How to keep the Thanksgiving gobbling in check

What are the must-haves at your Thanksgiving meal? You're lucky if the answer is simply "family and friends."

But for so many of us, the list includes an excess of side dishes, sauces, breads and desserts. They overload the table and our stomachs. Then the leftovers fill our fridges until we toss the unrecognizable remnants of stuffing, pie and whatever else.

The problem with Thanksgiving is there's just too much food. Some smart dietitian once calculated that the average American adult consumes 2,000 calories at that one meal, and that's before the late-night turkey sandwiches.

But a few simple changes can cut calories significantly -- while also cutting your stress, that eco-unfriendly wasted food and possibly even money spent on the feast.

Scaling back the feast

For some people, changing holiday traditions is utterly unthinkable. But if you want to try establishing a new tradition this year, start by trimming your menu.

Let turkey be the star (do you really need that ham?) and serve just one kind of stuffing, one green vegetable, one potato dish, skip the rolls altogether (stuffing is full of bread, you know) and limit dessert to two choices, or even one.

Offering fewer choices often results in fewer calories consumed, says Dr. Denise Edwards, director of the Healthy Weight Clinic at the University of South Florida (USF).

"Studies have shown that being exposed to so many different dishes and tastes at one time, you never truly feel satisfied," she says. "So you end up eating more. It's the number of dishes that make it difficult to control how much you eat."

Consider your guests

Streamlining the menu also is a favor to the many people who have diabetes or are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which is closely associated with obesity.

"There's a lot of anxiety for diabetics at this time of year," says registered dietitian and diabetes educator Janie Norman of the USF Diabetes Center. "It's the sheer volume of food and the tendency and expectation to overeat."

Many people think sugar-free products won't have any effect on blood sugar, but that isn't true, says Norman. Even if a pumpkin pie is made with a sugar substitute, there are still carbohydrates in the crust and in the pumpkin itself, which can elevate blood sugar.

Rethink your recipes

For some of us, reducing the number of side dishes may be enough change for one Thanksgiving. But if you're ready for more, perhaps entertain the idea of reducing calories in your old favorites, too.

Some easy changes:

-- Use fat-free milk instead of whole, egg whites or egg substitute instead of whole eggs, half or none of the butter called for in white mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and stuffing recipes and half the nuts in any recipe.

-- Make just half a recipe, especially if it's a dish that only a few people must have (in my crowd, it's creamed onions).

-- Make a smaller pie (8 inches instead of 9 or 10 inches) and precut slices so it goes as far as it needs to.

-- Use smaller plates.

-- Serve food in the kitchen right from the cooking pots. Guests will have to get up for seconds, which will discourage mindless noshing. Plus, you won't have to wash all those serving dishes.

Try something new

We tested some new, lighter versions of traditional Thanksgiving fare. I've tweaked some of them to boost flavor or improve texture without increasing calories by much.

-- We don't include a recipe for turkey because as long as it is roasted and eaten without skin, light meat averages about 120 calories for a 3-ounce portion, regardless of how you season or flavor the bird. For comparison, a 3-ounce portion of dark meat with skin will run you about 155 calories.

-- Our appetizer is Roasted Red-Pepper Soup, a pretty and easy starter that's low in calories (77 per half-cup), packed with antioxidants and practically fat-free.

-- The stuffing from Weight Watchers' cookbook, "Healthy & Happy Celebrations," is a real winner at just 92 calories for a 3/4-cup portion (with our modifications, which remove a small amount of fat from the recipe). Conventional stuffing comes in at close to 300 calories for a similar serving.

-- Our testers raved about Weight Watchers' Creamy Mashed Sweet Potatoes, at less than 100 calories a serving. For comparison, canned candied yams and commercially available sweet-potato casseroles rack up around 200 calories per half-cup.

-- On the gravy, I'll bet my method doesn't add much to the 20 calories per 1/4-cup serving in most jar varieties. Just skim off the fat from the turkey drippings, heat on the stovetop and stir in a jar or two of gravy.

-- Cranberry Sauce calories mostly come from sugar. The easy low-calorie answer is a sugar substitute, such as Truvia or Splenda.

-- My vegetable suggestion, oven-roasted carrots and sugar snap peas, has about 57 calories in a 2/3-cup serving. The ever-popular green-bean-mushroom casserole can top 100 for the same serving size.

-- The Weight Watchers Pumpkin and Ricotta Cheesecake is thick and creamy at 254 calories

per slice. That compares to plain frozen and restaurant versions that range from 350 to almost 600 calories per slice.

