No one ever said Thanksgiving dinner was healthy. But there are certain tricks to make it a little healthier—and to avoid riding out an uncomfortable turkey-and-stuffing-induced food coma on the couch for the rest of the night. Whether you’re doling out your own portions, or you’re at the mercy of Aunt Ida passing out plates piled high with “a little bit of everything,” these delicious ideas from nutrition and fitness experts will help you make the best possible choices (and feel great) this Thanksgiving Day.
Make it a three-meal day.
Wake up on Thanksgiving with the mindset that you’re having breakfast, lunch, and dinner that day, and you’ll be less likely to stuff yourself at the big meal, says Willow Jarosh, of C&J Nutrition. “I always eat breakfast and a snack early in the day,” she says. “We usually eat around 1 p.m., so our Thanksgiving meal is like lunch. I also always plan to eat dinner, which mentally sets me up to leave the main Thanksgiving meal satisfied but not stuffed, so that I’ll be hungry again by dinnertime.”
Go ahead—splurge (on your favorites).
If appetizers are your thing, grab a plate and fill up. No sense saving yourself for the main meal if turkey and trimmings leave you cold. “I tend to go overboard on the cheese and crackers beforehand,” says Emily Dingmann, of A Nutritionist Eats. “We always have an amazing cheese board and it’s one of my favorite foods.” To balance her pre-meal indulgence, Dingmann fills her dinner plate with a healthy one-quarter protein, one-quarter starches (including squash), and one-half vegetables. “I’m always in charge of a kale dish, because no one trusts a nutritionist to bring the dessert!” jokes Dingmann, who brings her Lemon Kale Salad every year. “It’s bright and acidic, and the perfect accompaniment to a heavy meal.”
Earn the bird.
“I love planning a family hike or walk before all the fun food makes its way to the table,” says Elisha Villanueva, founder of fitness and wellness site Flex It Pink. “I call it our ‘earn the bird’ activity.” Moving during the day makes Villanueva feel better about indulging in her favorite three desserts later on: “Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple pie! I don’t want to miss out on anything, so a little trio sampler will do.” While you won’t burn off all the calories from the meal no matter how many rounds of front-lawn football or neighborhood laps you log, there are other benefits to being active. Exercising before the meal puts you in the positive mindset to eat with an eye toward health, and exercising afterward can help banish that uncomfortably full feeling.
Start with soup.
Pour yourself a bowl of seasonal veggie soup, suggests Katherine Tallmadge, RD, author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations. She recommends a butternut squash soup, or a broccoli and carrot soup with potatoes and thyme. Kicking off your meal with soup will help you slow down while eating, and research has shown it may help you avoid overdoing it at the main event.
Rethink how you get your flavor fix.
Fitness expert and ACE-certified health coach Jessica Matthews loves cranberries. What she does not love is all the sugar that goes into traditional cranberry sauce. So the assistant professor of health and science at Miramar College in San Diego found a way to get that sweet-tart punch onto her plate: “I can get the cranberry taste I love by adding cranberries into braised greens like kale or Swiss chard instead of eating them from a can,” she says. “That way I fill up on greens without excessive sugar, and still enjoy a favorite Thanksgiving flavor.”
Make smart swaps.
Let’s be honest: mashed potatoes’ appeal is more about the lush, smooth texture than any standout flavor. That—and the fact that they’re a perfect vehicle for gravy. So do what nutritionist Susan Dopart does, and serve pureed cauliflower instead. The cruciferous vegetable boasts six times the vitamin C, more than twice the fiber, and nearly twice the potassium of a standard spud. “And I actually think mashed cauliflower is tastier,” Dopart says. She also makes a veggie- and whole grain-rich mushroom, squash, and wild rice dressing instead of a traditional bread stuffing.