Everybody overeats during the holidays, it’s as American as the apple pie you’re binging on. But few understand how many total calories there are in Thanksgiving dinner. It’s kind of outrageous, actually. If you’re looking forward to a plentiful spread on Turkey Day but concerned about the calories in Thanksgiving dinner, here are a few tips to help you through the day.
Don’t Get Stuffed
According to the Calorie Control Council, Americans may consume more than 4,500 calories at their Thanksgiving dinner. The meal we created contains less than half that, yet still provides plenty of food.
For our holiday spread, the experts in Consumer Reports’ test kitchen picked some popular holiday dishes and portioned out standard-sized servings, as specified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or on the labels of the packaged items we used. Then we calculated the calorie counts of each dish per serving.
“Be mindful of how much you serve yourself,” says Maxine Siegel, R.D., who heads Consumer Reports’ food lab. “That way you can sample many foods without going overboard. But double or triple your portions—which is easy to do—and you could consume a sky-high number of calories.”
Depending on age, weight, and gender, most people should have somewhere between 1,600 and 2,800 calories daily. So at around 2,000 calories in our Thanksgiving dinner, even the CR spread has more than a daily allotment of calories for many.
Still, it’s not a good idea to skip breakfast (and lunch if you’re having a late celebration) to bank those calories.
“If you’re ravenous when the main event begins, you’re even more likely to overeat,” Siegel says. “And keep in mind that eating an extra few hundred calories on this festive day might not even register on the scale if you resume a healthful diet the next day.”
Here’s our dish-by-dish guide to gobbling up a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings that’s satisfyingly indulgent but isn’t a calorie or nutrition catastrophe—plus tips on how to serve up a healthier meal.
When you’re greeted with a spread of delectable hors d’oeuvres, it can be hard to hold back. One good strategy is to survey the offerings and assemble a plate of the snacks you plan to eat. “That way you won’t mindlessly munch on goodies and wind up eating more than you planned,” Siegel says.
Hot Hors D’Oeuvres
The calories in hot appetizers can add up fast. We selected one Trader Joe’s Pastry Bite with Feta Cheese and Caramelized Onions (70 calories per piece) and three Nathan’s All Beef Franks in a Blanket (147 calories for 3 pieces).
If you’re doing the shopping, pay attention to calorie counts on heat-and-eat party food labels. For example, in comparison, Whole Foods Market Artichoke, Kale & Swiss Chard Bites, which scored a Very Good rating in our party food appetizer taste test, come in at only 23 calories per piece. And we found plenty of other great options, too.
Crackers and Cheese
Next, we placed two Carr’s Whole Wheat Crackers (80 calories for two) and an ounce of Brie (95 calories) on our plate. While that’s pretty good, there are lower-cal options. For example, two Carr’s Table Water Crackers top out at 30 calories and an ounce of goat cheese packs just 75.
Appetizer total: 392 calories
The Main Meal
You’ve waited all year to savor your favorite Thanksgiving dishes, and your first instinct may be to pile on the food. Instead, Siegel says, “Stick to sensible portion sizes.” As you can see from our plate above, you’ll still end up with plenty to eat.
This 3½-ounce portion of white meat with skin (about the size of a deck of cards) delivers just 177 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 30 grams of protein. The same amount of dark meat with skin has 206 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 27 grams of protein. To lighten the calorie load, skip the crispy skin and save roughly 30 calories per serving.
“The skin is also very high in saturated fat, which can raise your blood cholesterol level and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke,” Siegel says.
We spooned out ½ cup of stuffing (the size of an ice cream scoop), adding about 195 calories to the plate.
In addition to that rather hefty calorie count, the stuffing contains 480 mg of sodium. But making a healthier stuffing requires just a few tweaks.
Most of that sodium comes from broth, so you can reduce it by using a lower-sodium version. And to lighten the calorie count, add chopped veggies like carrots and celery. That way you’ll be eating less stuffing and more lower-cal vegetables in the same ½-cup portion.
Four ounces (equivalent to 1 medium sweet potato) of homemade candied sweet potatoes adds 187 calories. These nutritional powerhouses are brimming with antioxidants that help fight inflammation and may protect against some types of cancers.
