What to Swap Out and Sub In for a Low-Carb Thanksgiving
For some people, Thanksgiving can feel equal parts fulfilling and stressful. With a holiday that largely revolves around food, sticking with a healthy meal plan (and keeping blood sugar levels in check) can feel a bit overwhelming—but that doesn’t have to be the case. A low-carb Thanksgiving simply means following a few easy strategies for both your menu and your mindset.
The key to enjoying a low-carb Thanksgiving without feeling like you’re missing out on foods you love? “Avoid an all or nothing thinking toward holiday meals,” says Hailey Crean, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Hailey Crean Nutrition, LLC, a telenutrition practice. You can make potatoes, pies, and other sides work into your Thanksgiving menu, just as long as you plan ahead. “Thanksgiving is a holiday that centers around food and it's not only OK but actually encouraged that individuals with diabetes enjoy their favorite holiday foods,” Crean adds.
So before you enjoy the big meal with family (and we mean, really enjoy it!), learn a few healthy approaches to filling your plate with foods that not only keep your blood sugar levels steady, but also help satisfy your taste buds. Here, a few smart menu substitutions and how to plan out your Thanksgiving food list.
Swap out: sugars
Sub in: complex carbs
Carbs often take up lots of room on the table for the Thanksgiving Day spread. And while it’s 100% OK to eat carbs if you’re living with diabetes, it’s important to pick the smartest options. The American Diabetes Association suggests focusing most of your carb count on non-starchy veggies (think green beans or a salad), some on starchy veggies (like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and beans), and the least amount on processed carbs or those with added sugar (including white bread and baked goods). Keep that in mind when you’re choosing between a dish like candied sweet potato casserole or a regular baked sweet potato.
Also, while starchy foods like mashed potatoes and stuffing can kick up your carb count, they also offer the perfect opportunity to add more non-starchy veggies into your low-carb Thanksgiving dinner, Crean says. For example, try swapping half the serving of potatoes for cauliflower as you make your mash. (Try this Better Mashed Potatoes recipe from the American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Food Hub.) “You get a healthier version and still enjoyment,” Crean says.
When making stuffing, Crean suggests adding in veggies like onions, carrots, celery, and maybe even chopped kale, as in the Diabetes Food Hub’s stuffing recipe. Also, aim to include a few other side dishes featuring non-starchy veggies, like collard greens, green beans, or a winter salad. If you’re having a smaller gathering this year, it’s the perfect time to try out a new recipe on fewer guests—add the ones you love and the crowd favorites to your future Thanksgiving menu.
Swap out: a full plate
Sub in: a portioned plate
Instead of grabbing anything that looks and smells good and putting it on your plate without thinking about divvying up your protein and carbs, consider a more strategic plan. Follow what’s known as The Plate Method, in which you divide your dish into three sections, Crean suggests. Half of it should contain non-starchy veggies, like green beans or kale. The other half should get split between a protein, like turkey, and a starchy food, like potatoes. “This method can be helpful for balance all year round but can be applied to holiday meals too,” Crean says. Once you fill your plate and eat what’s there, assess how you feel—you can always go back for more if you’re still hungry.
Swap out: big portions of one high-carb food
Sub in: a few low-carb options
Take a look at the high-carb food options available at the table, likely stuffing, cranberry sauce, and dinner rolls. Decide what you want to eat that will help you stick with these foods only taking up a quarter of your plate. Maybe you can swap a scoop of stuffing for a spoonful of brussel sprouts or broccoli florets.
If counting carbs works better for you, think about your budget ahead of time and how you want to use it for a low-carb Thanksgiving. Then, decide how you’ll pack your plate, Crean suggests. Can you cut down on the portion of cranberry sauce and instead have more of the green beans? Could you skip the roll and have it on a sandwich with leftover turkey tomorrow? Figure out what will keep you satisfied, while sticking to your carbohydrate requirements. Keep in mind, while carb counts differ from one person to the next, the American Diabetes Association recommends the general guideline of 45-60 gram of carbs at each meal and 15-20 grams at each snack for those living with diabetes.
The same idea of portion control plays into desserts. You can still have your favorite pumpkin or apple pie, as long as you plan for it. “If you’re already full from the meal, consider if a few bites would satisfy you,” Crean says. “Or pack up a slice of pie to enjoy tomorrow.”
Swap out: skipping breakfast or lunch
Sub in: a regular eating schedule
Oftentimes, people “save up” for the meal with family, ditching breakfast or lunch in prep for a plate full of all the Thanksgiving mains and sides. “This only makes hunger signals stronger and sets you up to end the meal overly full,” Crean says. Filling your plate when you’re super hungry could make a low-carb Thanksgiving more difficult, too, so stick to your regular meal schedule. Consider your T-day dinner just another one of those regular meals, even if it’s extra special with family.
Swap out: a big focus on the main meal
Sub in: other active traditions
It’s important to remember the reason for the season—it’s a time to spend with loved ones and share what you’re grateful for this year. Crean suggests creating a few family traditions outside of the Thanksgiving meal that will help you celebrate the holiday. One smart option: a post-dinner walk with the crew. Research suggests that taking a 10-minute walk after main meals can help to stabilize blood sugar levels in those living with diabetes. This was true even when the meals contained high amounts of carbs. Other options for activities might include playing a game of wiffle ball or doing a scavenger hunt. Think about how you can add more movement to your day, and don’t forget it’s always a good idea to monitor your blood sugar, too, Crean says.