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7 Easy Swaps for Traditional Thanksgiving Food

For many people, Thanksgiving can test their healthy eating habits — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

First, it helps to understand that indulging every so often can replenish your mental and emotional resolve to eat healthy — so long as you don’t let it mark a change of habits that lasts through the new year.

Second, there are some simple swaps you can use to make your meal a little healthier without losing the holiday flavors you crave.

1. Mix up your mash

If you’ve never mashed anything but potatoes, you’re missing out. In Tennessee, fall produce creates a bounty of root and other vegetables for flavorful mashes from squash to pumpkin to cauliflower. Try a mix of butternut squash and potato for a bright orange side dish that’s packed with antioxidants and fiber. If you’re looking to cut carbs, try cauliflower for a lighter, earthier flavor and a boost of vitamin C. Pro-tip: don’t try to pass these off as traditional mashed potatoes to the kids — they’ll know the difference, so set them up as a fun new thing to try.

2. Fortify with fruit

Salads are one of the easiest places to sneak in extra nutrients. Top your salad with dried cranberries for some sweetness and extra antioxidants. Slice apples or pears into matchsticks and pair with leafy greens, toasted nuts, local cheese and a tangy vinaigrette for a fiber-rich side. If your family craves creamy dressings, try cilantro-avocado: the plain yogurt base is high in protein and calcium, the avocado full of heart-healthy fat and the cilantro packs essential oils.

3. Opt for a new oil

If you have any vegans at your table, butter is a no-go. Coconut oil is a great alternative for sautéing green beans or tossing sweet potatoes in to roast. It’s got a light, nutty flavor and is good for your skin and body.

4. Lighten your loaf

When it comes to baking, applesauce can be substituted for oil in many breads, muffins and cakes, and may allow you to decrease the amount of sugar you need. It’s also full of fiber and vitamin C. Try it in this lighter take on pumpkin bread or in place of part of the oil in this spiced applesauce bread, both of which make great alternatives to overly sweet desserts.

5. Streamline your sauces

The applesauce swap also works when you’re looking for alternatives to canned cranberry sauce, which is often loaded with preservatives and added sugar. This recipe uses applesauce with fresh cranberries and fruit juice while this one uses honey or maple syrup and citrus zest. Both options give your meal extra vitamin C (fruit juice and zest) and add anti-inflammatory properties (cranberries).

6. Switch up stuffing

While Southerners might consider it outrageous to change anything about grandma’s turkey and dressing, there are ways to bring a little lightness to the proceedings. Skip the crumbled, dry bread and instead use a whole grain like quinoa or farro, but keep the other ingredients — sage, onion, peppers — the same to keep the comfort food flavor. Both can be served as a side dish (dressing) or out of the bird’s cavity (stuffing).

7. Cut the carbs

If pasta is a staple on your Thanksgiving table, there are ways to scratch that itch while amping up nutrients.

Swap your white pasta

Try an alternative like quinoa, amaranth, whole-wheat or buckwheat pasta. You can increase your fiber and protein intake with many of these swaps and some are also gluten-free, which is ideal for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerances. Read the label on the box to ensure your pasta isn’t mixed with other ingredients.

Pair it with a vegetable

Cauliflower macaroni and cheese is a great way to include a vegetable without losing the familiar goodness of the original. Plus the cauliflower gives the dish a nice meaty bite that will make your mac feel more like a meal.

Substitute squash

Spaghetti squash is arguably nature’s most magical pasta alternative, with tender flesh that, once roasted, turns into angel-hair-like “noodles” with the scoop of a spoon. The strands are delicious tossed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper or you can top a halved, roasted squash with a bright marinara for a show-stopping side dish.

For more healthy Thanksgiving recipes, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As Senior Editor at Parthenon Publishing, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist on projects ranging from Better Tennessee magazine to Unsung Nashville.

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