Healthy Holiday Sides

Celebrate a Thanksgiving inspired by autumn’s seasonal bounty.


This Thanksgiving don’t abandon healthy habits…celebrate them. Whether you are getting together virtually or in person, seasonal produce brings color, flavor, variety, and nutrition to your table. What better way to carry on the Thanksgiving tradition than to celebrate with a table laden with seasonal plant-based foods—as we give thanks for the Earth’s nourishing and delicious bounty.

Focus on Fall Flavor: Autumn’s array of produce—like winter squashes, apples, root vegetables, cranberries, and pomegranates—are packed with nutrients, fiber, and other health-promoting bioactive compounds. “When you bring in variety from plant foods, you satisfy the desire for flavor without excessive calories, and you feel very satisfied,” says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

Many traditional Thanksgiving sides—like sweet potatoes with marshmallows and creamy green bean casserole—have lots of added sugars and saturated fat. “Most things taste good with sugar and butter,” Roberts says, “but you can also prepare many tasty things without, and enjoy something a little different, or even completely new.”

If nothing says “celebration” like sweet, add fruit to vegetable dishes for sweetness without added sugar. Richly colored, naturally sweet, and packed with nutrients, seasonal fruit is a crowd-pleaser. Apple makes a great compliment to sweet potatoes; dried apricots or prunes add earthy sweetness to roasted root vegetables; pears, berries, and persimmons make a delicious addition to salads; and pomegranate arils are gorgeous sprinkled over most any dish before serving. A dash of cinnamon or nutmeg adds depth and fall flavor.

Cooking method influences flavor as well. Roasting vegetables, for example, causes caramelization, intensifying their natural sweetness (see below for Dr. Lichtenstein’s veggie roasting instructions).

Dr. Lichtenstein’s Roasted Veggies

“Roasting root vegetables, squash, and other veggies is easy,” says executive editor Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein. “The heat caramelizes the natural sugars, resulting in a deliciously sweet dish without added sugars. Simply cut the vegetables into one to one-and-a-half inch pieces, put into a plastic bag, add a bit of plant oil, close the top, and shake so veggies are lightly coated. Spill onto a cookie sheet or roasting pan, season as desired, and roast at 400°F until soft and slightly browned. That’s all there is to it!”

Try something new, like roasted leeks, or go with what’s trending, like Brussels’ sprouts (see recipe below. “Just plan ahead, pick good recipes, and try them in advance,” Roberts suggests.



Follow these tips to enjoy Thanksgiving sides that align with a high-quality dietary pattern:

  • Focus on flavor: Seasonal fruits and vegetables are at peak flavor (see chart). Try herbs and spices to help cut back on salt, and fruits (and cinnamon) in place of sweeteners.
  • Limit portions: Go ahead and enjoy traditional dishes, just have a small portion and savor each bite.
  • Substitute: Replace less healthy ingredients with better options, like plant oils instead of butter.
  • Serve a variety: Prepare several healthy plant-based sides that contain different colors and textures to satisfy multiple preferences.

Swap it Up. A healthier Thanksgiving doesn’t have to mean a totally different menu. “In addition to introducing new healthy sides, you can try lighter versions of favorite recipes,” says Roberts. Ingredient swaps are a simple way to boost nutritional quality in your traditional family favorites, as well as easing up on ingredients such as sugar and salt. The changes can be small or bold, depending on your preferences. Swapping out the butter, which is high in saturated fat, for plant oil such as soybean or canola in dishes like vegetables and stuffing is a simple change that will likely go unnoticed. Herbs and spices, with their unique flavor profiles, are the perfect way to enhance flavor while cutting back on salt in your recipes.

The swaps don’t have to be all or nothing. As an example, if croutons in the salad are a must-have, Roberts suggests using half the usual amount and making up the difference with nuts or seeds. Likewise, substitute toasted almonds or pecans for just some of the fried onions on the green bean casserole, or sprinkle cinnamon on top of the sweet potato casserole and add fewer marshmallows. “You don’t have to make drastic changes if your family is wedded to their traditions,” says Roberts.

Strategize: Go into the holiday season with a flexible attitude, knowing you may be eating foods that are less healthful than your usual choices. Give yourself permission to enjoy celebratory food as a part of an overall high-quality diet. Be mindful of portion control and truly savor each bite, chewing slowly as the flavors bring back memories of Thanksgivings past.

If you want to serve the sweet potato casserole with marshmallow topping, go ahead, just limit the portions and serve a healthier option as well. “Many people are so thankful for healthy options,” says Roberts. “They like Thanksgiving, but they don’t want to gain five pounds! If you do gain a pound, be proactive to lose it. Catch it quickly, before you start with other challenging holidays, and don’t give up,” Roberts adds. “If you keep getting rid of each pound, you won’t weigh an ounce more on January second.”

Serving a variety of colorful, tasty, seasonal side dishes—both old and new—is an excellent strategy for celebrating this Thanksgiving. After all, isn’t good health something to be thankful for?

Seasonal Produce

Bring autumn’s bounty of fresh vegetables and fruits to your table for Thanksgiving (and every night) and enjoy the season’s finest—filled with fiber, nutrients, and peak-season flavor.

Image © Pavliha | Getty Images


  1. My wife and I enjoy a plant based diet but when we celebrate holidays with others who have different choices we bring a healthy dish but keep our opinions to ourselves.

  2. Could you post or send the recipe for the thinly sliced sweet potato dish pictured with the pomegranates on top? It looks delicious and healthy!


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