The Best (And Worst) Thanksgiving Foods For Your Health

On Thanksgiving, many people give up all notions of health. A full meal of turkey, rolls, and pie can’t possibly be healthy–right? The truth is that you can have a healthy Thanksgiving dinner. It all depends on knowing what’s good for you and what isn’t.

Believe it or not, you can have gravy and pie for dinner if you understand the health aspects. Settle the debate over store-bought and homemade cranberry, and your body will reap the benefits. Here are some common Thanksgiving foods that affect your health in positive or negative ways.

Boxed Stuffing Is The Worst

Boxes of Stove Top stuffing are wrapping in plastic.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Although boxed stuffing saves time, it comes with a nutritional cost. According to registered dietitian and nutritionist Elizabeth Huggins, boxed stuffing is terribly high in sodium. “The fresh, savory flavor is often overpowered by the salty taste,” adds the Hilton Head Health nutritionist.

Many store-bought stuffings boast “enriched wheat flour.” This flour undergoes a bleaching process that strips it of all nutritional value. Plus, it adds more calories than whole wheat flour. If you’re a stuffing fan, you may want to take the time to bake home-made, low-sodium stuffing.

Canned Cranberry Sauce Is Objectively Worse

Canned cranberry sauce sits on a white plate surrounded by fresh cranberries.
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Twitter/@TheCousinSal

The canned vs. homemade cranberry sauce debate has raged for decades. But in terms of health, there’s no question that canned is worse. Cranberries are highly acidic; they have the same pH level as lemons. To make the sauce sweet, companies add a lot of sugar–over six teaspoons in 1/4 cup!

Although the serving size for canned cranberry sauce is 1/4 cup, most people eat more. One cup of cranberry sauce provides 40 mg of sodium and 440 calories. Plus, the processing strips cranberries of their fiber, destroying most nutritional value.

Make Your Own Cranberry Sauce

Ellen Cooney stirs her cranberry sauce on the stove.
Gordon Chibroski/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Gordon Chibroski/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Although homemade cranberry sauces are made differently, all contain fresh cranberries. These super-fruits provide fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. According to a 2019 review in Clinical Nutrition, cranberries regulate blood pressure and raise healthy cholesterol. Researchers believe that cranberries may also help prevent heart disease.

Because fresh cranberry sauce isn’t processed, the cranberries maintain their nutritional value. Homemade sauces guarantee less sodium than canned ones. Add some juice or honey to your cranberry dish if you want to replace some of the sugar.

Gravy Is Fine In Moderation

Food editor Sheryl Julian whisks cornstarch diluted with water while making gravy.
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No Thanksgiving table is free from gravy. This delicious sauce has received a negative reputation for being high in fat. The reality is that gravy doesn’t have a lot of fat. Half a cup of gravy has only 2.5 grams of fat, with zero trans fats. A serving of two tablespoons reduces this count to 0.8 grams of fat.

That said, gravy does have a high amount of sodium. One cup of gravy consumes 42% of your daily recommended sodium. Even if you don’t have a full cup, gravy will pack in more sodium. Limit your gravy intake, and you’ll be in the clear.

Pecan Pie Is The Least Healthy Dessert

Baker pulls a pecan pie out of an oven.
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In terms of pies, pecan pie is one of the least healthy dessert options. Although pecans come with a host of health benefits, more doesn’t make them better. The USDA recommends eating one ounce of nuts per day, which equates to 15 pecan halves with 196 calories. Meanwhile, a one-eighth slice of pecan pie packs over 500 calories.

“Mounds of pecans can contribute to high calories and fat in pecan pie,” says nutritionist and dietitian Toby Amidor. The Food Network author adds that the crust contributes “artery-clogging saturated fat.” And that’s not even counting the vanilla ice cream topper.

Pumpkin Pie Is Your Best Bet

Two pumpkin pies sit on the kitchen counter as a woman prepares a dish.
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Believe it or not, pumpkin pie receives a green flag from nutritionists. “Pick pumpkin pie for fiber and beta carotene,” says Becky Kerkenbush, RD-AP, M.S. If you don’t pile on whipped cream or ice cream, pumpkin pie has fewer calories than pecan pie. Plus, the USDA recommends two cups of orange veggies (including pumpkin) per week.

To keep your pumpkin pie lean, make it yourself. Minimize the sugar by adding some pure maple syrup to the filling. You can also use gingersnap cookies with canola oil for a less sugary and more flavorful crust.

