The holidays are arguably the toughest time to stay healthy, among the pastries, rolls, candy and overstuffed serving sizes. It’s the time of year we tell ourselves, “It’s okay, it’s just one day that I’ll slip up.”
But the decisions we make one day can have a domino effect. All that sugar you loaded up on Thanksgiving night has spiked your body’s desire for more sugar, so you find yourself digging for more pie and candy in the nights following. Days or weeks later, we’re still feeling guilty, and might even have lingering stomach pains, bloating, headaches, acne, and the list goes on.
But the holidays don’t have to be a time where you “have” to slip up and then feel regret.
So what’s the alternative? No, you don’t have to sit in a corner munching on kale. Eating healthy actually just means swapping out a few not-so-good (aka processed) ingredients with whole ones. The health benefits of doing so are immense, and the recipes are so good that you and your guests may be surprised at how delicious eating a healthy Thanksgiving meal really is!
Below is a meal planning guide with several recipes my family and I have tried and loved over the past few years we started remaking our holiday meals into a much healthier adventure. And below that I’ll explain how you can use this information even if you aren’t hosting Thanksgiving.
A Thanksgiving Meal Planning Guide
The Main Meal
Just as important as buying free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat is on a day-to-day basis, you should look for the same in your Thanksgiving turkey. Put simply, the healthier and happier a life the turkey lived, the healthier and happier you’ll feel eating it.
And contrary to the popular misconception that turkey actually makes us tired, it’s not the turkey but the unhealthy sides that do, so check out the below recipes to boost your sides with whole and energizing foods that will keep you awake for the football games, dish washing, and maybe even a brisk walk around the neighborhood!
I know, I know, even the thought of trying a new stuffing sends shivers down your spine. But stuffing is one of the biggest culprits of the after-meal slump. Do you really know what all those ingredients in that stuffing box are and do to your body? The holidays are a cheery time of year, so I won’t divulge in the details, but know they can wreck havoc on your digestive system.
Instead, here are two fantastic recipe options.
The first one from PaleoOMG is a meat- and sweet potato-based recipe, no bread (and gluten) at all! Here is the recipe.
If you’re feeling adventurous and really want to DIY your stuffing, here’s a recipe by the Paleo Foundation. This includes a paleo bread recipe you can make if you have or want to get the ingredients. (Hint: If you’re trying to clean up your diet and eat more like this anyways, it’s well worth the investment to get these ingredients now!)
This is another ingredient in the Thanksgiving meal that is a must-have but which can benefit greatly from an improvement. Traditional gravy is loaded with chemicals (if you buy it canned) and filled with gluten if made with regular white flour.
Instead, try this recipe from Nom Nom Paleo that is filled with veggies and herbs instead. And instead of using the Trader Joe’s chicken broth, you can swap out the juices from your turkey once it comes out of the oven. That’s what we do. (Note: Only use the heavy cream that she notes as optional if you and your guests you can tolerate dairy.)
This is a super simple recipe I created that we’ve been making for Thanksgiving for a few years now. It might even be faster than running to the store to get a canned version of it. (Note: If you’re having a lot of people over, double or even triple this recipe — it’s that good!)
- 12 oz bag of frozen or fresh organic cranberries
- ⅓ cup pure maple syrup
- 1 tbsp loosely packed orange zest
- ½ cup fresh squeezed orange juice (from the same orange you just zested)
- 1 stick cinnamon
- Rinse cranberries well
- Place cranberries in a saucepan, adding in maple syrup, orange zest, juice and the cinnamon stick
- Turn the stove on medium heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes to ensure it doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn
- Once the cranberries have all popped, remove pan from heat, remove lid
- As it cools, the sauce will thicken considerably (once it cools you can add water if you want a thinner consistency)
- Remove the cinnamon stick and serve!
Note: This can be made a few days in advance if you want to save some time on the day-of.
Sweet Potato Mash
Sweet potato is a nutrient-rich substitute for regular white potatoes, and in my opinion, are far more tasty! Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A, vitamin B5, B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and, because of their orange color, are high in carotenoids. They also have fewer calories than white potatoes — although they do have more sugar, albeit natural sugar.
