Unfortunately, the more processed foods that find their way into your celebratory meal — say, a margarita mix and chips, a bag of marshmallows for sweet potato casserole, cream of mushroom soup for green bean casserole or store-bought pumpkin pie — the more likely you will experience headaches, digestive distress and feel bloated and exhausted by day’s end. Constant nibbling on processed sweet and salty foods can also trigger a holiday eating binge that invites regret — and weight loss resolutions— on Jan. 1.
So how do you make a traditional Thanksgiving meal as healthy as possible?
The solution is simple. Instead of counting (and worrying about) calories — as well as preservatives, artificial food colorings, excess sodium, high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars — just eat real food!
After all, that first harvest celebration in 1621 was a humble feast, showcasing the natural bounty of the land. According to two historic letters referencing the event, the menu featured wild fowl (most likely goose or duck and, possibly, wild turkey), venison and corn.
Taking our cue from that first feast, here are some tips and ideas on how to make a traditional Thanksgiving meal healthy, satisfying and delicious.
Shop at local farmers markets or farm stands for produce
Whether it’s Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, onions, winter squash or herbs, you’ll get the most nutritional bang for the buck when you buy fresh, seasonal, locally grown foods.
Reduce or eliminate processed foods — anything in a bag, box or can — as much as possible
For example, instead of buying bottled salad dressings, which contain hidden sugars, lots of salt, preservatives, artificial color(s) and MSG, make your own vinaigrette. Whisk together extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a little Dijon mustard, garlic and fresh herbs.
Splurge on quality protein
In this case, a free-range, organic or heritage breed turkey (non-industrialized, traditional) like the Bourbon Red or Narragansett varieties. Birds that are naturally raised, without antibiotics and hormones, boast superior taste, nutrition and are a cleaner source of protein compared to frozen supermarket turkeys, typically injected with up to 8 percent of an added salt solution and "natural flavor."
Choose healthy cooking oils/fats
In choosing a cooking oil, it is important to consider 1) what type of fat predominates in an oil, and 2) its smoke point.
All plant and animal oils contain a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but oils that are highest in saturated fats (solid at room temperature) usually have higher smoke points and are desirable for higher-heat cooking.
Heating any oil above its "smoke point" (the point at which the oil in the pan starts to smoke) can cause structural damage to the oil itself, creating free radicals, which promote oxidative stress in the body.
For higher-heat cooking, choose vegetable oils, such as palm kernel oil or coconut oil, which have relatively high smoke points. Or use quality sources of animal fats, like duck fat, pastured beef tallow or lard. It’s best not to heat extra-virgin olive oil; use it drizzled over cooked food for flavor or whisked into vinaigrettes. Heating olive oil can destroy its polyphenol content, a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Avoid cooking with oils such as soybean, safflower, sunflower, corn oil and grapeseed, which contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fat. When exposed to heat, these oils are easily damaged, forming free radicals that increase oxidative stress in the body. While canola oil is often touted as "healthy" because of its omega-3 content, it is a highly processed oil that becomes rancid easily and is most likely genetically modified.
Use healthy cooking methods
Roast or bake. Go easy in the oven! Cooking foods at 350 degrees F or lower helps prevent acrylamides, a chemical compound and potential carcinogen formed during high-temperature roasting, baking or frying.
Steaming. This gentle cooking method, excellent for vegetables, is a good way to preserve their color, flavor and maximum nutritional value.
Braising. A slow-cooking method that involves first searing meat, poultry or vegetables, then adding liquid (stock, wine or tomato sauce) to the pot and cooking covered at a low simmer until meat or vegetables are tender.
Up next: Healthy upgrades of classic Thanksgiving dishes >>