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LSU Food & Health Experts Offer Tips for a Healthy and Delicious Thanksgiving Meal

Every November, people across the United States observe the Thanksgiving holiday, which honors the practice originated by the first American settlers gathering with Native Americans for large group meals and to give thanks after the work of a completed harvest season.


Bogdan Mocanu, a sous chef with LSU Dining, prepares a blackberry sauce using a flambé technique. While flavor is an important part of any meal, those looking to eat healthy at Thanksgiving do not have to sacrifice flavor for substance. Eddy Perez/University Relations

In addition, neighboring Canada also celebrates its own Thanksgiving Day in October, as well as other Thanksgiving celebrations in countries such as Liberia and The Netherlands.

Wherever one may be celebrating, the main activity of Thanksgiving usually revolves around gatherings of family and friends spending time together and sharing large meals around tables filled with various food items.

For those who may be dieting or making the choice to eat healthier, deciding what they should or should not put on their plates can be a daunting task during Thanksgiving. What foods should they select? Which should they avoid? How can they ensure that they maintain their healthy lifestyle?

To help make the Thanksgiving meal experience less painstaking, LSU experts in the field of food preparation and dietetics offer their advice on how people can make their Thanksgiving experience an enjoyable one, while still eating healthy and keeping costs down.

Kitchen consciousness

Making sure your Thanksgiving meal is a healthy one can often start at the source – in the kitchen.

Jamie Mascari, a graduate assistant and registered dietician with LSU Athletics, said that while most Thanksgiving meals center on a traditional cooked turkey, how that turkey is prepared can make a difference in terms of caloric intake.

“Here in the South, a lot of people like to deep fry their turkeys,” she said. “The best way is to do it is the old fashioned way - roasting. Also, the white meat is going to be a little lower in fat, so sticking to that over the dark meat is a way to keep it healthy.”

Mascari also suggested using dinner rolls made from whole-grain or wheat bread, which is lower in sugars and calories, and having fresh steamed or roasted vegetables available.

Certain “trap foods” may look or sound like they are healthy, Mascari said. However, taking the time to look at all of the ingredients in the dish can help you to avoid unnecessary calories.


Michael Foster, executive chef of resident dining for LSU Dining, offered recipes for those looking for healthy traditional Thanksgiving dishes, as well as ideas for those who practice a vegetarian lifestyle (see below). Eddy Perez/University Relaitons

“Casseroles are dishes that can be deceiving,” she said. “For example, a lot of people like green bean casserole. They hear ‘green bean’ and think, ‘That’s a vegetable. I’m safe.’ But, depending on how it’s cooked, it can contain high-fat creams and cheeses, or even fried onions sometimes placed on top. That plays into additional calories in the dish. A better choice is to have the option of fresh or steamed green beans. Or, if you really want that casserole, there are tons of more healthy casserole recipes out there that substitute certain ingredients.”

Simply changing the way certain meals are prepared – slightly altering ingredients, cooking methods or the measurements of certain ingredients – is an easy way to practice more healthy decision making not only during Thanksgiving, Mascari said, but year round as well.

“Instead of adding oil and butter while you’re cooking, try to limit them,” she said. “If you don’t want to take them out completely, simply try to halve how much you use. You really don’t need the amount of butter that most recipes call for, in most cases.”

While traditional Thanksgiving meals often contain numerous meat-based concoctions, more and more vegetarian-friendly recipes are finding their way onto the dinner table.

“I don’t think that just because someone is vegetarian that their meals have to be boring, bland and tasteless,” Foster said. “Just like meat eaters make our vegetables taste good, vegetarians can do the same for their entrees. It does not always have to be beans and rice, either.”

In addition to the popular fruit and vegetable side dishes seen at most Thanksgiving gatherings, new takes on salads, soups, casseroles and meatless versions of other holiday standards offer vegetarians more options than ever.


