A (Truly) Healthy Harvest Feast

By Larissa Phillips

Every year around this time, the suggestions start pouring in: how to gorge one's way through the holiday feast, without racking up the fat and calories. The ideas are endless, and mostly of a particularly sinister nature: fat-free stuffing, egg-white-only pumpkin pie, low-fat gravy, sugar substitutes.

The obesity problem, it seems, can be traced to this once-a-year meal, and if we can just cut the fat and sugar out of Turkey Day, we'll all be fine.

I could not disagree more. OK, I do agree that we all eat too much on Thanksgiving, and that this particular holiday table is far too concerned with butter and starch.

But skimping on egg yolks and using fat-free butter and fake sugar is not the answer. Weird low-fat recipes that horribly compromise the nature of some really beautiful dishes will only take us in the wrong direction. After all, this is one of the few days of the year in which most of America actually prepares a home-cooked meal and sits down together. That alone makes it something special and worthy of some rich and gorgeous food.

Talking More Than Turkey

Instead of using processed diet foods to improve the health of your Thanksgiving Day, consider some of these ideas:

  • Make exercise a part of your holiday ritual. There are more ways to connect with visiting friends and family than at the table or in front of a football game. Start a tradition of touch football or ultimate Frisbee™, or at least a walk, before or after the meal, or between dinner and dessert.

  • Serve a soup course. Few dishes calm a raging appetite - and welcome diners to the table - like a bowl of soup. After soup, it is as if convivial humanity has been restored to the hungry masses. People are relaxed enough that they are ready to smoothly move into the next part of the feast, without the frantic feel of a cattle call.

  • Go easy on the starch dishes. For some reason, Thanksgiving has become a race to get as many versions of buttered starch on the table as possible. There's no need for mashed potatoes and roasted potatoes. And, unless you have a treasured family recipe for dinner rolls, forget the bread. There's bread in the stuffing, right?

  • Focus on seasonal vegetables. This isn't just a health issue; all those creamy carbs are a drag to the palate after a while. Balance out the meal with a gorgeous salad, a crisp bright side dish of celery root or fennel and something bitter, like brussels sprouts or kale. Many farmers' markets are open through Thanksgiving; see what's there, and make some last-minute adjustments to your menu, if necessary. It's a harvest celebration, after all!

  • Make Friday a "fresh air" day. Instead of sitting around waiting for your next turkey sandwich, plan an excursion to help your body get back on track: a hike in the woods, a walk through the city, a visit to the skating rink. Plan ahead of time to meet friends there, so you know you'll do it - and because it will be fun.

  • And ... finally, watch out for trans fats in the stuffing! Some of the most popular brands of pre-cut stuffing cubes contain hydrogenated oils. A family feast should not contribute to heart disease.

Happy cooking and feasting!