Thanksgiving dinner is arguably the most important meal of all the holidays. We gather not only to be thankful for the blessings in our lives, but also to celebrate the First Thanksgiving where the pilgrims shared their first harvest in the new world with the Native Americans. It only makes sense that this meal is not only a big deal, but also infused with tradition.
We all have our favorite dishes for Thanksgiving, and some are healthier than others. In this article, we’ll break down the top 10 most common Thanksgiving side dishes and rank them from least healthy to most healthy. Where do your favorites fall on the list?
10 most common side dishes, from least to most healthy
How this list is ranked: I examined each recipe as traditionally prepared and used the USDA food database to assess nutritional values. Specific consideration was given to the amounts of calories, sodium, and nutrition from vitamins and minerals. I then compared the dishes to each other, so this ranking is based on how healthy the recipe is compared to the other 9 side dishes. All serving sizes are ½ cup, except the dinner roll, which is based on one roll. Let’s dig in!
10. Stuffing. The nutritional values I pulled for this dish are from the most commonly prepared boxed stuffing, and due to the lack of fresh vegetables and the amount of processing, most of the nutrients are stripped out. Each recipe is made differently, and a homemade stuffing might have many more nutrients if it is prepared with a lot of fresh vegetables. If it comes from the box, however, skip it this year to maximize your nutrition.
9. Mac ‘n cheese. This ultra-processed flour and powdered cheese dish has all the nutrients stripped out of it, just like the stuffing. Unless you are a toddler and that’s the only thing your delicate palate will accept, skip it. Mac n’ cheese just doesn’t add any nutrition to your plate.
8. Cranberry Sauce. Cranberry sauce is typically low sodium, yet packs a good punch of vitamin C. However, most cranberry sauce or jelly is made with a disproportionate amount of sugar. To be fair, most people don’t eat a full ½ cup of this side dish; it’s usually a smaller garnish. If you enjoy cranberry sauce, a little dab will do.
7. Dinner Roll. The dinner roll is kind of a neutral side dish, I would say. One is not too bad, with the typical dinner roll weighing in at less than 100 calories, it’s pretty low in sodium, and enriched with some micronutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. The trouble typically comes in when we can’t just eat one.
6. Green bean casserole. Green beans are healthy; right? They sure are, but the traditional preparation for this dish includes condensed cream of mushroom soup and a lot of sodium. As a matter of fact, this dish contains the most sodium per ½ cup than any other on this list, at a whopping 400 mg!
5. Mashed Potatoes. White potatoes have gotten a bad rap in recent years due to the number of starchy carbohydrates they contain. However, potatoes come with a slew of good-for-you micronutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin A. This preparation is based on adding butter and a pinch of salt, so the butter adds calcium to the nutrient profile. If you make them like my mom does and add sour cream, cream cheese, AND butter, the nutrients will be more diluted, and the healthy benefits of this dish will decrease. But it’s oh so delicious, especially mixed with corn, my favorite combination.
4. Corn with butter. I’m happy mashed potatoes and corn make the top 5 on this list because they are my favorite. Corn with butter is low calorie, on the lower end of sodium for this list, and gives some proper nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus, folate, and vitamin A. That’s good enough for this Colorado girl!
3. Sweet potato casserole. I expected this one to land more on the unhealthy side. I mean, marshmallows! But the truth prevails. There is only one gram of carbohydrate more in the sweet potatoes than the mashed potatoes! The amount of nutrition in sweet potatoes far outweighs the added sugar from the marshmallows. If this is one of your favorites but it made you feel guilty, there’s no need to feel bad! Eat away!
2. Glazed carrots. Carrots prepared any way bring great nutritional value to the Thanksgiving table! Even glazed with buttery, brown sugary goodness, this delicious vegetable comes in near the top of the list.
1. Brussel sprouts with butter. Brussel sprouts contain so many vitamins and minerals that they are rivaled only by sweet potatoes on this list. But of course, preparation with butter trumps marshmallows as far as nutrition goes, so these miniature whole cruciferous vegetables are the healthiest side dish you can enjoy this Thanksgiving!
In summary, the more processed a side dish is, the unhealthier it is. Recipes that contain whole vegetables give the most nutritional bang. However; you fill your plate this Thanksgiving, I’m sure it will all be delicious! Bon appétit!