6 Tips for a Healthy Thanksgiving Day

November 19, 2013

On a holiday where most Americans gain one to two pounds from a single meal, Thanksgiving dinner can be a dietician’s worst nightmare.

CPT Brenda D. Bustillos, M.S., R.D., L.D., is currently a doctoral student at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health. Bustillos is also a Registered Dietitian serving Active Duty in the U.S. Army.  Her research includes addressing nutrition and health disparities and translating the results into public health practice.

Thanksgiving dinner can be a dietician's worst nightmare.

Thanksgiving dinner can be a dietician’s worst nightmare.

“Because special holiday meals only happen a few times a year, it’s not necessary to avoid your favorite holiday foods, unless these foods could have a direct medical impact.” Bustillos said. “It’s better to make health-conscious choices that still allow you to eat the traditional foods you enjoy.” 

Bustillos recommends these tips for a healthier Thanksgiving meal:

1. Don’t skip other meals.

While it may seem like you’re saving room, skipping meals (especially breakfast) causes you to enter starvation mode and can lead to overeating. Eat healthy foods and snacks that are high in fluid and fiber, like oranges and oatmeal, to help curb your appetite.

2. Control portion sizes.

“Most thanksgiving meals are served buffet-style, which can mean large portion sizes,” Bustillos said. “Avoid getting large servings of sides since you’ll likely graze on food all day, and those calories can add up quickly.”

If you want something that is high in calories, like pecan pie, don’t avoid eating it. Share with a friend or cut a smaller piece. You can also overcome portion distortion by eating on smaller plates. 

3. Keep food at appropriate temperatures.

Daylong “grazing” is also very dangerous in terms of food safety. Make sure that refrigerated food stays cold and meats remain at a safe temperature. Otherwise your guests could end their holiday weekend with food poisoning. 

4. Taste the rainbow.

The more colored food that is on your plate, the more nutrients and antioxidants you consume. If you’re planning a Thanksgiving meal, substitute foods like mashed potatoes for colored foods like Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and baked yams. Make a homemade cranberry sauce with fresh ingredients to avoid added sugar.

5. Mix healthy foods with tastier options.

“We eat the fats, sugar and salt because they taste good. If you or your children have difficulty making healthier food choices, try mixing foods that are lighter and leaner with foods toppings or additions that you enjoy,” Bustillos said.

For example, mix lean white turkey meat with dark turkey meat that has a higher fat content. If you don’t like vegetables, add a sauce side of your favorite dressing or cheese, in moderation, to make it taste better. 

 6. Get active.

After the meal, go outside and get active with your family instead of lounging around. You can play a pickup game of football or go for a walk, as long as you get moving and mobile. 

“After you factor in grazing, you can find yourself having eaten the equivalent of two to three large meals, so it’s important to add in some physical activity to help counterbalance the calories.” 



CPT Brenda D. Bustillos’ Spiced Cranberry Relish

 ¾ c. apple cider (may use apple or orange juice if you prefer)

1 bag (12oz.) cranberries

½ c. sugar (may substitute Splenda in equal amounts)

¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

¼ tsp. ground nutmeg

Dash ground cloves

½ c. golden raisins

½ c. chopped roasted pecans, if desired

 In a medium saucepan combine cider, sugar or Splenda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.  Cook over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring frequently.  Add the cranberries and raisins.  Bring to a boil then reduce heat.  Cook and stir for 4 minutes or until cranberries pop.  Remove from heat; stir in pecans, if desired.  Cover and chill for at least 2 hours before serving.



— Kendall Cherry