Do you have a Friendsgiving tradition? I attended our annual Thanksgiving with friends (otherwise known as Friendsgiving!) yesterday and my belly is still recovering from the second round. I’d regret not going back for more, though. No regrets here. Nope, not a one.
We had a potluck feast of mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole, wild rice casserole, two big green salads and homemade challah. We followed that up with pecan pie, pumpkin cheesecake (!!!), cranberry-apple crumble bars, apple pie, whipped cream and ice cream. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. It was all amazing.
Oh yeah, there was smoked turkey and ham. As the token vegetarian in the group, I passed on those. Laura emailed me the other day and asked for tips on how to eat less meat and more healthy, produce-driven meals during family get-togethers. I know firsthand how challenging it can be to eat well in small towns and amongst those who are more accustomed to the standard American diet. I thought I’d address those issues here, since we’re heading right into holiday season.
Here’s my main tip for “surviving” the holidays as a vegetarian, or for cooking for vegetarians during the holidays: don’t worry about the main dish. I put “surviving” in quotes because there is so much food available during the holidays! There’s no way we’re going hungry, even if we don’t eat the turkey. Personally speaking, I didn’t give up meat so I could eat vegan meatloaf or processed meat substitutes. Side dishes are way more fun!
I don’t think vegetarians are the only ones who agree with me. I looked around at the plates last night and turkey didn’t take up a large portion of anyone’s plate. I confidently declare that side dishes, collectively, are the main attraction at Thanksgiving. Those side dishes can be especially nutritious if they’re made with protein-rich whole grains, vegetables, leafy greens, beans and quality dairy products.
Sometimes just a few simple substitutions can make side dishes more filling and nutritious, not to mention delicious. Examples include choosing brown rice instead of white, buying less processed cream of mushroom soup for the green bean casserole (or making your own) and adding more vegetables where you can. If nothing else, offer to bring a hearty green salad and fill half of your plate with it.
If you’re serving vegetarians/vegans and want to accommodate, we would love it if you would choose vegetable broth instead of chicken broth when you’re making the stuffing. For vegans/dairy-free eaters, you might also offer cheese on the side, rather than tossing it in like you normally would. For gluten-free eaters, you might offer croutons on the side. Most of us don’t want you to cook something special for us, though—we just want to know which dishes we should avoid.
If you’re traveling to a small town for your Thanksgiving feast, you might want to bring some ingredients with you. Nuts and whole grains travel well, as do wholesome snacks like granola bars and apples. I find it really helpful to have some snacks available when hunger strikes so I don’t end up scarfing down four biscuits for breakfast. If you’re driving and worried about finding fresh produce when you arrive at your destination, you could even bring a cooler packed with your preferred ingredients.
If your goal is to simply see more vegetables and wholesome options on the table, I have a wide variety of options for you here! Adding some super enticing, healthy side dishes like these to the Thanksgiving table might just entice your more traditional family members to find a new favorite. They might realize that they really love roasted vegetables. Or that they’ve been missing out on kale salads.
Note that I’m not recommending that you take away their turkey or favorite side dishes. Just add healthier options to the mix and see what happens! “Healthy” no longer means fat-free and flavorless, and you can prove it with these sides. Check out my suggestions below.