Eddy Perez/University Relations

Turkey Day Tips

Michael Foster, LSU Dining’s executive chef for resident dining, oversees the cooking for LSU’s two residential dining facilities – The 5 and 459 Commons. Here are some recipes he has provided to help keep your Thanksgiving meal a healthy one:

Note: This Thanksgiving meal is under 800 calories and 30 grams of fat. It weighs in with just 731 calories and 28 grams of fat per person. Utilize proper portion sizes and do not over indulge. As with most meals, a key to proper nutrition is to follow standardized guidelines for portion control.

Garlicky Green Beans
Wild Mushroom Stuffing
Maple-Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Cranberry, Cherry & Walnut Marmalade
Apple-Shallot Roasted Turkey
Cider Gravy
Turkey Giblet Stock

Veggie Delight

The following are vegetarian-friendly Thanksgiving dish recipes provided by Michael Foster, LSU Dining’s executive chef for resident dining:

Roasted Acorn Squash with Wild Rice Stuffing
Mushroom and Fennel Bread Pudding
Winter Greens Lasagne
Celery Root and Squash Gratin with Walnut-Thyme Streusel
Roasted Pumpkin Salad
Spiced Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin Pie Spice Blend
Roasted Pumpkin Puree
Vanilla Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Autumn Spice Oil

You are what you eat

When faced with a spread of foods that they may eat only once per year, many people may wonder just how they can avoid overindulging while also being able to enjoy these holiday staples.

“I think a lot of people look forward to that one day where they can gorge themselves with huge portions,” Mascari said. “They really don’t think that one day can mess up a diet, but it definitely can. A lot of people don’t realize that you can eat more than 5,000 or more calories in one sitting at this time of year, because of the high fat content of certain dishes.”

Michael Foster, LSU Dining’s executive chef for resident dining, said that ignoring the typical urge to binge on food during the holiday season can be difficult, but is necessary to maintain proper health.

“I would suggest not eating the skin of the turkey and following proper portions,” he said. “I know these are difficult because the skin is so tasty and hey, it’s Thanksgiving, we are supposed to over-indulge, right? Wrong. Overeating is a major problem that throws our dietary guidelines and our body’s functions into overdrive or out of line.”

Both Mascari and Foster stressed practicing proper portion control during the holidays.

“Portion control is probably one of the easier methods you have to stick to a diet,” Mascari said. “Even if a food has a high fat or cholesterol content and you really want it, just cutting back on how much you put on your plate makes a difference. When it comes to serving yourself, pay attention to how much and what you’re putting on your plate. Make sure you have that good source of lean meat. Also, I like to stress that you need to have some color on your plate with vegetables. You can also have some starch with potatoes, stuffing or bread. Keep a variety on your plate and keep the portions appropriate. Taking the time to look at your plate can really help you to stay on track.”

Mascari, who works with many LSU student athletes on their meal regimen, said that it can be hard for them to stick to a plan when they’re away from training routines.

“A lot of the athletes haven’t been home in a while, some since the summer because of training or when their respective sports start,” she said. “They think of this time as a chance to go home and see their families, relax and get away from everything. Part of that is getting good, home-cooked meals. Others may just do their own thing for the holidays. Either way, the mindset sometimes becomes, ‘It’s time to get some good food.’ We really try to educate them and stress that even though they’re going home, they can enjoy the food. They just have to remember to watch how much and what
they’re eating.”

Another way to avoid overeating at the lunch or dinner meals is to simply eat breakfast, Mascari said.

“A lot of people try to save up their calories for that big lunch or dinner meal,” she said. “Instead, I’d recommend eating breakfast. That way, when it comes to that lunch or dinner, you’re not absolutely starving and wanting to pile a big plate of food in front of you. Plus, your metabolism is started early, which helps to break down fats and give you energy.”

Mascari also said that maintaining one’s personal exercise plan during the holiday season will help to keep the body used to breaking down calories.

When the main Thanksgiving course is through, another pitfall for those looking to eat healthy comes in the form of desserts. However, Mascari said, diners can still enjoy confections without fear, if they make proper decisions.

