Purdue Nutrition Science researchers dish on favorite healthy Thanksgiving substitutions

Julia Choi holds healthy Thanksgiving meal ingredients at a table.

Julia Choi, a graduate student in the Purdue University Department of Nutrition Science, displays healthy ingredients welcome at the Thanksgiving table. Produce like pomegranate, kale and butternut squash can be implemented to the holiday meal easily and deliciously.Tim Brouk

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

A typical, traditional Thanksgiving meal consists of turkey and those beloved side dishes: stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes — all slathered in gravy.

While turkey has its health benefits, these savory sides are often favored, but they come loaded with calories. The Calorie Control Council recently reported “the average American may consume more than 4,500 calories and a whopping 229 grams of fat during Thanksgiving.” A serving of your mother’s famous stuffing weighs in at hundreds of calories alone. The chronic intake of these items, which are often swimming in salt and other ingredients, promotes heart disease, stroke and an increase in blood sugar.

Members of the Purdue University Department of Nutrition Science are here to add a little healthfulness into the meal without sacrificing taste. These healthy substitutes have been tested and (mostly) approved by family and friends at their respective Thanksgiving tables.

Shouts for Brussels sprouts

While they taste great, the stuffing, potatoes, casseroles and bread rolls are bland in color and packed with refined carbs. Graduate student Julia Choi recommends including pops of color to the plate. Adding some green to any meal never hurts nutritionally. Choi does this at Thanksgiving with her roasted brussels sprouts dish with balsamic glaze and a sprinkling of parmesan.

A platter of produce rests on a table.

Fruit like apples and oranges can add natural sweetness to homemade cranberry sauce, which could significantly reduce the amount of sugar needed.Tim Brouk

It is so crispy and delicious that I have converted a few of my family members who do not like Brussels sprouts,” Choi said.

Over her last 20 years of living in the United States, Choi also eschews those heavy casseroles in favor of roasted green beans and a kale salad with butternut squash, goat cheese and pomegranate seeds. These dishes consist of more fiber and less sodium than the common casserole.

New to the table

Born and raised in Mexico, Thanksgiving is an “adopted” holiday for assistant professor Annabel Biruete. Coming into the American tradition as an adult, she looked at Thanksgiving meals with a healthful lens. Biruete found almost any dish can be substituted or tweaked to become healthier.

One go-to at her American family’s table is a fall salad loaded with roasted sweet potatoes, pomegranate, quinoa and walnuts. The dish is topped with a lemon-honey vinaigrette.

Biruete believes some traditional sides could — and should — still be incorporated in the meal.

“I like this holiday because it makes us think about what we are thankful for,” she stated. “Nutritionally speaking, most of the foods that are traditionally consumed can be part of a healthy diet, and my only recommendation would be to consume those that are energy-dense in moderation.”

Vegan gravy?

Lecturer Selena Baker admits it may “sound unusual,” but her garbanzo bean — commonly referred to as chickpea — gravy has become a hit at her gatherings.

“It is absolutely delicious and is the perfect solution if you need a vegan gravy option at your holiday table this year,” Baker said. “The key ingredient is garbanzo bean flour, which you can find at health food stores or in the specialty flours section of large grocery stores.”

The gravy also consists of vegan margarine, olive oil, garlic, reduced-sodium soy sauce, water and black pepper.

Sugar usually doesn’t reveal itself during Thanksgiving until the pumpkin pie, but Baker recommends reducing the sugar in made-from-scratch cranberry sauce by 25%. With her bag of cranberries, Baker adds cinnamon and fresh diced apple and orange for extra flavor, nutrients and natural sweetness.

Baker said both dishes are hits with friends and family, children and adults.     

“I encourage everyone to focus on quality over quantity at this time of year when it comes to selecting your menu and when dishing up your dinner plate,” she added. “Slow down and enjoy your food, without depriving yourself or over-stuffing yourself.”


Finally, while turkey provides us with the necessary protein during Thanksgiving, it can also be replaced with something even healthier. While he may not be so bold this holiday, assistant professor Greg Henderson said swapping the turkey for fish like salmon or halibut would give your friends and family a boost in omega-3 fatty acids, which assist in heart health and the lowering of triglycerides. It will also give them a Thanksgiving meal they probably won’t forget.