U Rock Girl! by U Rock Girl!

Thanksgiving is such a curious holiday. At a time when we are showing gratitude for our health and those around us, you would think the holiday would feature a slow meal filled with foods that nourish the body and spirit. Perhaps it used to be that way, but somehow the traditional Thanksgiving foods have gotten richer and heavier, with enormous portions to boot.

Did you know that the average Thanksgiving meal can rack up 3,000 calories? Let’s take a look at a typical Thanksgiving menu and see where we might be able to make some tweaks so you can fill up without filling out.

Turkey - Both the dark and light meat are excellent sources of protein and iron, with the dark meat having a bit more fat than the breast meat, but it’s also juicier and has more flavor. The big question is whether to eat the skin or not. Turkey skin is pure fat and not the heart-healthy kind. We recommend that you remove the skin and save those extra calories for dessert.

Gravy – Traditional thick gravy is made with a roux (flour that’s been cooked with fat) that’s added to some turkey broth and pan drippings. Whether yours is homemade or comes from a jar, gravy is very high in sodium (about 230 mg per ¼-cup serving), which can increase water retention and raise blood pressure, if you have hypertension.

Stuffing - Whether your stuffing is made with bread, corn bread, or rice, this high-starch side dish can rack up the calories pretty quickly. Tweak your favorite stuffing recipe by doubling the vegetables and herbs and lowering the salt. By doing this you not only lower the calories, but you sneak in more anti-inflammatory veggies. If your stuffing base is rice, try using quinoa, amaranth, or millet for a higher protein/lower-starch alternative that also happens to be gluten free.

Mashed Potatoes - The first Thanksgiving dinner with the pilgrims and Native Americans did not have any sort of potato dish, as the spud had not yet been introduced to the land. Regardless, our modern Thanksgiving menu proudly features potatoes either au gratin or mashed. The best mashed potatoes are made with copious amounts of butter and cream or whole milk so that it achieves its creamy consistency, but comes with a hefty fat and calorie price tag. If you love the creaminess and are willing to try something new, how about the very popular mashed cauliflower recipe that has many people happily saying goodbye to the starchy spud.

Candied Sweet Potatoes - The pilgrims definitely did not have any marshmallows on the Mayflower! But somehow, we’ve managed to take one of the healthiest vegetables (it’s a sweet potato not a yam) and turn it into a dessert by topping it with butter, sugar, and marshmallows! Let’s not repeat the past and instead honor this vegetable by roasting them whole and then mashing them with a little cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Simple, nutritious, and delicious.

Green bean casserole - Green beans are popular because they are in-season in the fall. Rather than slather them in cream of mushroom soup and top with canned fried onions, roast them in the pan with some chopped shallots and garlic; then zest some lemon on top and finish with a good squeeze of lemon juice. The acidity in the lemon really brings out the flavor without having to add any salt. If you’re looking for some new vegetable side dishes this year that will have your guests asking for more, check out our recipes here.

Pumpkin pie/Pecan pie/Apple pie: Like potatoes, pies were not on the first Thanksgiving menu as they did not have the flour and butter to make a crust. And the crust is the problem with most pie recipes – too high in fat and calories. Instead of pie, take the same filling but cook it up without the crust and then make a crisp or crumble topping that can be put on top of the mixture toward the end of the cooking process. It has all of the same flavors, so you’ll still feel like you’re eating a pie. Your stomach will thank you later.

Navigating the Thanksgiving Buffet

Get a leg up this Thanksgiving by preparing and making smart choices by following our favorite tips and strategies:

  • Eat breakfast – Treat Thanksgiving like any other day of the year and start your day right with a breakfast that has a balance of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) but really emphasizes protein (eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, nitrate-free turkey breakfast sausage) so you stay fuller for longer.
  • Stay hydrated – Often times we think we’re hungry when we are actually thirsty. Hydrate with plenty of water and green tea, both of which will increase your metabolism.
  • Exercise – Rev your metabolism and burn some extra calories in anticipation of a larger than normal meal. Today is a perfect day for a HIIT workout!
  • Survey the buffet table before you choose what you are going to eat – This allows you to check out the goods and make a better decision about what will end up on your plate and in your mouth.
  • Grab a small plate – Research shows that plate size does matter! When you have a larger plate, you will serve yourself more food. The same thing goes for a smaller plate – you take less food and end up eating less. This is a tip that can be applied to everyday life when trying to watch portion sizes.
  • Start and fill up the plate with vegetables - Roughly two-thirds of your plate should be covered by vegetables, mostly non-starchy. The fiber in the vegetables will fill you up faster and keep you fuller for longer.
  • Turkey (or other protein) should make up the other one-third of your plate. Balancing your plate with protein and vegetables allows you to obtain a meal that’s better balanced in macros, which will be easier to digest, have less of an impact on your blood sugar level, and prevent that post-meal food coma that so many people experience.
  • Take a small spoonful of the starchy side dishes (stuffing, potatoes) as one or two bites is enough to keep you from feeling deprived
  • Leave a little room for dessert
  • Take a walk after dinner to help your food digest and to lower any sharp rise in blood sugar from eating too many carbs.

Visualize your portions


3 oz.

Palm of hand or deck of cards

Mashed potatoes

½ cup

Half of tennis ball


½ cup

About the size of an ice cream scoop

Green Beans (or other non-starchy vegetable)

1 cup

About the size of a baseball


¼ cup

Golf ball

Pumpkin pie

1/8th of pie (9” pie)

About the size of a standard light bulb

Thanksgiving Portion Guide Infographic

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