-- Yes, traditional pumpkin pie can be made with a sugar substitute such as Splenda or Truvia. But since a lot of the fat and calories are still in the crust, the calorie count still hovers around 250 per slice. The classic Libby's recipe is about 274 calories per slice; others are closer to 300.

Total calorie count for our menu, sticking to suggested serving sizes: About 475, plus another 250 for dessert. At that rate, you can even throw in a generous glass of wine, and you'll still come in at half the average American Thanksgiving dinner.

Tips for guests

If you can't control the menu, but want to skip that overstuffed feeling, here are some ideas:

-- Don't arrive famished. You're liable to blow all your calories on the cheese plate before dinner's even served.

-- Watch the booze. On top of providing lots of calories, alcohol is an appetite stimulator. Never drink on an empty stomach, and alternate water with cocktails.

-- Be selective. Facing a big buffet? Scope out the selection before loading your plate to make sure you get your favorites.

-- Skip the boring stuff. If you can get it anytime, why fill up on it today?

-- Bring a healthy dish to share. This is a great day to splurge on those adorable (and pricey) baby veggies to make a spectacular platter.

-- Suggest an after-dinner walk. Those who can still move -- and the family dog -- will thank you.

Here are the recipes I used to create our healthy Thanksgiving feast, with my own touches included.

ROASTED RED-PEPPER SOUP

6 servings (1/2 cup)

77 calories each

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 (12-ounce) jars roasted red peppers, drained (or roast, peel and seed 6 to 7 fresh red-bell peppers)

1-1/2 cups chopped onion

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

6 fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish

Heat oil in a 4-quart stockpot over medium heat. While oil heats, chop peppers into medium-size pieces and set aside. Add onions to stockpot and saute for 2-3 minutes.

Add chicken broth, water, salt and cayenne pepper to onions in stockpot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the roasted peppers and cook for 15 minutes over medium heat.

Puree soup with an immersion blender. Or, strain the peppers and onions, reserving liquid in stockpot. Puree solids in a food processor, in batches, and return to pot. Add the lemon juice and basil and cook for 10 minutes more. Thin with more chicken broth, if necessary.

-- "Is it Soup Yet?," Among Friends Inc., 1996

CREAMY MASHED SWEET POTATOES

12 servings (1/2 cup)

91 calories each

5 medium sweet potatoes

1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/4 cup fat-free half-and-half, warmed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

Roast potatoes in their jackets in a 350-degree oven for an hour on a foil-lined sheet pan, then scoop out the flesh. Mash until smooth. Stir in buttermilk, half-and-half, butter, cinnamon, salt and 1 tablespoon brown sugar.

Reheat on stove over medium heat, or put in a small, greased baking pan and warm it in the 350-degree oven alongside your turkey. Transfer to serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining brown sugar.

-- Adapted from "Healthy & Happy Celebrations," Weight Watchers, 2010

APPLE-CELERY STUFFING

12 servings (3/4 cup)

92 calories each

12 slices reduced-calorie whole-grain sandwich bread, diced (I used Pepperidge Farm Light Style Soft Wheat, and diced it while frozen to get better cubes)

2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth, plus a chicken bouillon cube

5 celery stalks, thinly sliced

3 Gala apples, cored and diced

1 large red onion, diced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

2 teaspoons dried rubbed sage

2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and bake until dried, about 20 minutes (watch to make sure they don't burn). Transfer to a large bowl.

Heat broth in medium saucepan; add bouillon cube, celery, apples, onion, salts and pepper; cook, stirring frequently, until apples are softened, 7-8 minutes. Add to bowl with bread along with parsley, sage and thyme; toss to combine. Let cool.

Bake separately in a greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish, drizzled with melted butter, in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until crisp on top.

-- Adapted from "Healthy & Happy Celebrations," Weight Watchers, 2010

IRENE'S EASY GRAVY

6 servings or more (1/4 cup)

30 to 40 calories each

Figure that a 12-ounce jar of gravy has 6 quarter-cup servings. I usually use two jars. And yes, I prefer chicken gravy to turkey gravy, but you should use what you like.

Defatted drippings in pan where turkey has been roasted

1 or 2 (12-ounce) jars classic chicken gravy

1 to 2 teaspoons of flour, if needed, to thicken

Remove

turkey from roasting pan and skim off all fat from drippings, leaving just turkey juices and brown bits in bottom of pan. Add jar of gravy to pan and stir to combine with juices, scraping up any browned bits.

If gravy seems too thin, remove a half-cup of gravy, and whisk a teaspoon or two of flour into it, then return to rest of gravy.

Transfer to a medium saucepan and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover.

If gravy is lumpy, use an immersion blender, or carefully pour it into a blender and blend for 5 seconds, strain back into a saucepan, reheat if necessary and serve.

