What are the must-haves at your Thanksgiving meal? You're lucky if the answer is simply, "family and friends."
But for so many of us, the list includes an excess of side dishes, sauces, breads and desserts. They overload the table and our stomachs. Then the leftovers fill our fridges until we toss the unrecognizable remnants of stuffing, pie and whatever else.
The problem with Thanksgiving is there's just too much food. Some smart dietitian once calculated that the average American adult consumes 2,000 calories at that one meal, and that's before the late-night turkey sandwiches.
But a few simple changes can cut calories significantly — while also cutting your stress, that eco-unfriendly wasted food and possibly even money spent on the feast.
Scaling back the feast
For some people, changing holiday traditions is utterly unthinkable. But if you want to try establishing a new tradition this year, start by trimming your menu.
Let turkey be the star (do you really need that ham?) and serve just one kind of stuffing, one green vegetable, one potato dish, skip the rolls altogether (stuffing is full of bread, you know) and limit dessert to two choices, or even one.
Offering fewer choices often results in fewer calories consumed, says Dr. Denise Edwards, director of the Healthy Weight Clinic at USF Health and Tampa General Hospital.
"Studies have shown that being exposed to so many different dishes and tastes at one time, you never truly feel satisfied," she says. "So you end up eating more. It's the number of dishes that make it difficult to control how much you eat."
Consider your guests
Streamlining the menu also is a favor to the many people who have diabetes or are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which is closely associated with obesity.
"There's a lot of anxiety for diabetics at this time of year," says registered dietitian and diabetes educator Janie Norman of the USF Diabetes Center. "It's the sheer volume of food and the tendency and expectation to overeat."
Many people think sugar-free products won't have any effect on blood sugar, but that isn't true, says Norman. Even if a pumpkin pie is made with a sugar substitute, there are still carbohydrates in the crust and in the pumpkin itself, which can elevate blood sugar.
Rethink your recipes
For some of us, reducing the number of side dishes may be enough change for one Thanksgiving.
But if you're ready for more, perhaps entertain the idea of reducing calories in your old favorites, too.
Some easy changes:
• Use fat-free milk instead of whole, egg whites or egg substitute instead of whole eggs, half or none of the butter called for in white mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and stuffing recipes and half the nuts in any recipe.
• Make just half a recipe, especially if it's a dish that only a few people must have (in my crowd, it's creamed onions).
• Make a smaller pie (8 inches instead of 9 or 10 inches) and precut slices so it goes as far as it needs to.
• Use smaller plates.
• Serve food in the kitchen right from the cooking pots. Guests will have to get up for seconds, which will discourage mindless noshing. Plus, you won't have to wash all those serving dishes.
Try something new
We tested some new, lighter versions of traditional Thanksgiving fare. I've tweaked some of them to boost flavor or improve texture without increasing calories by much.
• We don't include a recipe for turkey because as long as it is roasted and eaten without skin, light meat averages about 120 calories for a 3-ounce portion, regardless of how you season or flavor the bird. For comparison, a 3-ounce portion of dark meat with skin will run you about 155 calories.
• Our appetizer is roasted red pepper soup, a pretty and easy starter that's low in calories (77 per half-cup), packed with antioxidants and practically fat-free.
• The stuffing from Weight Watchers' new cookbook, Healthy & Happy Celebrations, is a real winner at just 92 calories for a ¾-cup portion (with our modifications, which remove a small amount of fat from the recipe). Conventional stuffing comes in at close to 300 calories for a similar serving.
• Our testers raved about Weight Watchers' creamy mashed sweet potatoes, at less than 100 calories a serving. For comparison, canned candied yams and commercially available sweet potato casseroles rack up around 200 calories per half-cup.
• On the gravy, I'll bet my method doesn't add much to the 20 calories per ¼-cup serving in most jar varieties. Just skim off the fat from the turkey drippings, heat on the stovetop and stir in a jar or two of gravy.
• Cranberry sauce calories mostly come from sugar. The easy low-calorie answer is a sugar substitute, such as Truvia or Splenda.
• My vegetable suggestion, oven-roasted carrots and sugar snap peas, has about 57 calories in a 2/3-cup serving. The ever popular green bean mushroom casserole can top 100 for the same serving size.
• The Weight Watchers pumpkin and ricotta cheesecake is thick and creamy at 254 calories per slice. That compares to plain frozen and restaurant versions that range from 350 to almost 600 calories per slice.
• Yes, traditional pumpkin pie can be made with a sugar substitute such as Splenda or Truvia. But since a lot of the fat and calories are still in the crust, the calorie count still hovers around 250 per slice. The classic Libby's recipe is about 274 calories per slice; others are closer to 300.
Total calorie count for our menu, sticking to suggested serving sizes: About 475, plus another 250 for dessert. At that rate, you can even throw in a generous glass of wine, and you'll still come in at half the average American Thanksgiving dinner.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org