The problem is that candied sweet potatoes are also high in sugars. True, sweet potatoes naturally contain some sugars, but just about 7 grams. This serving of candied sweet potatoes has 20 grams of sugars, meaning that 13 grams, or about 3 teaspoons, of sugars are added.
To get the sweet potato goodness without the added sugars (and calories) opt for a plain baked sweet potato (103 calories) or roasted sweet potato chunks (about 120 calories per cup).
Green Bean Casserole
This classic dish containing green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and crispy fried onions comes in at 227 calories for a ½-cup serving. (We used the recipe on the Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup label.)
That’s a big calorie investment, especially considering that half a cup of plain green beans has only 20 calories.
As a lighter alternative, consider serving green beans almondine—steamed string beans sautéed in a small amount of butter and tossed with slivered almonds and lemon juice.
One cup of mashed potatoes made with whole milk, butter, and salt adds 237 calories to the tally. For a lighter version, try using lower-fat milk, or replacing some of the butter and milk with lower-sodium chicken broth.
A ¼-cup ladle of gravy pulls the whole meal together at an economical 25 calories. But store-bought gravy, like the one we used, is high in sodium (about 250 mg per serving), so don’t go overboard. If you make your own using the turkey drippings, separating out the fat and using little salt will yield an even lower-cal gravy that’s also lower in sodium.
This quintessential Thanksgiving side dish packs 102 calories per ¼-cup serving. Because the berries are tart, most recipes—like the one from the Ocean Spray Cranberry package we used—call for a lot of sugar. An easy fix: Use less sugar in your recipe, and consider adding some cinnamon, cloves, and orange rind to help enhance the sweetness of the sauce.
This 3×3-inch square adds about 198 calories to our plate. A pat of butter adds another 35 calories and about 4 grams of fat. Siegel’s advice: “If there’s butter on the table, skip it. Thanksgiving dinner tends to be high in both fat and calories, and this is an easy place to avoid adding more.” Or consider choosing among the starchy foods—stuffing, mashed potatoes, cornbread (or rolls). Have one or two, but not all three.
Whether you choose red or white, a 5 fluid ounce glass contains about 125 calories. And those calories aren’t the only reason to stick to one glass. Studies show that alcohol lowers your inhibitions, so you may not make the best dietary choices after imbibing.
Meal total: 1,473 calories
Most people serve more than one Thanksgiving dessert, but you don’t need to feel compelled to eat a portion of each one. Instead, Siegel says, “Choose one, or perhaps two, and have half of each.”
Apple Pie à la Mode
A single slice (1⁄8 of a 9-inch pie) supplies about 411 calories. Topping it with ½ cup of vanilla ice cream adds 137 calories. To lighten the calorie load, skip the ice cream. Or, if you’re in charge of the dessert menu, consider serving an apple crisp instead. It tends to be made with less butter, flour, and sugar, and more apples, and has about 227 calories per half-cup serving—a substantial savings.
This traditional dessert is the biggest calorie bomb of the day. One slice (1⁄8 of a 9-inch pie) delivers 500 calories. Can’t pass it up? Consider eating half a portion. If it’s any consolation, some of those calories come from the pecan’s healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—the type that actually reduce your risk of heart disease and lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
From a calorie standpoint, this is your best bet. One slice (1⁄8 of a 9-inch pie) of pumpkin pie (made using the Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe) has just 280 calories. With around 25 grams of sugar per slice, it’s hard to tout pumpkin pie as healthy, but it does contain a smattering of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, B12, C, E, and D. If you want a little whipped cream, go ahead. Two tablespoons of canned whipped cream add only 15 calories—and it just might be the perfect ending to your Thanksgiving meal.
Dessert total (one slice of pumpkin pie): 280 calories
So, there you have it, folks. It can be done, and it looks like moderation is key. Of course, go out and enjoy yourself this holiday, these are simply tips and suggestions for those fearful of an impending stomachache. Most of the reporting and calorie tracking done above was by Consumer Reports. Do you have any tips of your own? Let us know! Drop a line below, or email us at ConsiderTheConsumer@gmail.com.