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While turkey has its fans, many people see the side dishes as the real stars of the Thanksgiving meal. But when it comes to nutrition, not all sides are created equal.
Plenty of Thanksgiving favorites are drowning in butter, sugar and other unhealthy ingredients ― even those that seem “healthy” due to their vegetable content. That’s no reason to avoid partaking in the festivities or feel shame for eating an indulgent meal, however.
“It’s great if you can lighten up some of those decadent Thanksgiving dishes and cut out some of the excessive sodium, sugar and fat without sacrificing flavor,” said Stefani Sassos, a registered dietitian for the Good Housekeeping Institute. “But my cardinal rule with Thanksgiving and holidays in general is to eat what you want but listen to your body and respect your fullness.”
“Some of these foods only come around once a year and are just too good to pass up!” she added. “As a registered dietitian, of course I try to choose healthy items, but I know that if you restrict too much, it may ultimately backfire and you’ll wind up eating more than you would have in the first place.”
“Pick and choose your absolute favorite items, portion out a serving, and sensibly indulge,” she added. “You can still enjoy your favorite foods in moderation and avoid that Thanksgiving food coma.”
Still, for those who would like to learn about the dietary properties of different Thanksgiving sides, HuffPost asked nutritionists to rank these dishes from healthiest to least healthy and to share their tips for upping the nutritional value of each option.
It’s important to note that nutritional rankings can be subjective and based on an individual’s current health goals, and that preparation plays a major role in how healthy a side dish can be. The below list reflects an average of each nutritionist’s individual rankings.
1. Brussels Sprouts (Healthiest)
Brussels sprouts may not be a showstopping Thanksgiving side dish, but these cruciferous vegetables can bring some real nutrient value to the table. They’re a great source of vitamins A, C and K, and researchers tout their anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
Preparation style can limit their health impact, however.
“Brussels sprouts themselves are rich in fiber and nutrients, but if they’re sautéed in duck fat and loaded with salt (that’s how they are commonly prepared in many restaurants), it kind of defeats the purpose,” Sassos said. “Air frying Brussels sprouts is my favorite way to prepare them and substantially cuts down on the calories and fat.”
Consider roasting them with a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or preparing a shaved Brussels sprouts salad. Cooking Brussels sprouts with bacon can add extra fat and increase your intake of animal fat and red meat, but some experts believe a little bit of bacon isn’t the worst option, as it may help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and keep you satiated.
Get our favorite Brussels sprouts recipes.
2. Butternut Squash
Butternut squash doesn’t just make for a lovely fall display. It also packs a serious nutritional punch.
“Butternut squash is a great source of vitamin A, B, C and E, as well as calcium, magnesium and zinc,” said Brianna Bernard, a nutrition coach and Isopure spokesperson. “This is great roasted in a little olive oil and also makes a delicious soup!”
Filled with immune-boosting nutrients, butternut squash is tasty without unhealthy add-ons, so it’s not necessary to use a super buttery or sugary recipe. It’s possible to make a good butternut squash soup with little to no milk and cream as well. Still, caramelizing it with just a little bit of butter can add some extra sweetness.
Get our favorite butternut squash recipes.
3. Green Bean Casserole
“Green beans are loaded with vitamins A, C and K, as well as fiber, but this dish can be high in sodium due to the cream of mushroom soup, soy sauce and fried onions,” said Bernard. She advised replacing these ingredients with a low-sodium soup and coconut aminos.
Consider substituting caramelized onions or whole-grain bread crumbs for the crispy fried onions and skipping the can of cream of mushroom soup. Instead, add mushrooms and some milk or Greek yogurt to your dish for the same creamy richness.
“Mix in some sautéed mushrooms, onion, garlic, and celery,” suggested Kimberley Rose-Francis, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “Then add a pinch of flour, salt and pepper with a splash of low-sodium vegetable broth for a cream-of-mushroom soup flavor.”
You can also make a simple roasted green beans recipe or green beans almondine instead of the casserole.
Get our favorite green bean casserole recipes.
4. Sweet Potato Casserole
Sweet potatoes are a great source of fiber, beta-carotene, vitamins A, B and C, and more. But sweet potato casseroles tend to be loaded with butter and sugar.
“It’s really more of a dessert than a side dish once you count up the sugar content,” Sassos said, pointing to the marshmallows and brown sugar in many classic recipes. “Roasting sweet potatoes and adding a touch of maple syrup would be a far healthier option that tastes great, too.”
Another healthier alternative would be preparing sweet potatoes with cinnamon, which “has been tied to reducing inflammation, increasing insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels,” said Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, registered dietitian and author of “The Better Period Food Solution.”
You can also incorporate nuts, raisins, nutmeg and cardamom, or consider coconut swaps like coconut sugar or coconut oil.
