Healthy Thanksgiving Meal Swaps

Indulge this holiday and still fit into your skinny jeans with these helpful tips.

Thanksgiving table image via Paul Sullivan/Flickr

Thanksgiving table image via Paul Sullivan/Flickr

Want to pig out this holiday but still stay on your diet? We do, too. Fortunately, Fernanda Copeland, a registered dietitian at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates—who is also a certified diabetes educator and sports nutritionist—offers her best food swaps so we can stay on track while still creating delicious meals.

“Traditional holiday side dish recipes can be loaded with fat and calories, but the good news is that many lower-calorie versions exist today, so serve a variety,” Copeland says. “Maybe you can serve one traditional side and one that is lower in fat and calories.”

For desserts and baked goods, Copeland suggests using a third less sugar when baking, or a “light buttery spread” if the recipe calls for butter, but not making more than one or two substitutions per recipe to keep the flavor of the original recipe in tact. Still not convinced? If you simply refuse to make swaps, opt for smaller portion size.

“If you don’t change the ingredients in a recipe, try shrinking the portion size of each serving to make it lower in calories and stick with only one dessert,” Copeland suggests.

Below, Copeland offers suggestions for some healthier swaps:

  • If the recipe calls for heavy cream: choose nonfat half and half, or 2/3 cup skim milk plus 1/3 cup vegetable oil.
  • Use pureed potatoes to thicken soups instead of half and half.
  • Instead of cheddar cheese, use 1/4 the amount if using extra sharp cheddar and add a half a teaspoon of dry mustard for flavor.
  • Instead of whipped cream, use evaporated skim milk chilled until almost frozen and then whip.
  • Instead of a half of a stick of butter, choose a mashed avocado or a mashed banana.
  • Try rolled oats in place of bread crumbs.
  • Instead of mayonnaise, use plain low-fat Greek yogurt.


BONUS: Copeland offers one of her favorite healthy recipes to try this season.

Wheatberry* Cranberry Salad (Serves 6)


1 cup wheatberries (makes about 2 1/4 cups cooked)
1/3 cup pecans
2 tsp orange zest, grated
1/4 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed
1 T white wine vinegar
1 T honey
1 T olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup carrot, diced
2 T green onion, thinly sliced, including some green top
2 T fresh Italian parsley, chopped


  • Combine wheat berries and 6 cups water in large saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer just until wheat berries are tender, 45 to 50 minutes. Drain.
  • Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350˚F. Place pecans in a small baking pan and bake, stirring once, 6 to 8 minutes or until lightly toasted. Cool and coarsely chop.
  • At the same time, whisk together orange zest and juice, vinegar, honey, oil, cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Stir in hot cooked wheat berries and cranberries. Let stand to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Stir in carrot, green onion, and parsley.
  • Stir in pecans just before serving. Serve salad chilled or at room temperature.

Nutrient Analysis per serving: Calories: 227; Total fat: 8 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Trans fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 104 mg; Carbohydrate: 36 g; Fiber: 5 g; Protein: 5 g

*Wheatberries are the whole grain form of wheat; the whole complete grain before it has undergone any processing.