Healthy Eating 101: Healthy Thanksgiving Upgrades

Enjoy Thanksgiving with healthier upgrades that don’t compromise Thanksgiving flavors.


By Aimée Suen, NTP


Thanksgiving is coming soon, marking the official arrival of the holiday season. The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family and reflect on the year, but they’re also filled with stress and unhealthy foods that could disrupt your health and fitness goals. This holiday season, embrace the challenge to continue to eat healthier and move more, and make it fun.

Thanksgiving largely revolves around gratitude and a big meal. Big meals are often an easy time to overindulge and tipping the balance of your normal healthy eating. Instead of planning on pulling out the stretchy pants and putting your goals on hold, embrace this meal as a way to infuse your everyday healthy eating upgrades. To make sure you’re setting yourself up for success, share with your friends and family you want to upgrade your meal and everyone else’s.

Set the Stage for Success

With your Thanksgiving meal, you can take more steps to ensure your success, starting with where the meal is held. Based on your comfort level, space in your home, and how many people in your Thanksgiving celebration, you have a few options on how to lay the groundwork for a healthy meal. You can do this by:

Offering to Host: The best way to ensure a healthy eating Thanksgiving is to create it yourself. When you’re at someone else’s house or you may not feel comfortable asking for healthier options, it’s normal to dig in (or feel obligated) to eat what they’ve prepared, even if it may not be the best for you and your goals. If you host, you won’t have to worry about that.

Bring a Dish: If you’re not ready for hosting or don’t have the space for it, talk to the host of your Thanksgiving dinner and request to bring a healthy dish. Share your dedication to your health and fitness, and, depending on how well you know the host, ask if there could be more healthful, whole food sides at the meal.

Though it may feel uncomfortable to ask, a host could be happy to accommodate. Maybe they’ve been wanting to eat healthier as well or enjoy the challenge of making a healthier meal for people. Even if they won’t make the whole meal healthier, you’ll know you’ve got one dish to somewhat balance the meal out.

Have a Potluck: Organize a potluck with friends and family with the theme of healthy eating. This way everyone’s aware of a healthier eating goal and can upgrade their dishes too. If you’re leading the healthy eating way in your circle, offer tips and favorite books or sites where they can get some ideas.

Side Dish Upgrades

Now that you’ve got your venue nailed down, it’s time to talk about food upgrades. Thanksgiving meals are a lot about the side dishes, and there are many ways you can make those healthy for this meal.

Change up the Mashed Potatoes: Instead of the usual white mashed potatoes, try a sweet potato mash instead.

Sweet potatoes are higher in fiber, antioxidants like Vitamin A and C, as well as being higher in potassium, calcium, and beta carotene. You can also make cauliflower mash with pureed, roasted cauliflower, which is lower in carbs and on the glycemic index (less energy crashes later) and higher in vitamin C and K.

Add a Salad to the Table: To bring same balance to your meal and because you can never have too much greens, add a salad to your meal. Go for darker greens like kale, Swiss chard or a salad mix with lots of different greens to up the variety of nutrients. You could even shave Brussels sprouts and make that into your salad base. Add in some shaved raw vegetables like fennel or carrots for crunch and maybe top with pomegranate seeds for an extra seasonal flair. Dress with an olive oil based dressing to get even the most amount of nutrients out of your salad.

Roast Up All the Vegetables: The fall and winter have a bounty of vegetables perfect for roasting that would fit well in a Thanksgiving meal. You could roast up beets, carrots, parsnips, fennel, Brussels sprouts, any winter squash… These vegetables also all compliment each other really well, so you could just do one roast vegetable or roast a few together for some more variety.

Soup for You: Also with all of those great roasting vegetables you can puree a simple soup to serve with the meal as well. It’s a fast side to make and will boost your vegetable count in this meal as well.

Make Your Own Cranberry Sauce: While the cranberry sauce in a can can conjure up fond memories for some people, it’s loaded in sugar and additives that you can avoid if you make your own. Bags of organic cranberries are plentiful this time of year, and you can easily make this sauce on the stove or slow cooker.