Apple Pie: Not The Worst, Not The Best

A slice of apple pie sits on a plate in front of a rolling pin.
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If pecan pie is the least healthy and pumpkin pie is the most healthy, apple pie falls somewhere in between the two. Although this pie is filled with apples, it’s health benefit is overshadowed with sugary glazes. Most apple pies come with double crusts, which adds even more carbs.

Apple pie has less than half the fat of pecan pie, along with fewer calories and sugar. But health-wise, it pales in comparison to pumpkin. In total, one serving of apple pie has 40 grams of sugar and 10 grams of fat. If you like apple pie, stick to one slice.

Sweet Potato Casserole Is Basically A Dessert

A pan of sweet potato casserole sits on a table with Thanksgiving decorations.
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Sweet potatoes are healthy, right? Not when they’re smothered in butter, brown sugar, and marshmallows. On average, sweet potato casseroles pack 19 grams of sugar, 45 grams of carbohydrates, and over 10 grams of fat. Even Guy Fieri, the host of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, said, “There’s nothing I like about it at all.”

Of course, there are ways to make sweet potato casserole less like a dessert. Since sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, you don’t need to add so much sugar. Replace the brown sugar and butter with honey, and add some dried fruit for texture and a healthier side dish.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes Are A Much, Much Better Choice

Model Myriel holds sweet potatoe products
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Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images

Roasted sweet potatoes are far healthier than sweet potato casserole. Without all the sugar and fat, you’ll reap the full benefits of sweet potatoes. One cup provides 400% of your daily recommended vitamin A and almost 50% of vitamin C. It also offers up to 30% of daily recommended potassium and B vitamins.

Despite being high-carb, sweet potatoes help you lose weight. Sweet potatoes contain resistant starch, which, according to BMC Nutrition and Metabolism, increase fat burn by 30%. Dress your potatoes with a bit of maple syrup and spices, and you’ll have a delicious, healthy side dish.

Mashed Potatoes Are (Potentially) The Worst

Mashed potatoes with olive oil are in an orange bowl with a spoon nearby.
Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Despite being a staple Thanksgiving dish, mashed potatoes are less healthy than other potato dishes. Blame the add-ins: whole milk, butter, and margarine. One cup of mashed potatoes packs nine grams of fat and 237 calories. And that’s before adding gravy.

There are some pros to mashed potatoes. They provide a small amount of fiber and protein. By themselves, potatoes offer potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B, magnesium, and iron. If you cook mashed potatoes without butter or margarine, you’ll remove eight grams of fat. Moderate your portions, and your body will appreciate it.

Either Skip Mac And Cheese Or Change It

A close-up shows someone eating creamy mac and cheese with a fork.
Amy Brothers/ The Denver Post
Amy Brothers/ The Denver Post

During Thanksgiving, mac and cheese is usually garnished with bread crumbs and bacon. These additions only make the dish less healthy. The piles of cheese, whole milk, and butter can easily push this dish over the 1,000 calorie mark. Boxed versions easily have over 700 mg of sodium and 20% of your daily recommended fat.

Fortunately, you can cook a healthier version of mac and cheese for Thanksgiving. Choose a whole-grain noodle with smaller amounts of flavorful cheeses, such as Jack and cheddar. Skip the bread crumbs and bacon, and opt for cauliflower, butternut squash, or jalapeños instead.

Enjoy Your Turkey!

A person carves the Thanksgiving turkey on a dinner table.
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Good news: Thanksgiving turkey is health-approved! Turkey is a lean meat, with high protein and fewer fat and calories. Turkey also provides half of your daily recommended selenium, an antioxidant that helps your thyroid hormone metabolism. Plus, turkey supplies phosphorus and B vitamins.

Dark meat contains more vitamins than white meat, but also more fat and calories. To consume less fat, remove the skin. And needless to say, roasted turkey is far healthier than fried turkey. Throw in some fresh herbs and olive oil for flavor.

Don’t Eat Sodium-Filled Glazed Ham

Kathy Curry of New Orleans puts glaze on a ham as she prepares her Thanksgiving dinner in the bathroom of her hotel room.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

While it’s not traditional for many families, glazed ham sometimes appears on Thanksgiving tables. By itself, ham is lean, but glazing adds far more fat and sodium. Common glazed ham recipes recommend one pound per person. This serving includes 44 grams of fat, 760 calories, and 150% of your daily recommended sodium.

