Lighten Up! A Playbook for a Healthy Thanksgiving Table

By Shannon Sarna

'Tis almost the official season of overeating, and Thanksgiving really kicks off the whole affair. Like so many things in America, Thanksgiving can be a bit overblown. A special turkey dinner with sides becomes a five-course meal. We add turkey-shaped cheese balls, two hours of appetizers or even extend the affair all day to begin with brunch, snacks all afternoon, the traditional dinner, and continue the feast well into the evening with dessert and coffee and more drinks.

I actually really love Thanksgiving -- what a special opportunity to literally breathe, reflect upon gratitude and spend time with family. And I especially adore the traditional foods of the holiday. They evoke some serious childhood memories for me, as I imagine they do for many of you. But in the case of dishes like mashed potatoes, pecan pie or sweet potato casserole, they can be packed with a lot of extra fat, sugar and salt.

I never advocate for cutting out entire food groups all together, or even the things you love, but I do believe that simple ingredients reign supreme over complicated dishes, and quality over quantity will produce more satisfying results -- moderation in everything is the key. Eat small portions of the richer dishes, and load your plate with protein and lots of veggies. There really can be balance between the comforting dishes we love throughout the holiday season, and healthful, real foods that our body still needs.

We may not be in the height of summer produce, but brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets, winter greens and pears are in season, at least throughout the Northeast, where I live. Adding some simple roasted vegetable dishes and big green salads gives you and your guests additional options for dining and allows you all the chance to get in a hearty serving of green veggies even while indulging.

Even if people like soda, I literally never serve it when I entertain. I will put out pitchers of water with lemon and mint, or homemade iced tea. (You can also buy unsweetened iced tea at most supermarkets). I love cheesy appetizers or things wrapped in puff pastry (who doesn’t!?), but I also love making sure there is a big platter of cut-up veggies with some simple hummus or dips. Whole Foods has a great variety that aren’t laden with extra oil or preservatives, including a beautifully hued beet hummus.

And while pumpkin pies, cheesecakes, pastries and sugar cookies arrive in abundance this time of year, you can still make a lightened up dessert with my apple challah bread pudding. This version is even parve! Of course you can use a store-bought whole wheat challah loaf or you can go the extra mile and make your own with a recipe like my honey whole wheat challah.

I love this time of year for the ample opportunities we have to gather with friends and family.  Let us be thankful for our families, health, and the ability to make healthful choices about our food on holidays like Thanksgiving and every day. The better we treat our bodies today will mean more celebrations of gratitude for years to come. Happy Thanksgiving, friends! 

Shannon Sarna is Hadassah's food guru and the spokesperson for Every Bite Counts: Hadassah's Nutrition Program. She is editor of The Nosher, and her writing and recipes have been featured in Tablet Magazine, JTA News, The Jewish Week, Joy of Kosher Magazine and Buzzfeed. "Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More," her new book, was released in September 2017. 


    Makes 6 Servings
  • cooking spray
  • 6 large slices of challah, crusts removed and cubed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 Tbsp raw sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp clove
  • 2 apples, peeled and diced
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ¼ cup sliced almonds


Calories: 180.6 kcal
Fat: 3.5 g
Saturated Fat: 0.5 g
Trans Fatty Acid: 0.0 g
Poly Fat: 1.1 g
Mono Fat: 0.9 g
Cholesterol: 64.5 mg
Sodium: 213.4 mg
Carbohydrates: 30.3 g
Dietary Fiber: 3.5 g
Total Sugars: 13.8 g
Protein: 6.1 g
Dietary Exchanges: 1 starch, 1 fruit, ½ lean meat

Apple Challah Bread Pudding


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray inside of an 8x11 pyrex or baking pan. Add challah to pan.

Add eggs, almond milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, apples, raisins and almonds. Mix well with hands until mixture is wet throughout. Allow to sit for 30 minutes.

Bake for 40 minutes until golden on top.

Serve with ice cream if desired.

Shannon Sarna is Hadassah’s food guru and spokesperson for Every Bite Counts: Hadassah's Nutrition Program. The food editor of The Nosher, Shannon writes a monthly Hadassah column with signature recipes for Every Bite Counts.

Join the push for heart health with Every Bite Counts: Hadassah's Nutrition Program, featuring innovative recipes, practical tips, and heart healthy cooking.

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