Thanksgiving is traditionally a feast day, a time to celebrate survival in tough times and to share food together in celebration of community. In colonial America, feasting was the exception, not the rule. Winters were cold and unforgiving. Food was far from plentiful, and the early Pilgrims did not have many of the skills they needed to survive in the new land.

Today, by contrast, while we talk about the “Great Recession” and times are tough for many, food is often too plentiful and very rich in sugar and fat. Thus, a feast day, rather than being a rare treat, is a true over-indulgence in an already over-indulgent pattern of living. Yet, food is more than nutrition. We long to share traditional foods with family and create that “perfect memory”.

What can a family trying to be healthy do to keep the Thanksgiving holiday tradition while not destroying weeks of hard work spent trying to lose weight or adopt healthy habits?

My family’s answer is to pare down the traditional offerings just a little and add more healthful sides. The menu below is what I typically serve at Thanksgiving to accommodate my young son’s health needs, while also meeting the family’s desire for a traditional Thanksgiving.


  • Mixed Greens Salad with Light Vinaigrette.
  • Oven-Roasted Turkey (rubbed with sea salt and cracked peppercorns)
  • Baked Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows
  • Cornbread Dressing
  • Roasted Asparagus Spears with Lemon Zest
  • Home-Made Whole Wheat Rolls
  • Fresh Fruit Salad
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Apple-Cranberry Pie

How could this menu possibly be light? In truth, it isn’t. However, in cooking the traditional foods, at every step I try to eliminate excess sugar and fat. For example, to make the sweet potato casserole, I add fresh-squeezed orange juice and spices, but only 1 tablespoon of Smart Balance and ¼-1/3 cup of brown sugar to the entire recipe, which requires 3-4 large sweet potatoes. Then, I cut each large marshmallow in half and leave little gaps in between them when I place them on top of the casserole. I make the cornbread dressing from scratch, eliminating the sugar from the recipe, and I add no butter or oil to the dressing, only fat-free chicken broth, sauteed onions and celery. The asparagus gets sprayed lightly with cooking spray, then seasoned and baked. The pie dough is made with Smart Balance instead of shortening. The homemade rolls are delicious, low in fat, high in fiber and have none of the trans fat you get with the frozen dough.

In serving my young son’s plate, I give him a small portion of breast meat (low in fat and calories), a combined ½ cup serving of sweet potatoes and dressing (1/4 cup each), and fill the rest of the plate with asparagus and salad. I also let him have a small roll. When he has finished his plate (served on a small plate), I offer him 1/3 cup of fruit salad.

Then we postpone dessert.  We sit together, talk, play board games, go outside to play football, and go for a walk. Around 4-5 p.m. in the afternoon, we offer coffee to the adults and one slice of pie to the adults and kids (or 2 halves for those who want to try both). 

Instead of supper (who’s really hungry anyway?), we might each eat a ½ turkey sandwich. That’s it. We haven’t exactly eaten light, but we have avoided an unnecessary holiday weight gain, and we’ve kept the habit of health.

I encourage you to find your own ways of keeping the habits of health. Celebrate your family’s love and the wealth of things we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving (family, country, friends) with a bit less food this year! 

Below are some resources that explain the history of Thanksgiving and a link to some lighter Thanksgiving recipes.


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