How to Build a Healthier Thanksgiving Plate

No one ever said Thanksgiving dinner was healthy. But there are ways to make it a little healthier-- and to avoid the dreaded food coma for the rest of the night. Whether you're serving your own portions or you're at the mercy of a family member passing out plates with a "little bit of everything," knowing which foods you should be eating more of-- and which you should only have a few bites of--will help you make the best possible choices.

Start by filling half your plate with vegetables, then pile one-quarter up with turkey breast, and leave the remaining one-quarter for starchy sides. Here are some more expert-approved guidelines for keeping portions in check this Thanksgiving Day:

1. Move during the day.

Plan a long family walk or hike before your Thanksgiving meal. Moving during the day can help you feel better about indulging in your favorite foods and desserts later on. While you won't burn off all the calories from the meal no matter how many neighborhood laps you log, there are other benefits to being active. Exercising before the meal puts you in the positive mindset to make healthier choices, and exercising afterward can help banish that uncomfortably full feeling.

2. Beware of sneaky calories 

It's one thing to overdose on dessert, but if you're munching on cheese and crackers all day while cooking, those calories add up too. If you're hungry while cooking, try snacking on raw veggies and hummus or fruit. 

3.  Start with soup.

Pour yourself a bowl of seasonal veggie soup before going "all-in" to your Thanksgiving meal. Try a butternut squash soup, or or a broccoli and carrot soup with thyme. Kicking your meal off with soup will help you slow down while eating, and research has shown it may help you from overdoing it during the main course.

4.  Fill up half your plate with veggies.

Half of your plate should be non-starchy veggies, such as Brussels sprouts, green beans, carrots, bell peppers, and green salad. Stick with smaller portions of starchy, higher-calorie veggies, such as corn, potatoes, green peas, and winter squashes. You can also add a healthy twist to classic comfort foods, like replacing green bean casserole with some grilled green beans flavored with garlic and red pepper flakes.

5.  Fill up on skinless turkey breast.

Turkey itself is fairly low in calories, as long as you stick to skinless white meat, so it's not the end of the world if you eat a little more than the recommended 3 ounces of protein (about the size of a deck of cards). Turkey will also help keep you fuller for longer, so you're not as tempted to go overboard on dessert.

6.  Scoop on sides sparingly.

Keep side portions small. For reference, the recommended serving size of starchy sides like mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, is equal to 1/2 cup, which is about the size of a baseball.

While you don't want to waste your calories, you don't want to avoid your favorite foods, either. Enjoy the foods that aren't available at other times of the year, like homemade cranberry sauce, specialty sides, pumpkin pie, etc. Forgo everyday foods like chips, rolls, and mashed potatoes.

7.  Grab a smaller plate if going back for seconds.

If you have to go back for seconds, try grabbing a smaller plate (think salad plate, not dinner plate), and pile it with a little of each dish. Start round two with vegetables first, then protein, then carbs. By filling your plate with veggies first, you end up having less room for the more decadent items, but you still get to try them.

8.  Practice portion control with your favorite dessert.

Most 9-inch pies are meant to be cut into eight slices. If your pie is only sliced into six pieces, your portions are probably too large. Limiting the variety of your desserts can also help you control portions. If there's only one type of pie to choose form, you'll probably stick to one slice.

Follow these tips to make your Thanksgiving meal a little healthier.

As long as you get moving before your meal, fill your plate with veggies, and practice portion control, you'll be able to enjoy your favorite foods while avoiding the post-dinner coma. Remember, at the end of the day, Thanksgiving is more about the quality time you spend with the people you love, rather than the food you eat.