When planning menu for Thanksgiving Day, consider options

Cathryn Arndt

We are about two weeks away from one of the biggest American holidays: Thanksgiving! Needless to say, it is a food-heavy day (or week!), during which thoughts of nutrition often go out the window. I love asking people what their food traditions are during Thanksgiving. Some holiday menus are very traditional, others add in subtle nuances and some are completely out of the ordinary. Regardless of your food tradition, let’s take a look at four of the standard thanksgiving meal items, their key nutrients and some ways we might be able to make it a little bit healthier. Turkey It’s funny how traditions get started. Most of the time, the roots are lost while the practice remains. Eating turkey at Thanksgiving is one of those. We know that the first Thanksgiving likely had roast bird, including turkey, but we don’t know why the tenacity of this tradition has remained. Likely, it has been for many reasons. The good news is there is more than one way to prepare the cele-brated bird. Preparation methods range from a brine or dry rub, to breading. Cooking methods include deep frying, barbecuing, roasting and overnight cooking. Ever wondered why turkey is said to bring on the post-meal drowsies? You likely have heard that the phenomenon is due to the amino acid L-tryptophan present in turkey. L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is the sole precursor to the important brain chemical serotonin, responsible for mood. Tryptophan also helps to make melatonin, another chemical that influences sleep. Other foods like chicken, tuna, milk and even some fruits and veggies contain tryptophan. In actuality, one ounce of canned tuna contains more tryptophan than one pound of turkey! Yet why do we never credit that tuna with sleepiness? It turns out that there is a difference between how much tryptophan a food has and how bioavailable it is in the body (and thus its effect). So even though foods like turkey and tuna are high in tryptophan, they may not provide the sleepy punch we expect. Also, a higher protein meal (that contains tryptophan) will not necessarily initiate a quick release of L-tryptophan and serotonin. A protein meal actually suppresses some of that release. Surprisingly, it is carbohydrates that will do more to increase tryptophan and serotonin. This has to do with the mechanism of insulin response after eating carbs. So while tryptophan-rich foods certainly affect the overall generation of serotonin, they aren’t responsible for an immediate release – like one that would cause you to get sleepy post-meal. In short, post-Thanksgiving sleepiness is more likely be attributed to full stomachs requiring increased blood flow for digestion, carbohydrates and alcoholic beverages. Cranberry sauce Despite being the easiest item you can make for Thanksgiving, it is likely the most commonly purchased in a can. Cranberries are full of bioactive compounds and antioxidents that provide vitamin C, fight inflammation and bladder infections! A little dab of this on your meal can only reap health benefits. Unfortunately, a load of sugar is commonly used to mask the tart taste of cranberries. My suggestion, if you make it from scratch, aim for a little less sugar (and maybe use forms such as 100 percent pure maple syrup instead of white sugar). (**see below for resource). Green Beans These seasonal veggies are full of fiber, potassium, vitamin A and K. Despite their nutritional goodness, however, it seems like many people make the traditional green bean casserole solely for the fried onion crispies on top or the creaminess from the canned soup poured into it. Oftentimes the dish isn’t much of a hit at all, so families skip making it all together. Well, here are some reasons to include green beans back into your menu, as well as some alternatives to it. First, despite the creaminess and crunchiness of“classic recipes,” they really aren’t necessary. You already have gravy, bread and sweet potatoes … do the green beans have to have all of those components too? While life isn’t all about calories, I am pretty sure these calories and processed carbohydrates are ones you don’t need. Steaming beans is a healthier option but if done poorly, renders them overcooked, limp and boring. It creates yet another reason to exclude these from the menu. But beans don’t have to be ousted from the festivities so quickly. There are ways to make green beans crispy and satisfying without the added junk. Try roasting them in the oven. With minimal effort you can end up with buttery crispiness without all the “unnecessaries.” (**see below for resource) If you simply aren’t a green bean fan, try another green veggie dish, such as a festive harvest salad, cabbage slaw or other roasted veggies. Sweet Potatoes/Yams /Mashed Potatoes Everyone has a preference for one or another of these. In some families, deciding on which to take to the festive gathering is akin to the Beavers vs Ducks contention! If you are making mashed potatoes, you don’t necessarily have to alter what you do. Taking into consideration a guest’s non-dairy needs might be helpful but if not, butter, sour cream or even cream cheese really do make wonderful additions to this dish. After all, it is Thanksgiving! Just moderate your portion (about n to ½ cup) and you will be fine. For the carb’conscious folks, you can try decreasing the amount of starch by adding in some cooked, pureed cauliflower. This provides fewer carbs, more fiber and key nutrients that benefit your liver (and after all the eating and drinking people do, liver support is rather helpful!) Yams and sweet potatoes are terms used interchangeably but, in actuality, they are two different vegetables. Even grocery stores mis-label them sometimes. Yams are orange-brown on the outside and have bright orange flesh when cooked. They are typically found in standard grocery stores year-round. Their carbohydrate/starch content is less than the cousin they are commonly mistaken for — sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are light tan/dusty-white on the outside and sport yellowish flesh when cooked. Both are sweet inside and really can be interchangeable in a recipe. Both are excellent sources vitamin A, although sweet potatoes are a little higher. Do your waistline, blood sugar and mood a big favor this year and skip the traditional sweet potato casserole calling for marshmallows and added sugar. Adding cinnamon to these already sweet veggies actually accentuates their sweetness, so try that first. If you feel you need more sweetness then add 100 percent pure maple syrup rather than white or brown sugar. Make these mashed or create a new twist by roasting them in the oven with oil and some salt! This is sure to be a winner for the sweet potato fry lovers in your family! **For More Help** Want to try the recipes and suggestions I mentioned? Interested in tips on how to keep good portion control on Thanksgiving? Find the links and tips at my website http://www.thepantrylab.com under the “blog” heading. Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or YouTube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.