topping your biscuit with gravy or butter.
Pecans on their own are a good source of fiber, manganese (an essential mineral that helps with blood clotting and helps form bones), and healthy unsaturated fats which can reduce your LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise your HDL (good cholesterol). In a pie, however, the nuts are mixed with sugar (sometimes more than one kind, such as brown, white, maple syrup, or corn syrup), eggs, and butter or shortening. If you’re making this pie, go for less sugary ingredients, less butter, and fewer pecans. “Pecan pie can be made so much healthier than traditional recipes,” says Cowell. “Using whole eggs is a nutrient-dense, healthier option. Choose more nutritious sweeteners like maple syrup. Ditch the refined flour crust for almond flour.” Top it with a light frozen yogurt or ice cream if you want it a la mode.
Mac and cheese
The dish typically calls for butter, milk, pasta, and of course, cheese. Offset some of the calorie content by tossing in veggies like diced butternut squash or chopped cauliflower. “Cashew or almond cheese or a tahini sauce with nutritional yeast are healthy alternatives to cheese,” says Kenner. “Limiting the amount of cheese and opting for grass-fed cheddar can make it healthier, too.” But with so many other options, it’s easy to pass on it altogether. “There is no need for a pasta dish with all the other potato dishes served,” says Schwartz. Plus, you can have it any other day of the year. “I wouldn’t touch the mac and cheese,” says Weisenberger. “It’s available all year round.” Check out our ultimate Thanksgiving menu.
“Potatoes are so healthy, packed with B vitamins,” says Seattle-based nutrition expert Ginger Hultin, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They deserve a spot on the table.” Hultin suggests passing on the butter, cream, and sour cream. “Use olive oil, garlic, and herbs instead to create flavorful potatoes.” Appel suggests blending cauliflower with the potatoes to get a buttery flavor with fewer carbs, if that is one of your nutrition goals. “Whip potatoes with Greek yogurt or low-fat sour cream to keep the creamy consistency, but lower the fat content,” says Appel. (Here are the 16 low-carb mistakes you should never make.)
Canned cranberry sauce
Yes, they’re a berry loaded with antioxidants and fiber. But canned cranberries often contain high-fructose corn syrup—which means unnecessary calories and loads of sugar dumping into your bloodstream. Make your own sauce so you can control the sweetness. “Cranberries are rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants,” says Cowell. “Making them from scratch helps you take advantage of their nutrition while avoiding the yucky stuff.” She uses fresh-squeezed orange juice, orange zest, and honey or maple syrup at the sweetener. Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table, shares a recipe: “I make my own cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries and I keep the sugar content down by adding other cooked fruits like apples and pears,” she says. “I also add nuts like sliced almonds for texture and just the right amount of crunch to pair with turkey.”
“Processed varieties (whether dry mix or canned) tend to be full of sodium and unnecessary fillers,” says Baker. In moderation, gravy’s the perfect accompaniment to turkey breast, potatoes, and veggies. But few people use just a little bit of gravy. Make a lighter version by mixing in mushrooms, says Hultin. Also: “Using onions and other seasonal herbs as the base—think sage, thyme, and parsley—add that flavor everyone seeks in gravy,” she says. “You’ll boost its nutrients.” Baker shares her own recipe. “Use homemade stock (or boxed low-sodium versions) and thicken it with a slurry of wheat (or other grain flour) mixed with cold stock,” she says. “To this, you can add drippings from the roasting pan, cooked chopped giblets (optional), herbs, salt, and pepper.” If you refrigerate the gravy, skim off any fat that solidifies on the top with a spoon. Check out some more condiments that are bad for you—and what to have instead.
This is a super-sweet variation on the usually healthy fruit salad: “I have yet to see a version of this that doesn’t include highly processed ingredients,” says Baker. Recipes often contain mini marshmallows, powdered sugar, and a whipped topping. “Swap it out for a basic fruit salad,” says Baker. Use real fruit with a flavored simple syrup if it needs some sweetening, she says. Bring equal amounts of cane sugar and water to a boil, then take it off the heat. Add some fresh or dry herbs (basil, mint), spices (cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, vanilla bean), or orange or lemon citrus peel and let it come to room temperature. Strain out the seasoning and gently mix with the fruit. Kenner suggests a mixed-berry fruit salad using blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. “The benefits of sticking with berries is that they’re low-glycemic/low-sugar fruits that are packed with antioxidants and are a good source of fiber. So not only are they naturally sweet and delicious, they’re really good for you.” Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the salad to keep it fresh longer, she says.
This Thanksgiving favorite may feature fruit, but thanks to its sugary filling and buttery crust, one slice of store-bought apple pie may have more calories than a plate of turkey breast with gravy, corn on the cob, and a glass of red wine—and that’s not counting the calories from the vanilla ice cream on top. “An apple a day does keep the doctor away,” says Brill. “But not if it’s cooked with gobs of sugar and saturated fat.” Instead, make the pie from scratch at home, says Baker. “Use the minimum amount of sugar you can, and use a form of sugar that is closer to the whole food side of the spectrum—maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, or sucanat. That way you’re getting some nutrition (mostly in the form of minerals) along with the calories,” says Baker. “The crust is also healthier if made at home using at least partly whole wheat flour and butter, lard, or coconut oil in place of hydrogenated oils/shortening.” Top with frozen yogurt, adds Brill. “Spending the time to make a homemade apple pie will make your house smell delicious, and more importantly, will reduce the fat and increase the fiber content,” says Appel. (Here are some of the health benefits of apples.)
Carrots on their own are a safe bet. “Cooked carrots are a nutritionist’s dream—packed with disease-fighting antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Brill. “Why ruin the dish by coating them in sugar, bad fat, and salt?” Glazed ones are typically combined with butter, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. A good alternative would be carrots steamed and then roasted with grass-fed butter, says Kenner. “Drizzle a tablespoon of maple syrup over the top for a sweet addition,” she says. “Maple syrup has a low glycemic load, is rich in vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. So, it’s a good alternative to sugar, which provides no nutritional value.” (Here are the surprising health benefits of carrots.)
Corn helps promote your digestive health by giving you filling fiber; it can also help keep your blood sugar levels steady. But the creamed version packs too many calories, says Baker. Some recipes include sugar, heavy cream, and even bacon grease. “Corn is a plant food that is already high in natural sugar. Why not let its own delicious flavor shine?” says Baker. “Start with fresh or frozen corn (canned may have an off flavor), boil or steam briefly, then add a small amount of butter (optional), a pinch of thyme or tarragon, salt, and pepper.” Less is more when it comes to corn. Kenner suggests baking or grilling it with some avocado oil, salt, and pepper. “The more we add sauces and processed ingredients to food, the more we move away from the taste of that actual food, and it makes it much easier to overeat,” says Kenner. “I encourage people to get back to tasting food in its pure form, and merely enhancing natural flavors with herbs and spices as often as possible.” (Here are 29 simple habits that help relieve holiday stress and anxiety.)
- Chanel Kenner, a nutritionist in Los Angeles, California
- Ailsa Cowell, MS, an Integrative Clinical Nutritionist who runs Food to Feel Good
- Georgette Schwartz, a holistic nutritionist at Integrative Acupuncture in Delray Beach, Florida
- Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, author of The Overworked Person's Guide to Better Nutrition
- Liza Baker, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, chef and author of an e-book on Thanksgiving menus
- Janet Brill, PhD, RDN, and author of Blood Pressure Down
- Ginger Hultin, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table