Whether you’re trying to look better, feel better, or a little bit of both, there’s no reason why you have to sacrifice your goals or your health in the name of a festive feast. From vegan virtuosos to a gluten-free guru, we reached out to top healthy-eating experts for their favorite Thanksgiving dinner swaps. Make these smart substitutions, and your nontraditional dishes will taste just as good as—if not better than—their classic counterparts.
Vegan or Vegetarian Thanksgiving Swaps
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Yes, the holiday is centered around a big bird, which can be daunting if you’re a vegan or vegetarian (or hosting one). “It seems there’s meat everywhere, even in that lard crust of the pecan pie,” say Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, authors of Vegetarian Dinner Parties.
The good news: There’s no reason vegan and vegetarian eaters have to settle at the holiday dinner table. “With a few painless substitutions in your traditional recipes, you can get that shit taken care of and get back to figuring out how the hell you’re going to fit everyone in your place,” say the potty-mouthed chefs behind Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook.
Seasonal Swap: Concentrated vegetable demi-glace instead of veggie broth.
“Everyone knows to swap vegetable broth for chicken broth,” say Scarbrough and Weinstein. “But let’s face it: Canned vegetable broth is too often insipid, not much more than salty onion water.” A more flavorful alternative? Search gourmet grocers or their online counterparts for small packets of vegetable demi-glace, a hyper-reduced concentrate of roasted vegetables. Scarbrough and Weinstein recommend diluting the vegetable “gold” according to its package directions. “Your soups, stews, braises, and mashed potatoes will never be the same,” they say.
Seasonal Swap: Chestnuts instead of sausage.
Instead of adding cooked sausage to stuffings and dressings, Scarbrough and Weinstein suggest using jarred roasted chestnuts: “They add a nutty, sweet flavor with a firm, chewy texture.” But be sure to buy them up when you see them: The festive favorites don’t last very long on store shelves this time of year.
Seasonal Swap: Olive oil and almond milk instead of butter and cow’s milk.
“For your famous mashed potatoes, try olive oil for the butter and plainalmond milk instead of dairy” say the Thug Kitchen chefs. “Not only are these options more heart-healthy, but they give you a chance to mix up the routine.” An extra tip: Add some lemon zest and garlic if you’re “feeling fucking fancy.”
If there’s any food tougher to avoid than turkey on Thanksgiving, it’s grains. From flaky pie crusts, to starchy stuffings, to butter-smeared dinner rolls—grains certainly play the supporting role on the big bird’s big day.
But if you subscribe to a Paleo or other grain-free lifestyle, you’re not destined for food envy. William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly Total Health offers up grain-free holiday swaps that’ll hit the spot:
Seasonal Swap: Coconut flour instead of wheat flour or corn starch.
You can still create a thick and satisfying gravy without resorting to processed grains, but be conservative when you’re adding it to the pan. “Too much too soon will yield a too-thick end result,” says Davis. Stir drippings or broth over low-heat, adding in one teaspoon every minute or so. “This allows the unique hygroscopic (water-absorbent) action of the coconut flour to work,” he says. Season with pepper, salt, thyme, and other herbs to add flavor and mask any traces of coconut flavor that can sneak through.
Seasonal Swap: Cauliflower instead of bread crumbs.
Steaming cauliflower and then pulsing it in your food processor or food chopper will make a healthy, grain-free base for your turkey dressing. “Unlike conventional dressings that send blood sugar sky-high, a cauliflower version has zero unhealthy implications,” says Davis. Bake or stir over medium-heat in a skillet and add mushrooms (porcini is Davis’s pick because of its unique flavors), sausage (be sure to cook thoroughly), and herbs of your choice.
Seasonal Swap: Pecans instead of graham crackers or wheat flour.
Ground pecans make a super satisfying grain-free base for your favorite pie fillings. An egg, your favorite fat (coconut oil or organic butter are good choices), and a bit of cinnamon will make a dough that you can form by hand into a crust, then bake after you add your filling. “I like to add a teaspoon or two of unsweetened cocoa powder, as well, to add a little interesting dimension to the crust,” says Davis.
Sugar-Smart Thanksgiving Swaps
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The word is out: Sugar is killing us, and it’s everywhere—even in places you wouldn’t expect. And while forgoing sweets all together might be ideal for your health, not everyone’s willing to go totally sugar-free on Thanksgiving. The solution? Make smarter sugar choices, like these swaps adapted from The Sugar Smart Diet:
Seasonal Swap: Sweet potato casserole instead of sweet potato wedges.
