This time of year, you're bound to see articles tallying up the calories in your Thanksgiving meal, or how much exercise you need to do to burn off the feast. Forget all that. Instead, we’d like to highlight the potential benefits of your holiday dinner, along with simple ways to create a healthier balance on your plate—so you can feel good about what you’re putting in your body, and focus on enjoying your food and the company. Below, the nutritional highlights for five traditional dishes.
A three-ounce portion of skinless turkey breast can provide 25 grams of lean protein, along with B vitamins and minerals, including a significant amount of selenium, which acts as an antioxidant. Turkey also provides smaller amounts of zinc, magnesium, and potassium; no carbs; and just a few grams of fat.
Prep: To bolster your intake of nutrients (including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids), opt for an organic, pasture-raised bird. Dark meat offers more vitamins and minerals, so consider reaching for a combo of breast and dark meat. Finally, stick with a portion about the size of a deck of cards in thickness and width. (And go easy on the gravy.)
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These gorgeous root veggies are antioxidant powerhouses. They’re also bursting with immune-supporting vitamins A and C, and provide energy-boosting B vitamins, potassium (which helps regulate blood pressure), and manganese, a mineral that helps produce collagen and promote skin and bone health. The anti-inflammatory compounds in sweet potatoes help fend off chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. And their fiber intake makes them a slow-burning starch that won’t spike blood sugar and insulin levels.
Prep: Instead of sweet potato casserole that’s loaded up with sugar and dairy, consider serving these gems baked, drizzled with a light sauce made from pure maple syrup, virgin coconut oil, and pumpkin pie spice. To thwart post-meal sluggishness, stick with a portion about the size of half a tennis ball.
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This member of the cruciferous vegetable family (which also includes cauliflower, kale, broccoli, cabbage, and collard greens) is a potent source of anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants. Brussels sprouts are also a great source of vitamin C for immune support, vitamin K for bone health, and fiber, to support digestive health. Natural substances in this veggie act as “detoxifiers” by helping to deactivate potentially damaging chemicals, or shuttle them out of the body more quickly.
Prep: Rather than bathing Brussels sprouts in butter, simply slice lengthwise, toss in extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper, and roast at 350 F until slightly crisp. To curb carbs and calories, aim to make your portion of green veggies at least double that of your starch.
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You’ve probably heard that cranberries help prevent urinary tract infections. Other studies suggest that eating this gorgeous berry can help lower the risk of certain cancers, as well as age-related vision loss; and reduce LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol). Cranberries also protect oral health by preventing bacteria from clinging to teeth.
Prep: Look for a pre-made whole berry sauce, or make your own. For the latter, combine 100% orange juice with pure maple syrup and fresh cranberries, and simmer until the berries pop. Remove from heat, stir in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and organic orange rind, and chill to thicken.
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Just a half cup of pumpkin puree packs nearly 400% of the daily recommended target for vitamin A. This key nutrient, which acts as a cell-protective antioxidant, supports immunity, as well as lung, eye, and skin health; and has been shown to protect against cognitive decline. Pumpkin also supplies bone-boosting vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.
Prep: If you don’t absolutely love the crust, make a pie without it, or leave it on your plate to shave off some carbs and calories. And if you’re making your own pie, consider a dairy-free version made with plant milk instead of evaporated cow’s milk, and maple syrup instead of refined sugar.
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Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.