In a country where supersizing and soaring obesity rates have become the norm, what is the best way to deal with our annual feast day?
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Streamlining. The key to a healthy holiday meal, I've discovered, is that less can be more. Less fat. Less sugar. Less salt. And less on the plate. But not less flavor.
As a health-conscious cook and passionate eater, I've always loved Thanksgiving fare — garlicky winter greens, sweet-tart cranberries, a bronzed, crisp-skinned bird. It's delicious, even when simply prepared, and good for us. Turkey, for example, is an excellent source of lean protein. Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A and potassium. Pumpkin is an abundant source of beta-carotene, fiber, and iron. Kale, collards, and mustard greens, chock-full of vitamins A and C, have cancer-fighting properties. Fresh cranberries contain vitamin C and fiber.
Still, it seems inappropriate to equate Thanksgiving with "healthy." The humble gathering the Pilgrims experienced in 1621 has morphed into a feast of decadent caloric proportions — one that includes the likes of bacon-wrapped roast turkey, cheese-laced squash casserole, butter-drenched mashed potatoes, and marshmallow-topped candied sweet potatoes.
It's no wonder, then, that on Thanksgiving Day the average American consumes between 2,400 to 4,000 calories, according to Marlisa Brown, registered dietician and president of Total Wellness, a nutritional consulting company based in Long Island. This is way in excess of the USDA's recommended daily calorie requirements of 1,600 to 2,400 for women and 2,000 to 3,000 for men, depending on weight, age, and physical activity level.
The solution? Develop a healthy Thanksgiving mind-set before the main event. This means creating (and sticking to) a realistic calorie budget; getting some exercise before or after the meal; and lightening up the typically fat- and sugar-based Thanksgiving menu. To this end, the accompanying recipes yield maximum flavor with a minimum of fat and calories, and the following tips will help dinner guests and cooks alike keep extra holiday pounds at bay.
For the diner
Thanksgiving doesn't have to mean a departure from healthy habits. A few simple strategies can really impact how many calories you consume. The guidelines below will help you make smart choices about what you eat — while still enjoying your Turkey Day feast.
- Do the math first: Familiarize yourself with the calorie counts of your favorite foods. Knowing that a 3 3/4-ounce slice of pecan pie, for example, contains 431 calories (with 50 percent of those calories from fat) may deter you from that first bite.
- Don't skip breakfast or lunch: Saving yourself for the big meal only guarantees that you'll be filling up on high-calorie, high-fat snacks or hors d'oeuvres beforehand.
- Tight helps fight temptation: Slip on that little body-hugging black dress or those snug-fitting pants. Okay, your mother-in-law may not approve. But feeling uncomfortable in clothes that don't conveniently expand can discourage overeating. So ditch your muumuu, "relaxed fit" jeans, and anything with an elastic waistband.
- Limit alcohol and soda intake: Liquid calories do count. And alcohol stimulates appetite. Remember: wine (5 ounces), beer (12 ounces), spirits (1 1/2 ounces), and soda (12 ounces) typically have 100 to 150 calories per serving. Fruit-juice-based cocktails have even more. The best strategy: Drink sparkling water flavored with a squirt of lemon or lime.
- Monitor sodium intake: Steer clear of chips, cheese, and other hidden sources of salt, such as canned broths and soups, bouillon cubes, and prepackaged seasoning mixes, all of which contribute to bloat and weight gain. Substitute homemade or low-sodium products, where possible.
- Look before you heap: Scan the table carefully. Allow yourself larger portions of simply prepared foods, such as plain baked sweet potatoes or steamed vegetables; take smaller portions (perhaps 2 tablespoons) of calorie-dense stuffing or mashed potatoes.
- Eat with your five senses: Gobbling food mindlessly invites weight gain. It's not your Last Supper, so chew slowly and savor fully; enjoy what you eat.
