Cooking Tricks Reduce Health Risks and Retain Flavor in Thanksgiving Favorites

November 16 00:00 2001 Print This Article

To prepare a festive Thanksgiving meal that bolsters health and weight goals instead of undermining them, try more plant-based food than animal-based food at both the cooking and serving stages. In the pot and on the plate, a healthy, holiday proportion is two-thirds (or more) vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans to one-third (or less) animal protein.

According to Melanie Polk, AICR's Director of Nutrition Education, "With a few simple cooking techniques, traditional Thanksgiving dishes can be made more health protective, more moderate in fat and calories, and still great tasting. Instead of preparing a stuffing with sausage or turkey giblets," says Polk, "increase the proportion of plant-based foods by using dried fruits apples or apricots, for instance and chestnuts or other nuts. They provide great flavor and crunchy texture, plus antioxidants and other substances that protect against cancer and other chronic diseases."

Another example is the traditional dish of baked sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants. Unfortunately, their natural rich taste is often overwhelmed in traditional holiday dishes by excessive amounts of butter, cream and sugary ingredients. "To heighten the sweet potato's flavor and sweetness," Polk suggests, "add apples, which contain quercetin, an especially powerful antioxidant, to boost health protection."

Gravy is a third case in point. Most gravies that accompany the Thanksgiving turkey are made of pan drippings and the fat-laden butter and cream that's often used. Polk says, "Why not replace them with a rich stock made of vegetables like carrots, onions and celery?"

The following recipe uses fruits, vegetables and grains to make a rich and flavorful stuffing, eliminating the need for meats that add unneeded fat and calories.

Chestnut and Dried Fruit Stuffing


  • 4 cups prepared bread cubes for stuffing
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 medium leek, white part only, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped shallot
  • 1 cup cooked European chestnuts, coarsely chopped (see Note)
  • 1 cup diced dried fruits (apples, pears, peaches and/or apricots)
  • 1/4-1 tsp. poultry seasoning, to taste
  • 1-1/2 cups defatted chicken stock or nonfat canned broth
  • salt to taste
  • freshly ground pepper to taste


  1. Place bread cubes in a large bowl. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Saut celery, leek, onion and shallot until they soften, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add sauted vegetables to bread cubes. Add chestnuts, dried fruits and poultry seasoning. Pour in broth and mix to combine all ingredients. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Press stuffing lightly into a greased, oven-proof dish and bake at 350 degrees, covered, for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes longer for fluffy, crusty dressing.
  4. Note: In place of raw chestnuts, which take time to shell and cook, commercially prepared (cooked) chestnuts may also be used. They are sold vacuum-packed in jars and plastic pouches, as well as canned.

    Makes 7 to 8 cups or about 10 servings. A 3/4 cup serving contains 141 calories and 4 grams of fat.

To boost their natural sweetness without over-reliance on extra sweeteners, bake sweet potatoes before using them in a traditional holiday dish. This technique greatly intensifies their sweetness, and very little extra is needed as a result. The following recipe uses pure maple syrup, which packs more sweetness per ounce than table sugar or marshmallows, and adds extra richness despite the small amount used.

Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Apples


  • 3 1/2 pounds Garnet or Jewel yams, about 6 medium
  • 2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. unsalted butter or margarine
  • 2 Tbsp. pure, dark maple syrup
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Golden Delicious apple


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. Melt 2 teaspoons butter in a cup in the microwave.
  3. Bake yams until soft, 40 to 60 minutes, depending on size. Peel yams as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Place flesh in a food processor or large bowl.
  4. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and maple syrup to hot yams. Process to pure, or mash with a fork, until yams are smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread yams into prepared baking dish, making an even layer.
  5. Peel, halve and core apple. Place each half cut-side down on a cutting board and cut it crosswise into thin slices. Arrange slices in overlapping rows to cover yams. Brush apples lightly with the melted butter.
  6. Bake uncovered until yams are heated through and apples have softened, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

    Makes 8 1/2-cup servings, each containing 267 calories and 4 grams of fat.

By using a stock rich in vegetables, this Thanksgiving gravy offers a rich serving of cancer-fighting phytochemicals instead of artery-clogging fat. The two secrets to this gravy are a rich but de-fatted stock and pured vegetables, which provide the thickening instead of the traditional flour, butter and cream.

The modest amount of advance planning and cooking needed is more than compensated by a healthful, low-fat gravy, plus extra stock for making gravy for leftovers or a rich turkey soup. The advance preparation has additional benefits, by reducing the amount of last-minute cooking and pressure to get all the meal's hot dishes on the table at the same time.

Rich Turkey Gravy

Turkey Broth Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds turkey parts, including neck, wings, thighs and giblets
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, halved crosswise
  • 1 medium leek, chopped
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 1 small parsnip, peeled and sliced
  • 3-4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley sprigs
  • 2 large garlic cloves

Gravy Ingredients:

  • 2 cups turkey broth
  • 1 Tbsp. turkey fat
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • salt and freshly ground pepper


  1. For the broth, combine turkey parts, carrot, celery, leek, onion, parsnip, parsley and garlic in a large pot. Add 12 cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 2 hours. During the first 30 minutes, skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
  2. Strain broth into a bowl. Reserve carrot, onion, parsnip and garlic. Discard other vegetables and turkey. Cool broth to room temperature. Refrigerate, overnight if necessary, until fat congeals. Lift off fat, using a spoon, and reserve it in a small bowl.
  3. Pure reserved carrot, onion, parsnip and garlic in blender or food processor, along with 1/2 cup of turkey broth. Blend in remaining broth.
  4. Heat the tablespoon of turkey fat in a saucepan. Using a wooden spoon, mix in flour, which will gather into a soft ball with the fat. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until mixture is fluffy and looks moist, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in 1/4 cup broth/pure until mixture is smooth. Add remaining pure. Bring gravy to a boil, then immediately remove from heat. Season gravy with salt and pepper to taste. Pour gravy into a gravy boat.

    Makes 2 3/4 cups or 11 1/4-cup servings. Each 1/4 cup serving contains 43 calories and 1 gram of fat.

In the Dining Room, Serving and Eating Strategies Are Key

"The Thanksgiving plate should be filled at least two-thirds with a variety of plant-based foods," Polk says. She suggests thoughtful hosts prepare several non-starchy vegetable dishes in addition to one or two more featuring grains and starchy vegetables. "With a focus on a greater variety and proportion of plant-based foods, a much smaller turkey is needed," she concludes.

A larger selection of plant-based foods to choose from makes it easier for diners to enjoy a healthful Thanksgiving dinner. Polk cautions, however, "portion size is as important as the proportion of foods on your plate." Portion sizes in this country have grown very large, she notes. "We are eating more food than we need without realizing it, an important reason why obesity has become a major problem."

Diners should keep in mind the single serving size for the stuffing, sweet potatoes and gravy recipes given above: 3/4 cup of stuffing, 1/2 cup of sweet potatoes and 1/4 cup of gravy. A single serving of turkey or any other meat in a healthful meal should be no more than three ounces or the size of a deck of cards.

Source: AICR

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