All in all, they’re a fun substitute. Here’s the recipe I make:
- 4-6 large organic sweet potatoes
- ½ cup unsweetened non-dairy milk (almond or coconut)
- 1 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
- ½ cup pure maple syrup (optional)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Wash, peel and cut sweet potatoes, and place in a large pot filled with water
- Bring water to boil, and boil sweet potatoes about 20 minutes, or until soft
- Drain sweet potatoes and place in a large bowl or Kitchen Aid mixer
- With Kitchen Aid mixer or hand mixer, mash sweet potatoes on low to keep from getting lumpy and “glue-like”
- Continue to mash while adding ghee, non-dairy milk, and maple syrup (optional)
- Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve!
Steamed Green Beans
This doesn’t have to be green beans, but the point is you don’t have to douse your veggies in butter or cook them to death to taste good. In fact, if you can maintain their crunch, the more nutrients they retain. Steaming is a way to do this.
Take your fresh (or frozen) organic veggies, and steam in a large pot of water (or a steamer basket in your pan if you have one) for 15-20 minutes or until just soft.
If you care to season them further, add a bit of ghee or extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Just don’t go overboard 😉
Sautéed Mushrooms and Onions
Growing up, we used to have pearled onions at my grandma’s house for Thanksgiving and I loved them. But the sauce was loaded with dairy and butter which I couldn’t have once I found out I had a severe dairy allergy, so if you’re in the same boat, or just looking for another veggie side, here’s a very simple option:
- Cut up a few onions and a pack of organic mushrooms into thin slices.
- Drizzle a large cast iron skillet with extra virgin olive oil, heat and add onions and mushrooms.
- Stir often for 10-20 minutes, depending on how much you’re cooking.
- Sprinkle with salt and pepper if desired.
Dessert is a tough one to change up, from grandma’s pumpkin pie to mom’s apple pie — all recipes that have been handed for years and years. Whether you’re ready to change up your dessert for some healthier options, or add in a few healthier variations to the usual spread, here are some fun recipes to try:
- Paleo Pumpkin Pie. You can’t have Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie, so here’s a sweet alternative.
- Paleo Chocolate Pecan Tart. Gluten free, natural sweeteners, even the family sweet tooth won’t notice the difference!
- Cranberry Pistachio Chocolate Bark. Surprisingly easy and even nutritious! (Did you know that cacao is a superfood?)
- Pumpkin Bread Recipe. A traditional fall recipe, no gluten required!
Another easy option if you want an apple pie variation without the gluten and sugar is to cut up a bunch of apples, sweeten with a sprinkle of palm sugar and cinnamon to taste, and bake in the oven until soft.
What if I’m not making Thanksgiving dinner?
If you’re not making the dinner, you have two options:
First, offer to bring a dish. This can help lighten the load of your host and can ensure there will be at least one dish you can eat with certainty. Consider bringing the sweet potato mash or steamed veggies.
Or, pick and choose wisely. Here’s how: If your host refuses to let you bring a dish (let’s face it: we all have that stubborn aunt) or you don’t have time or interest in cooking/baking, here’s what to do.
Look at the spread of food options as you sit down to the table and hone in on the options that are the most “whole”. By that, I mean look for the pure veggie dishes, and the plain turkey. Avoid casseroles and other dishes that have a ton of unknown ingredients in them, as they often have hidden gluten, processed sugar, and other processed chemicals that will leave you tired, in pain and living the consequences for days.
It’s not as common to see antibiotic and hormone free turkeys as they are more expensive and less available, so it’s okay to still have the turkey, just consider having a little bit less than normal. And if you simply can’t do without gravy and/or cranberry sauce over it, just use it sparingly. Then, fill the rest of your plate up with veggies and try to avoid casseroles, rolls, and other foods that leave a lot up to question.
Remember: While a food item looks good in the moment and “it’s just for one day”, what will your future self thank you for? The 15 minutes of glory for your taste buds, or the nourishing and pain-free foods you ate?
Let me know which recipes you plan to try this year and if you are on Instagram, post your spread using #ThrivebyFood. I’d love to see what you make and how you and your guests enjoy these healthy, tasty options!