“You may have just finished eating a heavy meal, and there are those traditional pumpkin pies, cakes, cookies and other tempting desserts staring you in the face,” she said. “It’s fine if those are available, but having that option of fresh fruit or low-fat dessert is a smart move. Searching for recipes online is a great way to find desserts that still taste great and are not as bad for you. And, again, portion control is the key.”

Making more with less

According to information recently released by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the retail cost of menu items for a classic Thanksgiving dinner for 10 – including turkey, stuffing, cranberries, pumpkin pie and all the basic trimmings – increased about 13 percent this year. The total $49.20 estimated cost increases from 2010’s estimate of $43.47 per meal.

Thanksgiving tidbits

The following are links to recent releases by the LSU AgCenter that involve Thanksgiving:

2011 Thanksgiving dinner costs decrease by 3.6 percent

Vow not to gain weight over the holiday season

You don't have to fret about fried turkey

However, a recent survey conducted by the LSU AgCenter shows shoppers purchasing the same items in Louisiana will see a 3.6 percent decrease in cost. (See sidebar)

Wherever one may live, rising food costs and challenging economic times may force many people to downsize their Thanksgiving spread in order to conserve funds. Or, perhaps some may not be able to partake in a large feast because of personal situations.

For those who may be on a tighter budget for Thanksgiving or are cooking for one or a handful of people, Mascari said that there are ways to maximize the nutritional value of making smaller or less expensive purchases.

“While a great option, you really don’t need to go for the fresh vegetables if you’re on a budget, because they tend to be more expensive,” she said. “A lot of people believe that canned vegetables aren’t the best for you. Actually, they pretty much have the same nutrient value as fresh vegetables. Going for the ones with less sodium or no salt added is acceptable, as is going for frozen vegetables. Since they’re frozen right after being picked, they maintain that same nutrient value. Simply rinsing vegetables or other foods before you cook them can also get rid of some of the salts that are used as preservatives.”

Foster said using readily available coupons is another way to save money and still find the foods you want.

“Shop around. I know it is a pain to do so, but in order to get the best prices, you have to do it,” he said. “If you can, buy your vegetables fresh at the produce markets not at the box stores or grocery markets. You will find better prices, better selections and, most of the time, better quality. Plus, a lot of the time, you will be supporting your local farmers, which is very important to me.”

Leftover love

The day after Thanksgiving is usually filled with people looking to use leftover food for easy creations. With the LSU Tiger football team facing the Southeastern Conference rival Arkansas Razorbacks that day in Tiger Stadium, many Tiger fans will be stationed on campus for their ritual tailgating experience.

Mascari said that utilizing leftover Thanksgiving food items into a tailgate can help to save money, as well as to offer a healthy meal alternative.

“Since the Arkansas game is the day after Thanksgiving, one of the best ways to maximize your Thanksgiving meal is to use that leftover turkey and whole-wheat buns to make sandwiches,” she said. “That way, you can avoid have to cook even more than you did the day before and avoid those high-fat meats that are often the staple of tailgate.”

Those who want to maintain their traditional tailgate plans can still do so while still making healthy choices, Mascari said.

“When looking for meats to put on the grill or in the pot, try to look for the leaner meats – those with a lower fat content,” she said. “These include grilled chicken, turkey burgers or turkey sausage. A lot of people are amazed that I often suggest whole-grain brown rice for their gumbos instead of white rice. Also, since you probably ate pretty heartily on Thanksgiving, try having a nice big bowl of fresh fruit instead of the cookie tray for dessert.”

For more healthy year-round eating tips from Mascari and the LSU Athletics Training staff, visit the “Healthy Tiger” blog at healthytiger.blogspot.com or follow “Healthy Tiger” on Twitter, @HealthyTigerLSU.

To learn more about LSU Dining’s facilities and offerings, visit www.lsudining.com or follow LSU Dining on Facebook and Twitter.