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How to Enjoy a Nutritious, Delicious Thanksgiving Meal with Your Older Loved One

Consider these expert tips for a healthy, colorful and fun fall meal.

Grandmother and her grandchildren during Thanksgiving dinner; Getty Images

Enjoy. What’s the point of the Thanksgiving meal without this crucial ingredient? It goes for all those near and dear, including our older loved ones who may have special dietary considerations.

“When we think about Thanksgiving, it’s not only about the meal,” Sarah L. Francis, an associate professor at Iowa State University and a registered dietitian, told “It’s also got the socialization aspect, and socialization is so important for older adults. And it’s about honoring our traditions and our memories.”

On this day above all, getting together to honor traditions and memories involves relishing good food. While there are myriad ways to make your favorite traditional dishes healthier for your older loved one (and for everyone else at the table), the key is moderation, said Francis, who has over 20 years of experience in community nutrition and aging. “When I think about Thanksgiving, I always think about my mom’s homemade pumpkin pie,” she said. “I’m not going to give that up. What’s one food that when you close your eyes and you think about that food, it brings up all those warm feelings about the holiday? Maybe we don’t want to modify that recipe. Maybe it’s some other recipes that we would want to modify. And remember that Thanksgiving is one day. You don’t have to eat every food on that day. You’re going to have leftovers!”

Although the point is to savor the experience rather than count calories, she said, it’s important—especially for older adults—to savor within limits. “When I was growing up, we had two types of potatoes, the hot vegetable dish, the cold vegetable dish, a fruit dish … That’s a lot, and I don’t think we need all of that,” Francis said. As a guide for filling your plate, as well as your loved one’s, she suggested referring to the USDA’s MyPlate website: “A quarter of your plate is protein, a quarter is whole grains, a quarter is fruit and a quarter is vegetables,” Francis said. “Having that MyPlate visual in mind when you’re serving your Thanksgiving meal will help you to not overeat and get a nutrient-rich meal.”

That doesn’t mean your food can’t be creative. (And if you’re both caregiver and cook on this day, don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need it. That could mean anything from family members pitching in to hiring an in-home care aide to take some other tasks off your hands.)

Francis offered healthier yet delicious twists on preparing some favorite Thanksgiving foods:

Turkey “There’s really nothing you need to do. Roasted turkey’s healthy—just try not to eat all the skin. For someone who’s older and has chewing difficulties, chopping up the turkey into smaller bites and adding gravy will help soften the meat.”

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Vegetarian main dishes “There are so many ways to do vegetarian options. But protein is really important at every meal, particularly for older adults. At the traditional Thanksgiving meal, usually the turkey’s the protein source and then everything else is a carbohydrate. So, making a fun and hearty bean soup that incorporates some of those fall vegetables would be a good way to do it. Think about using squash and pumpkin—whole pumpkin, not soft pumpkin. Black beans and sweet potatoes are really good together. Again, if someone has chewing difficulties, beans would be a very soft way for them to have a source of protein. Or do a pasta dish with fall vegetables and seeds. My mom always made macaroni and cheese. For the cheese and the milk, you can use reduced fat. Don’t use fat-free, it doesn’t melt well. The reduced fat cheese is still a protein and it gives you that extra calcium.”

Sauces “Instead of two ladles of gravy, maybe one ladle or half a ladle. Think about those really creamy rich sauces that we use in some of the vegetable dishes—you could find a different way to prepare the vegetable or use a lower-fat milk or a lower-fat cheese. Instead of a can of cranberry sauce, maybe make your own, mixing the berries and oranges. You’re going to need a little bit of sugar for sweetness. Maple syrups are still sugars, but they have a stronger flavor, so maybe less is more with those.”

Stuffing “You don’t notice much of a difference between whole wheat bread and white here, so maybe use whole wheat to make it. If it calls for a stick of butter, try to use half a stick or try a new recipe that uses a healthier oil like olive or canola oil. That helps build up good cholesterol. Adding seeds to the stuffing adds extra crunch and a little extra protein. Adding berries would add color and flavor and help add some fruit to the meal.”

Sweet potatoes “Sweet potato casseroles are a really big thing at Thanksgiving time, but a baked sweet potato or simply mashed sweet potatoes have that same flavor without all the extra fats and sugars that go into traditional sweet potato casserole.”

Mashed potatoes “They’re really healthy but I would recommend going easy on the butter and using a low-fat milk instead of heavy cream to mash them up. But choose either the mashed potato or the sweet potato. I wouldn’t have both. Have a green vegetable instead. Potatoes are starchy vegetables and you’re also going to have that stuffing.”

Green beans “Find some frozen green beans and steam them to give that little bit of crunch and flavor on your plate. Or instead of frozen green beans, use canned green beans. Draining and rinsing them helps lower the sodium, and it’s a quick dish to make. You can just microwave them. You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to fit one more thing in the oven. If you really like green bean casserole, then find low-fat, low-sodium soup and a fat-free milk to make the sauce without compromising the flavor. The casserole may be better for someone who has chewing difficulties because it would be softer.”

Fruit “Add a fun fruit dessert or mixed berries as a nice fruit side. Try a cranberry-orange salad or dress up a salad with pomegranate seeds. Pomegranates are in season at Thanksgiving and they add nice crunch and a little bit of sourness and a bright zip of red color. They’re so festive on anything.”

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Rolls: “If they fit into your meal plan, I would encourage whole wheat rolls for extra fiber. Our goal is always to make half our grains whole grains, so that would be an easy way to meet that requirement.”

Diabetic tips “I always get asked, ‘What can somebody who has diabetes eat?’ They can eat whatever you eat. But make sure they stay within their carbohydrate allowance for the meal. It doesn’t matter whether that carbohydrate comes from the pumpkin pie or if it comes from the pasta dish or the stuffing. The body processes it the same way. So, if I had diabetes, I’d think, I’m not going to give up my slice of pumpkin pie. For dinner, I’m going to have my turkey and a little bit of gravy, and I’m going to have a salad or my green beans, and then I’m going to save my carbohydrate allowance for that piece of pie at the end of the meal. Maybe instead of the whole roll, I’m going to have a half a roll. Instead of one serving spoon of mashed potatoes, I’m going to have a half a serving spoon. So, you get those tastes but you’re not getting all the carbohydrates. It’s all about choices!”

Learn more about healthy menu planning.

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