Get our favorite sweet potato casserole recipes.
5. Mashed Potatoes
“Mashed potatoes may have a bad rap, but the spud has plenty to brag about: potassium, fiber, even a bit of vitamin C,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Jill Weisenberger. “You can health-ify them by using less fat such as butter or cream cheese.”
Instead, she suggested a combination of butter, olive oil and chicken or vegetable broth. Other alternatives to heavy cream and butter include almond milk and yogurt.
“One excellent way to up the fiber and nutrient content of mashed potatoes is to leave on the skin of the potatoes, where many of the vitamins and much of the fiber is found,” said nutritionist Alyssa Northrop. “Many people actually prefer the taste of skin-on mashed potatoes once they’ve tried it. Try roasting a head of garlic and smashing it along with your potatoes for even more nutritional benefits.”
And of course, you could always go the cauliflower route ― either as a replacement or a supplement.
“Mashed cauliflower can be mixed into your mashed potatoes,” suggested Stephanie Snell, a registered dietitian at UCHealth. “If you are looking for one less starch on your table, you could prepare mashed cauliflower in place of mashed potatoes.”
Get our favorite mashed potato recipes.
6. Dinner Rolls
“Unless they are made with whole grains, I would steer clear of dinner rolls, which load you up on processed carbs without providing much fiber,” Northrop said.
Indeed, classic white bread dinner rolls don’t offer much nutritional value, though the whole grain versions are healthier.
“Whole grains contain B vitamins which are needed for energy production, as well as fat and protein metabolism,” Rose-Francis said. “One should be careful of how much butter is added to their bread. Whether your rolls are made of whole grains or refined grains, extra butter can make them unhealthy.”
Get our favorite dinner roll recipes.
7. Cranberry Sauce
“Cranberries are an excellent source of antioxidants like polyphenols that help repair cell damage and have been shown to help reduce heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” Beckerman said.
Research has also shown that cranberries are rich in vitamin C, promote urinary tract health and reduce inflammation.
“Cranberries are a superfruit, but all the sugar in the canned stuff and traditional recipes undoes their greatness,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner. “Make cranberry sauce with 50% less sugar, and it will still taste great. Or use just a little honey and some fresh-squeezed oranges and you can ditch white sugar altogether.”
A little maple syrup and orange zest can also serve as good sugar replacements. Northrop noted that homemade cranberry sauce made with the actual cranberries with their skins also contains more fiber and other nutrients.
Get our favorite cranberry sauce recipes.
While stuffing is a fan favorite, it’s the source of many hidden Thanksgiving calories due to its high sodium, carbohydrate and fat content. The dish is often prepared with refined breads, lots of butter and high-fat proteins like sausage and bacon.
“Traditionally, we choose our more processed grains for the bread in stuffing,” Snell said. “Choosing whole grain bread can reduce your intake of processed grains and increase your intake of fiber.”
Sassos suggested making stuffing with cauliflower rice or whole wheat bread ― or portioning it out into muffin tins and baking “stuffins.” Bernard recommended low-sodium chicken broth. But the biggest tip from multiple nutritionists: Load up on veggies.
“Spinach or mushrooms could be an ingredient in your stuffing,” Snell said. “When possible, we want to increase the use of vegetables throughout our sides.”
Celery, onion carrots, kale and sweet potatoes can also increase the fiber and nutrients and decrease the calories in a serving of stuffing.
Get our favorite stuffing recipes.
9. Macaroni And Cheese
Traditional macaroni and cheese doesn’t offer much in terms of nutrition, between the refined grains, butter and cheese.
“You can get decent amounts of protein from the cheese, but the fat and carbohydrate content is very high, which means the dish ends up being very calorie-dense,” said Jonathan Valdez, owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
He suggested adding vegetables to the dish, using a fat-free or reduced-fat cheese and choosing a whole wheat, lentil or chickpea pasta to increase the fiber and protein content while reducing calories. Keeping portions smaller can also be helpful.
Get our recipe for Smoked Gouda Pumpkin Mac and Cheese.
“Turkey gravy is often made from grease drippings and the neck and giblets from the Thanksgiving turkey,” Bernard explained. “These fatty ingredients make it taste delicious, but are not very healthy ― especially when coupled with more high-sodium chicken broth and butter.”
The high saturated fat and sodium content mean it’s best to be mindful of portion sizes when ladling out the gravy. There are also ways to make it a bit healthier.
“Instead, create a roux using a lighter fat, like a plant-based butter, and flour,” Rose-Francis advised. “Try using less meat drippings and adding vegetable stock to enhance the flavors even more. Stir and simmer, simmer and stir … and voila! Your savory ‘silky sauce’ is served.”
Get our favorite gravy recipes.