Feast On These: The Healthiest Thanksgiving Ingredients

Several famed foods of the holiday spread have surprising benefits.

Related To:

Photo By: Thinkstock

Photo By: Matt Armendariz ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Pass the Kale (and More)

The words “healthy” and “Thanksgiving” aren’t ones you normally would think of putting together in the same sentence. The holiday of giving thanks has become synonymous with eating yourself silly — a national day of gorging on a buffet that literally goes from soup to nuts (plus, pie, pie and more pie!).


However, several foods traditionally associated with the Thanksgiving feast are actually inherently healthy, if you don’t smother them in heavy sauces, sugar and the like. This lineup includes seven that rank particularly high on the nutritional scale. That said, you don’t want to worry too much about indulging in a piece of pie (or two). After all, it is Thanksgiving, a day to relax and enjoy good food with your family and friends — and not obsess over every morsel you put in your mouth!


By Sally Wadyka

Brussels Sprouts

Why They’re Good for You: They’re part of the cruciferous vegetable family, famed for containing potential cancer-fighting compounds called glucosinolates, says Mary Ryan, MS, RDN, owner of Beyond Broccoli nutrition counseling, in Jackson, Wyo. Brussels sprouts' nutritional resume also includes vitamin C, fiber and numerous good-for-you phytochemicals.


How to Keep Them Healthy: Toss them with olive oil, orange juice, salt and pepper, then roast them. Up the nutrition (and deliciousness) factor by sprinkling some roasted pecans, pistachios or walnuts on top.


Why It’s Good for You: Cornbread is a source of whole grains. “Eating whole grains may lower the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” says Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cornmeal is also gluten-free, making it a handy alternative to wheat flour for those with gluten sensitivities.

How to Keep It Healthy: Use cornbread in stuffing to work a whole grain into the mix. And if you serve cornbread at the table, limit yourself to a reasonable schmear of butter per piece.

Get the Recipe: Creamed Corn Cornbread


Why They’re Good for You: Like all berries, these Thanksgiving staples are antioxidant powerhouses and also supply fiber. “But cranberries also contain some unique compounds that prevent and treat urinary tract infections, improve cholesterol and may contribute to beneficial bacteria in the stomach,” Ryan says.


How to Keep Them Healthy: Forgo the gelatinous canned variety and use fresh or frozen berries to make your own cranberry sauce. Ryan suggests mixing berries with chopped pears, a drizzle of pure maple syrup and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Dark Leafy Greens

Why They’re Good for You: “Dark leafy greens are a detoxing agent and have benefits for lowering cholesterol,” says Ginn-Meadow. “When you fill your Thanksgiving plate, make half of it green.”


How to Keep Them Healthy: Rather than cooking kale or collard greens with ham or bacon, saute the leaves with small pieces of smoked turkey or onions to enhance flavor, Ginn-Meadow suggests.


Why They’re Good for You: Pecans have worthy stores of thiamin and zinc, and they have respectable levels of antioxidants. They also supply heart-healthy fats.


How to Keep Them Healthy: Pecan pie, not surprisingly, is mainly known in dietary circles for its excess calories and sugar. But if you can't resist a slice, you will at least ingest some of the pecans’ nutritional benefits. A healthier way to incorporate pecans into the Thanksgiving feast is adding toasted chopped pieces to the stuffing mix.


Why It’s Good for You: The fall favorite is a decent source of fiber and a beta carotene bonanza. The seeds have their own fine qualities, including vitamin E, iron and "good" fats.


How to Keep It Healthy: “It’s really easy to make a healthier version of the classic pumpkin pie,” Ryan says. Try using whole-wheat or almond flour mixed with white flour for the crust. And because pumpkin has such a naturally creamy texture and a hint of sweetness, it's not necessary to go overboard with cream or additional sugar to make a dessert filling.

Sweet Potatoes

Why They’re Good for You: These orange tubers have a cache of antioxidants and, like sweet pumpkin, impressive stores of beta carotene — plus a fair amount of fiber. Eat both the skin and the flesh to reap the entire range of nutritional goodness. 


How to Keep Them Healthy: Skip the customary marshmallow topping on the sweet potato casserole to scale back on calories, added sugars and artificial ingredients. Instead, slice and roast the potatoes, then drizzle them with a little pure maple syrup and a sprinkle of cinnamon to capitalize on their inherent sweetness.