In terms of sodium, lowering your portion doesn’t help much. The American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg of salt per day. According to the USDA, one ounce of ham contains 210 mg of sodium, so five ounces consumes two-thirds of your daily sodium.

Choose Your Rolls Wisely

Judy Padilla , left, butters rolls with her grandson, Santino Padilla.
Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Bread rolls aren’t inherently unhealthy. Depending on the type of roll you get, rolls can either be a positive or negative addition to your health. For a healthy option, opt for whole-grain rolls. According to Megan Ware, R.D.N., L.D., white rolls remove most vitamins and fiber through processing.

Whole grain rolls add protein, vitamins, and fiber to your meal. The American Heart Association states that whole grains provide iron, magnesium, selenium, and B vitamins. An average (store-bought) whole wheat roll supplies three grams of protein and 90 calories. Overall, whole wheat rolls are a far better choice than white rolls.

But Cornbread Is Better Than Rolls

Cornbread slices fill a bowl in front of a blue backdrop.
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If you’re looking for a healthy, flavorful substitute for rolls, consider cornbread. Cornmeal, the main ingredient in cornbread, is a whole grain. A slice of cornbread contains fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, vitamin A, and B vitamins. Unlike rolls, cornbread is a mineral powerhouse.

In 2011, research pinpointed the unique health benefits of cornbread. According to a study from Purdue University, cornbread contains all ten of the essential amino acids. These are the building blocks that control proteins and cell growth. Plus, cornbread is just tasty.

Opt For Cooked Brussels Sprouts

Roasted Brussels sprouts and cranberries are in a white bowl.
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Brussels sprouts add color and texture to your meal, along with a host of health benefits. One cup of Brussels sprouts provides 125% of your daily recommended vitamin C and 195% of your daily vitamin K. Both vitamins regulate your blood pressure and support bone health.

On top of this, Brussels sprouts contain more protein than most vegetables. One cup of this vegetable supplies three grams of protein, which will help control your appetite throughout the feast. If you dress Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar, you’ll have a healthy, tasty side dish.

Green Bean Casserole Is Not Healthy

Person removes a spoonful of green bean casserole from a pan.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Just because it has green beans doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Packing on cheese and canned soup overshadows the vegetable’s benefits. For instance, one cup of plain cooked green beans offers four grams of fiber. The same amount of green bean casserole has less than one gram.

And that’s not counting fat. A traditional green bean casserole has seven grams of fat, with 1.5 grams of trans fat. According to the American Heart Association, trans fat raises the “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers the “good” HDL cholesterol. Both contribute to heart disease–and you don’t want a higher risk during Thanksgiving dinner.

Corn Isn’t As Bad As Some People Think

Grilled corn on the cob rests on a pan outdoors.
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Corn on the cob–in particular, sweet corn–has received a negative reputation over the years. Just because it’s sweet doesn’t mean that it’s packed with sugar. One ear of corn has one-third the sugar of an apple and half the natural sugar of a banana. It also has the same caloric content as an apple: 100 calories.

Cooking corn doesn’t diminish its benefits. According to a Cornell study, cooked corn loses some vitamin C but gains more antioxidants. The only potential downside is butter. One tablespoon of butter adds 102 extra calories.

A Healthy Side Dish: Cooked Spinach

Freshly cooked chinese spinach sits on a pan.
Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images
Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images

You probably know that spinach is healthy. But a cooked spinach side dish offers better news. In 2009, Harvard researchers demonstrated that cooking improves the energy value and digestibility of foods. When you cook spinach, your body will absorb more antioxidants such as beta-carotene (vitamin A) and lycopene.

As a side dish, a portion of cooked spinach can help keep your appetite under control. If you cook spinach with some balsamic vinegar, you’ll receive calcium, fiber, iron, and zinc. Keep it lean, and spinach will make a great side dish.

Grab A Large Helping Of Peas

A bowl on a striped tablecloth holds peas.
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Alessandro Arnaboldi/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Green peas are one of the healthiest Thanksgiving sides you can eat. With only 62 calories per half-cup, they can fit into almost any diet. For a vegetable, peas pack a lot of protein: four grams per serving, as well as four grams of fiber. Both of these will prevent you from overeating during the feast.

Peas also provide many essential vitamins. They supply 34% of your recommended daily vitamin A and 24% of vitamin K. Other minerals include vitamin C, manganese, iron, folate, and phosphorus. Definitely place a bowl of peas on your Thanksgiving table.