Thanking your Turkey

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Holidays and food often evoke memories of overeating and sleepiness, perhaps brought on by Uncle Ed or Aunt Bertha’s long-winded story at the other end of the table. Holiday menus provide comfort, but does the turkey and mashed potatoes offer anything special nutritionally? Can stuffing ourselves on traditional food possibly be healthy? Let’s look at the menu:

healthy holiday dinnerRoast Turkey
Turkey, the queen of the Thanksgiving table, frequently reappears for Christmas dinner, as well as holiday buffets and New Year’s feasts. Rarely eaten whole the rest of the year, turkey is a great, yet inexpensive, lean protein source. A reasonable four-ounce serving provides 65% of the daily value for protein with only 12% of the daily value for saturated fat—half the amount found in red meat.

At our house, I always send my husband outside to roast the turkey on the Weber grill over charcoal. It keeps him busy and frees the oven for other seasonal dishes. And it produces a juicy, crispy bird. If you have never tried it, download this PDF from the Weber grill site that shows you how step-by-step, complete with recipe, and how to make the gravy.

Many of us associate the sleepy feeling we get after a holiday meal to turkey’s prodigious amounts of tryptophan (more than 119% daily value), but less well known is that all meats and protein sources contain this essential amino acid. (Nine of the 20 amino acids are “essential,” meaning our bodies require them but we cannot produce them and must get them from food.) Pork, poultry, salmon, and red meat all have similar levels of tryptophan per serving. Tryptophan does increase levels of serotonin and melatonin in the brain, but much of what we consume never reaches the brain because our cells use it up first. It is more likely that the sleepy feeling comes from eating more than usual, rather than the tryptophan.

Turkey is also a good source of selenium and niacin (vitamin B3), both of which demonstrate cancer-protective properties, and vitamin B6, which is important for keeping blood vessel walls healthy. That four-ounce serving of turkey offers almost 50% of our daily requirement of selenium, about 35% of niacin, and 27% of vitamin B6. Turkey is both yummy and nutritious.

Side Dishes
To augment turkey’s health benefits, make sure side dishes include in-season cruciferous veggies, such as steamed or roasted Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower, for their anti-cancer and cholesterol-lowering benefits. Maybe an oven-roasted sugar pie pumpkin or mashed sweet potatoes with a little butter? There are also simple ways to keep the potatoes and stuffing on the healthy side. Just like in apples, a potato’s skin contains the majority of its nutrients, so try using thin-skinned organic white, yellow, or new potatoes. If you mash, leave the skins on and keep the butter to a minimum. Try active-culture plain yogurt instead to give a creamy, tangy flavor to your mashed potatoes plus lots of calcium.   For the stuffing, use whole-wheat bread to increase both the nutrition and fiber, and add apples, walnuts, dried cranberries, and other in-season delights for extra flavor. Use broth to moisten the stuffing if you are baking it separately in the oven, and then mix it with the juice from the bird to lower saturated fat levels. Or maybe try this rice stuffing recipe from World’s Healthiest Foods.

Cranberry Sauce
An honorable mention goes to cranberries, which recent studies have confirmed have significant health benefits. When eaten in their whole berry form, rather than consumed as cranberry juice or extract, cranberries contain a huge number of phytonutrients that work together to significantly increase the berry’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer (breast, colon, lung, and prostate) benefits, plus liver and cardiovascular protections. So the more whole berry cranberry sauce, the better. Try this roasted cranberry sauce recipe from The FruitGuys. Pile it on!

If cranberries are the angels of the holiday dinner, then gravy is the saturated fat devil. But you can remove the horns by making gravy from broth instead of the turkey drippings, and substituting milk for water for a rich-tasting, but low-calorie, option. If you feel it just isn’t gravy without the drippings, try adding just a few tablespoons at the end for flavor.

Chicken Milk Gravy

2 heaping tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
One cup chicken/turkey broth, warm
One cup milk, plus more as needed
One chicken bouillon cube
2 tablespoons turkey pan drippings or juice from carving the turkey (optional)


  • Place olive oil and chicken bouillon cube in a saucepan over medium heat; whisk in flour.
  • Slowly add warmed broth while continuing to whisk. As mixture heats it will thicken, at which point add the milk in small batches.
  • Continue to whisk occasionally as mixture thickens into gravy.
  • Pour turkey drippings (optional) into the gravy and whisk. Add more milk as needed to thin to desired consistency.

Dessert can be an unusually healthy part of your meal if you are serving pumpkin pie. Pumpkin has anti-cancer benefits, through its ability to prevent pre-cancerous cell mutations. One of the most abundant nutrients in pumpkins and other winter squash is beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Beta-carotene is able to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the body, which is the form that builds up in blood vessel walls and contributes to the risk of heart attack and stroke.   Pumpkins pack many other nutrients as well: vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber, manganese, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B1, copper, vitamin B6, niacin-vitamin B3, and pantothenic acid. The health benefits of pumpkin pie will be greater if it is made from fresh roasted pumpkins, rather than processed canned filling. Try Aunt Minn’s Pumpkin Pie recipe if you are ready to try it from scratch. Buying pre-made crust really cuts down on preparation time and you will know your pumpkin is fresh. If you have an ice cream maker, try pumpkin ice cream.

Remember, cooking burns calories, so make the time to work out in the kitchen before sitting at the table to enjoy your holiday feast!

Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based yoga instructor.


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