IRENE'S FAVORITE ROASTED VEGETABLES

9 servings (2/3 cup each)

57 calories each

1 pound peeled baby carrots

1/2 pound sugar snap peas, strings removed (see note)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 tablespoon brown sugar, slightly packed

Salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed sheet pan with foil and spray with cooking spray. Place carrots on pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss. Roast until almost cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a medium-size saucepan of water to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer and add sugar snap peas. Blanch peas for 2-3 minutes, then remove them to a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. Remove peas to a paper-towel-lined plate and set aside.

Remove carrots from the oven and add sugar snaps to sheet pan. Drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with brown sugar. Mix all together and return to oven for 4 minutes. Check seasonings and transfer to serving dish.

Note: To remove strings from sugar snap peas: Cut into one end of pod and pull down on one side; cut into other end of pod and pull string down on other side of pod.

CRANBERRY SAUCE

16 servings (about 2 tablespoons)

10 calories each

This recipe comes from the website of Truvia, a natural sweetener with zero calories. You can also use Splenda, another sugar alternative. I have to be honest: I don't like the aftertaste. Still, people who routinely use sweeteners and drink diet soda may appreciate the calorie savings enough not to mind.

2 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed

12 packets Truvia (or 3 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 cup water

Pinch of salt

Place cranberries in a medium saucepan. Add Truvia, cinnamon, water and salt. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 25 minutes. Mixture will thicken as it cools. Transfer to bowl and serve warm or refrigerate.

PUMPKIN PIE

8 servings

255 calories each

To save more calories, you could make the filling and bake it in custard cups, avoiding the need for a crust.

For me, there is a slightly bitter aftertaste from the Splenda, even though I used the blend with sugar.

Crust

1-1/2 cups graham-cracker crumbs (about 24 cracker squares)

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 egg white, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon finely minced crystallized ginger (optional)

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Filling

1/2 cup Splenda Sugar Blend

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1/4 cup egg substitute

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 can (15-ounce) pumpkin puree (not pumpkin-pie filling)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 can (12-ounce) low-fat evaporated milk

Garnish

1/2 cup fat-free whipped topping

Zest of 1 fresh lemon

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, combine all ingredients for the crust. Press evenly into a 9-inch, nonstick pie pan. Set aside.

In a bowl, mix together the Splenda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt.

In another bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla together. Add in the Splenda mixture and stir to combine.

Add in the pumpkin and stir until the mixture is well blended. Dissolve the cornstarch in about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the evaporated milk. Add the cornstarch mixture and the remaining evaporated milk to the pumpkin mixture, and mix until smooth. The mixture will be thin.

Pour the filling into the prepared crust. Place the pie on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake an additional 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

Let cool for 2 hours before serving. Cut into 8 wedges. Garnish with whipped topping and lemon zest.

-- Adapted from the American Diabetes Association's Diabetes Forecast: The Healthy Living Magazine

PUMPKIN AND RICOTTA CHEESECAKE

12 servings

254 calories each

Crust

18 small gingersnap cookies, broken in pieces

2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Filling

1 (15-ounce) container fat-free ricotta cheese

1 (8-ounce) package light cream cheese

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg, plus more for garnish

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin-pie filling)

1 cup fat-free egg substitute

Topping

1 cup thawed frozen fat-free

whipped topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put gingersnaps in food processor and pulse to make fine crumbs. Add melted butter and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar; pulse until blended. Spoon crumb mixture into 9-inch springform pan; press evenly onto bottom and partway up sides of pan. Bake until dried, about 8 minutes. Let cool.

Put ricotta cheese in food processor (bowl doesn't have to be washed out first) and pulse until smooth. Add cream cheese, brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt and 1/2 cup of granulated sugar. Process until blended and smooth, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl a few times. Add pumpkin puree and egg substitute; pulse until mixed. Pour filling over crust and level top. Place pan on foil-lined baking sheet. Transfer to oven and bake until filling is set and no longer jiggles in center, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Cool cheesecake in pan on rack. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, 4 hours or overnight. To serve, release and remove sides of pan. Spread top of cheesecake with whipped topping or pipe on whipped topping in a decorative pattern; sprinkle with nutmeg. Cut into 12 slices.

Can be made several days ahead; store in refrigerator, covered tightly.

Note: Ricotta cheese, no matter how long you whir it in the food processor, still has a slightly grainy texture.

-- Adapted from "Healthy & Happy Celebrations," Weight Watchers, 2010

(Irene Maher can be reached at imaher(at)sptimes.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service www.scrippsnews.com)

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