For the cook
There are many ways to make a Thanksgiving meal healthier without sacrificing flavor. Try a few of these techniques, and your guests will thank you when they step on the scale.
- Start with great ingredients: Build your Thanksgiving menu around seasonal fruits and vegetables that are at their peak flavor. (Hint: Farmers' markets are a great resource.) In the Northeast, for example, seasonal produce in November includes Brussels sprouts, kale, pumpkins, and pears. Organic, heirloom, and wild turkeys are also inherently more flavorful than their conventionally raised counterparts.
- Buy high-quality condiments: Yes, you'll pay more. But the more flavor something has, the less of it you need. A drizzle of artisanal, fruity-tasting extra-virgin olive oil, for example, will impart more flavor than a greater quantity of cheap, commercially produced olive oil.
- Cook ahead: Make stocks, soups, stews, or braises a day or two in advance of serving, then refrigerate. This not only allows flavors to marry and intensify, it also gives you the chance to scrape off any fat that rises to the top and solidifies.
- Replace full-fat ingredients with low-fat versions: Replace full-fat cream cheese with a combination of reduced-fat cream cheese, nonfat yogurt drained of its whey, and pureed low-fat cottage and ricotta cheeses. Substitute reduced-fat sour cream for regular. Or, because it's similar in color, flavor, and viscosity, use evaporated skim milk instead of cream.
- Kick it up a notch: Coax flavors from a dish by adding chopped fresh herbs, a generous pinch of sea salt, garlic, chills, dried spices, or grated citrus instead of automatically using more butter or cream.
- Maximize vegetable flavors — and hold the fat: Sorry, but green bean casserole doesn't count as a vegetable. Healthier, and just as tasty, options include steamed vegetables dressed with herb vinaigrette; vegetables sautéed in a little olive oil and flavored with garlic, sea salt, or herbs; or grilled or roasted vegetables (caramelized to bring out their natural sugars and concentrate their flavors) finished with fresh herbs, sea salt, or good vinegar.
- Roast your bird tender — with lemon juice: Some recipes recommend rubbing a stick or two of butter under the skin to achieve moist, juicy turkey. But fresh lemon juice, strained of pulp, produces the same tenderizing effect — without clogging your arteries in the process.
- Skip the white-bread stuffing (or Aunt Mary's oyster dressing): Ease up on refined-carbohydrate-based preparations; go for the grain instead. Pair a whole-grain pilaf (such as wheat berry, quinoa, or barley) or wild rice salad with your turkey. Equally filling, whole grains deliver flavor, fiber, and a lot less calories and fat.
- Substitute salsas, chutneys, and coulis for traditional, high-fat sauces: Who needs a heavy hollandaise when you can have zip and zest?
- Lighten cream-based soups: Replace butter with olive oil when sautéing onions or garlic as a base. Thicken soups with puréed vegetables, cornstarch, or fat-free yogurt. Use evaporated skim milk instead of heavy cream to achieve the same creamy effect.
- Add textural interest: Jazz up salads with a handful of nuts (toasted pecans, walnuts, or almonds), seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), dried fruit (apricots, cranberries), or fresh fruit (pomegranate or blood oranges).
- Ride the gravy "lite" train: Jus lié, a gravy made with reduced stock then lightly thickened with a little cornstarch, is a toothsome low-cal alternative to gravies thickened with roux, a mixture of fat and flour.
- Make baked goods better for you: Replace fat (and increase nutritional value) with fruit juices or fruit purées, such as applesauce, mashed bananas, or prune purée.
- Cut sugar by one third to one half in a recipe.
- Substitute two egg whites for one egg. Replace whole milk or cream with plain unsweetened soymilk or buttermilk (naturally low in fat), or make your own buttermilk by combining one part fat-free plain yogurt with one part skim or low-fat milk.
- Reduce fat by "greasing" a pan with a small amount of cooking spray rather than butter or shortening, or line baking sheets with parchment paper to prevent sticking.