If it’s topped with toasted marshmallows, you’re looking at 4 grams of sugar per marshmallow right there—not to mention the butter and sugar embedded beneath. For an equally satisfying and much safer side dish, cut a couple whole sweet potatoes into wedges, coat ’em in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 3 tablespoons of pure maple syrup (that’s sugar from nature, not a factory), a squeeze of lime juice, and a pinch of red-pepper flakes. Bake until done.
Seasonal Swap: Canned cranberry sauce for fresh cranberry sauce.
If it wiggles on the plate, don’t do it! A ½-inch slice of the canned stuff has 20 grams (5 teaspoons!) of sugar. But when it’s fresh, a couple of tablespoons should only run you about 11 grams of sugar. And bonus: Fresh whole cranberries are some of the richest cancer fighters.
Seasonal Swap: Pumpkin pie instead of pecan pie.
Pecan pie comes with a serious dose of corn syrup that amounts to 70 grams of sugar per medium slice! Pumpkin pie is still an indulgence, but with nearly half the sugar load (38 grams per slice) it’s a much smarter choice—plus pumpkin is packed with beta-carotene and fiber.
Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Swaps
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A gluten-free Thanksgiving does not have to mean deprivation or exclusion! “Most Thanksgiving dishes are already gluten-free!” says Erin Scott, gluten-free blogger and author of Yummy Supper. “A gorgeous roast turkey, buttery mashed potatoes, all the veggie sides—from green beans to sweet potatoes to cranberries—are gluten-free by nature.”
That said, there are a few (totally delicious) necessary tweaks to accommodate a gluten-free diet on Thanksgiving.
Seasonal Swap: Nut bread instead of wheat bread.
“Pecan or almond bread make for amazing stuffing,” says Scott. “Think an herby pecan bread dressing, or almond bread with mixed root veggies.” Subbing nuts for wheat also means you’ll ditch the blood sugar-spiking carbs and get a filling dose of protein. And if nuts aren’t your thing, you can also play around with quinoa or even wild rice in your favorite stuffing recipes, for a gluten-free, fiber-filled alternative.
Seasonal Swap: Sorghum flour instead of wheat flour in the gravy.
“My mom and aunt have always made the gravy for our Thanksgiving,” says Scott, “but now, instead of using standard wheat flour, they whisk insorghum flour or an all-purpose gluten-free blend. Easy peasy.” Aside from being gluten-free, sorghum flour is also high in iron, protein, and fiber.
Seasonal Swap: Gluten-free pie crust instead of traditional pie crust.
There are lots of nice pre-made gluten-free crusts on the market these days, but you can also easily whip up gluten-free versions of your favorite pies yourself. Lilah’s Little Apple Galettes from Yummy Supper, for example, are the perfect gluten-free Thanksgiving alternative to classic apple pie, and you can use the crust for a number of other fillings, as well.
Dairy-Free Thanksgiving Swaps
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Butter-drenched mashed potatoes and creamy pumpkin pie are Thanksgiving-table traditions, but if you’ve ditched dairy, you can still partake in these classic holiday dishes.
“Some simple food swaps will let you enjoy everything Thanksgiving has to offer—and your family probably won’t even taste the difference!” says Dawna Stone, wellness pro and author of The Healthy You Diet.
Seasonal Swap: Coconut oil or fruit instead of butter.
For delicious dairy-free baked goods, you can swap the butter withcoconut oil or pureed fruits such as apples, prunes, pumpkin, or bananas. Stone recommends a one-to-one ratio: “Some say to swap ¾ cup puree for 1 cup butter, but I find my baked goods are moist and delicious when I swap the butter with an equal amount of oil or fruit puree.”
Seasonal Swap: Olive oil and chicken broth for butter.
Stone’s secret to rich and creamy dairy-free mashed potatoes: Eliminate the butter and replace it with ½ cup of chicken broth and 1 tablespoon of olive oil for every 1½ pounds of potatoes.
Seasonal Swap: Full-fat coconut milk instead of heavy cream or evaporated milk.
Looking forward to a slice of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving? Go ahead and indulge in a dairy-free version using a one-to-one swap of full-fat coconut milk for evaporated milk. “Your pie will be rich and creamy and your guests won’t even know its dairy-free,” says Stone.