Turkey Day: Fewer Calories, More Flavor? Yes!

A nutritionist's tips can help you push back from the Thanksgiving table feeling just as satisfied but a lot better off.

Monica Amsterdam's mashed cauliflower-potatoes, topped with mushrooms. Photo: Courtesy Monica Amsterdam
Monica Amsterdam's mashed cauliflower-potatoes, topped with mushrooms. Photo: Courtesy Monica Amsterdam

At Thanksgiving dinner, the average person consumes a whopping 4,500 calories. That’s the calculation of Monica Amsterdam, director of nutrition at the Medical and Wellness Center of New Jersey. She’s here to tell you how to pare that down under 1,000 calories, while losing none of the indulgent joy of turkey, gravy and all the trimmings.

Nutritionist Monica Amsterdam. Photo: Courtesy Monica Amsterdam

Nutritionist Monica Amsterdam. Photo: Courtesy Monica Amsterdam

Growing up in Northern Italy, Amsterdam never dreamed of such over-the-top abundance. Since coming to America 30 years ago, she has seen just how challenging the day can be, especially for people with health issues related to overeating.

For every eater, large or small, the key to a happy Thanksgiving, she says, is first of all, portion control. “In the past 20 years,” she says, “portions have been getting bigger and bigger and bigger. When the portion gets bigger, our waistlines get bigger”

Turkey itself is generally not the culprit. Four slices, with 1/4 cup of gravy, adds up to just 185 calories. “Turkey is healthy,” Amsterdam says. “When it is roasted, all the fat drains off.”

Gravy, on the other hand, sneaks up on you. It is usually made with fatty drippings thickened with flour. That’s a wallop of fat and carbs.

Here’s her workaround: Cook garlic and onion in coconut oil, add broth and mushrooms for meaty flavor, then thicken with kudzu root, an ancient Asian vine whose tasteless potato-like root is high in protein, fiber and iron.

More carb calories pile on in the form of mashed potatoes and stuffing. Amsterdam dials down those calories by mashing a 50/50 mix of cooked potato and cauliflower. (You don’t have to tell anyone you’ve just added another veggie to the meal, but good for you, and the flavor and texture are just fine.) The moisture in the cauliflower helps cream the mixture, so you need less butter. Amsterdam replaces some butter with a few tablespoons of organic olive or avocado oil mayonnaise.

Stuffing is both traditional and hard to turn down. But it averages about 90 calories a spoonful. Again, the answer is keep the portion small.

She takes it a step further, offering her guests a delicious alternative to stuffing: creamy pumpkin risotto.

Another calorie bomb is sugar-laden cranberry sauce. While cranberries are puckeringly tart by nature, the sauce can be balanced with dates and OJ. Sweetness with more nutritional value can be passed around in the form of root vegetables and Brussels sprouts roasted at high temperature to caramelize their natural sugars.

The biggest challenge, of course, is dessert. Amsterdam recommends pumpkin pie over apple pie. A sliver of a slice, she claims, adds just 160 calories. She makes her pumpkin pie with palm sugar, and serves it with a  coconut-milk whipped cream. “It tastes divine,” she says.

Another bit of advice, easily followed, is TAKE IT SLOW.

“Don’t just shovel food into your mouth,” Amsterdam says. “Our brain receives the message that we are full 20 minutes after we are actually full. So take your time, pace yourself.”

Good conversation, in other words, can help you avoid post-Thanksgiving bloat.



Mashed Potatoes with Cauliflower

Serves 6

¾ pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes
1large head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), cut into 1-inch florets
2-3 tablespoons of mayonnaise “Just Mayo”
Chicken broth (if need it)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1.   Scrub the potatoes and cut into 2-inch pieces. Arrange them in a steamer basket and steam or boil for 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower to the basket, and cook until the potatoes and cauliflower are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 15 minutes or longer.

  1. Put the cooked vegetables in a large pot or bowl along with the mayonnaise, and mash with a potato masher or hand mixer until smooth. Season with salt and pepper

Pumpkin Risotto

1 3/4 cups uncooked Arborio rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 quarts chicken, vegetable or beef stock
1 onion, finely diced
2 cups of cubed pumpkin or butternut squash or unsweetened canned pumpkin puree
4 sage leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt to taste


In a medium sauce pan over low heat sauté onions in olive oil for about 10 minutes

  1. When onions are soft, add rice to the pan and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  2. In another pot bring the broth and pumpkin to a boil. If using fresh pumpkin, cook until soft or add pumpkin puree. Add wine to the rice and let it absorb. Stir in a ladleful of broth at a time, stirring until it is absorbed. Continue slowly adding broth until rice is al dente, about 25 minutes. Serve drizzled with a little olive oil. Garnish with sage.

Cranberry Sauce 

1 1/2 cup soaked and pitted dates
1 pound bag fresh cranberries
1/2 cup orange juice


  1. Add all ingredients to a food processor and blend until smooth.
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