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Your guide to a healthy (and tasty!) Thanksgiving dinner

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 14, 2020.

Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most anticipated food events of the year — and for good reason. Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, apple pie — what could be better? Before you assume that the holiday is going to derail your diet, know this: Thanksgiving doesn't have to be a heavy, fat-laden affair. By making some simple swaps when cooking, you can significantly cut calories — without sacrificing flavor.

But first things first: the turkey. There is an art to making a perfectly cooked bird, and the last thing you want to do is ruin the foundation of the meal. Follow these steps to get tasty results every time:

Step 1: Season the bird

Make sure the turkey is completely thawed. Then season it with fresh herbs (such as rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley), salt, pepper and even a little citrus. To ensure a savory flavor throughout the bird, stuff the inside of it with chopped onion, carrots, celery, a few slices of lemon or orange, and fresh herbs.

Step 2: Cook the turkey

The temperature and cooking time will depend on the size of your turkey; regardless of size, however, the turkey needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. It's helpful to have a cooking thermometer to check this.

If your turkey is larger (12 to 20 pounds), you might want to start the oven at 250 degrees for the first two hours, then increase it to about 325 degrees. This method will help keep the skin from overbrowning.

Once the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees, it's time to baste the skin and increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees for the remaining time. When the turkey reaches 160 degrees, pull it out. It will continue to cook while it's resting (see Step 3) and eventually reach 165 degrees.

Step 3: Let the turkey rest

Of course you're anxious to slice into that turkey, but you need to let it rest so the meat can firm up and the juices can be fully absorbed. Transfer the turkey to a cutting board and cover it lightly with aluminum foil for 20 to 30 minutes. While it's resting, you can put the finishing touches on your side dishes. Once you're done, it will be time to start carving!

Step 4: Carve the bird

Make sure your slicing knife is sharp. Following the shape of the bird, cut the turkey into thin slices. Slice at a diagonal so you can fan the turkey slices — this keeps the bird more intact and helps the turkey stay hot. You may want to use a meat fork to hold the hot turkey in place as you slice.

Now that you know how to make a mouthwatering turkey, let's talk about the rest of the meal and how you can make it work for your healthy-eating plan. Use these tips to make your Thanksgiving dinner as healthy as it is delicious.

Make smart swaps

Try adding pureed cauliflower to your mashed potatoes to replace some of the potatoes. Doing so will cut calories and add more fiber to your dish — and your guests likely won't know the difference. Instead of mixing the potatoes with butter, use milk and serve butter on the side so your guests can add it in themselves. For a healthier stuffing, use whole-wheat bread instead of white and add lots of veggies, such as carrots, celery, onions and mushrooms.

Create simple side dishes

You might be surprised to find that sweet potato mash with a drizzle of maple syrup is just as satisfying as your aunt's calorie-busting casserole. Roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash soup and vegetable brown rice pilaf with dried cranberries and pecans are also tasty options.

Use leftovers wisely

Got extra turkey? Put it to good use! Add it to a spinach salad, use it in a panini or quesadilla, or transform it into turkey salad by chopping the meat and mixing it with onions, celery, light mayo and grapes. Add a scoop to a salad or use it in a sandwich with a slice of Swiss cheese. You can also transform leftover potatoes by using them in soups.

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