If you like the more solid cranberry sauce, use a high quality grass-fed collagen to thicken it up. With the high quality collagen you’ll get collagen that can help your joints, skin, and hair health. Collagen is animal-based, so if you’re vegetarian or vegan, look into agar agar as a swap for collagen.

Protein Upgrades

In addition to upgrading your side dishes, you can also upgrade your protein to something cleaner and maybe completely different.

Go Organic/Pasture Raised/Free Range: With whatever your protein of choice is (turkey, ham, chicken, etc), choose an organic, ethically raised animal. How the animal is raised and what they eat affects the taste, quality of meat, and the quality of nutrients and fats you’ll get from that animal. For a protein (or any qualifying food) to be labelled as Organic or Certified Humane have to pass strict standards that improve and regulate the animal’s diet, environment and wellbeing compared to non-certified animals. Grass fed beef, for example, is higher in omega 3s, lower in omega 6s compared to factory farmed beef, is higher in vitamin A and E, and has a higher quality fat.

Change Up your Protein: If you’ve been eating turkey or ham year after year, consider changing your protein. Maybe try an ethically raised duck or goose or grass feed beef. Seafood could be a great option to try and also get additional nutrients land animals may not as much of, like certain omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

Like with land animals, make sure you’re getting the best quality and ethically caught seafood as possible. With seafood, you also have to consider mercury levels with the seafoods you choose. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great resource to figure out what low-mercury, ethically caught seafood is best for you and where it should come from.

Dessert Upgrades

Thanksgiving, like most food centric holidays, isn’t usually considered complete without dessert. Here are some ways you can upgrade your desserts that help more than hurt.

Baked Apples or Pears: Baking apples or pears with some cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger can taste and smell like the best pie without the refined flour crust. If you leave the skins on the apples and pears, you’ll get extra nutrients as well. You can top these with nuts for some crunch, and if they’re not sweet enough for your taste, lightly drizzle some honey on top. If you want to go all out, top with a scoop of full-fat, organic ice cream that’s minimally processed.

Poached Fruit: Poaching is another cooking method to enjoy fruit, but instead of roasting, you cook the fruit in wine, cider, tea or coconut milk with spices to infuse extra flavor and natural sweetness. Pears are very popular to poach this time of year. You can easily do this with apples, dried fruit, plums, or any of your favorite fruits in season.

Change up the Crust: If you can’t imagine Thanksgiving without some kind of pie, upgrade your crust. You can upgrade your flour to a whole wheat flour that’s been less refined, or skip the flour all together and make a crust out of dates and almonds. Search for “date almond crust” and you’ll find a lot of recipes to try. By skipping the flour and going with dates and almonds, you’re adding in more nutrients and getting more healthy fats and less refined sugars.

Upgrade Your Sweeteners: If you’re making a pie, look for recipes that call for using less refined sugars like maple syrup and honey to cut down on your sugar intake. You can also experiment with using less refined sugar than a recipe calls for, especially if the fruit or vegetable (like sweet potato, pumpkin, or other winter squash varieties) is already naturally sweet.

However you decide to mark the holiday and upgrade your meal, enjoy this moment to be surrounded by people you care about and reflect on things you’re grateful for, including your own commitment to your health. You can make as many or just a few upgrades for this meal, do what you feel is achievable for you right now. Lasting change takes time and small steps, and when you’re in a unique situation like a holiday gathering, give yourself some grace and extra kindness.

Healthy Eating 101 returns with tips on navigating the rest of the holiday season and keeping your commitments to your healthing eating and fitness intact.

Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on InstagramTwitter and Pinterest.

Main Photo Credit: Pressmaster/; Second Photo Credit: Slawomir Fajer/; Third Photo Credit: margouillat photo/; Fourth Photo Credit: HandmadePictures/; Fifth Photo Credit: freeskyline/; Sixth Photo Credit: Teodora D/; Seventh Photo Credit: Lesya Dolyuk/