Last-Minute Thanksgiving Tips and Tricks

Whip up a fabulous holiday feast in a hurry

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

I don't know how this happens every year, but before I know it, it's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving! Suddenly, I'm stressing about how many side dishes to make, the appetizers that no one really needs, thawing the turkey, making pumpkin pie for the traditionalists plus "something else" for the dessert rebels ...

But remember, the important part of this holiday is enjoying the company of loved ones and taking time to reflect and be thankful. It's not about spending hours making countless Thanksgiving dishes.

You know the saying, "choose your battles"? It works for Thanksgiving dinner, too. When your time is limited, choose which dishes you want to make yourself and which you can pull together using convenient products from the supermarket.

Dressing Up Store-Bought Products

Here are some tips and tricks for dressing up store-bought products so that they'll taste and look special to your guests.

Mashed Potatoes

Add punch to frozen or boxed mashed potatoes by:

  • Adding some lower-fat sour cream and freshly chopped chives.
  • Stirring in some reduced-fat sharp cheddar and turkey bacon bits (cook the turkey bacon until crisp, then break it into bits).
  • Stirring in roasted garlic cloves and fresh, finely chopped parsley while you're whipping up the mashed potatoes with your mixer.

Stove-Top Stuffing

Instead of following the directions on the box, use 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine to saute some added vegetables (like 1/2 cup chopped onion, 1/2 cup finely chopped celery, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, and 1/2 cup finely grated carrot). Then add the seasoning packet and 1 3/4 cups water and bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in bread cubes from the mix, cover and let stand 5 minutes.

Green Beans

Buy a bag of French-style green beans, and you're halfway to a side dish. Microwave them right before serving and dress them up in the serving dish with any or all of the following:

  • A sprinkle of one of the Mrs. Dash salt-free herb blends
  • Some shredded Parmesan cheese
  • Toasted slivered or sliced almonds
  • A drizzle of olive oil or pat of butter/margarine (just enough to add a slight glaze to the dish)
  • Red pepper strips sauteed in canola cooking spray or a little canola oil, olive oil, or butter/margarine
  • Caramelized onions (thinly sliced onions sauteed in a nonstick frying pan with a little canola oil, olive oil, or butter/margarine until golden brown)

Pumpkin Pie

You have a few options here. You can buy a premade piecrust (available in the frozen food section or as foldable piecrust in the refrigerated section) and just whip up the pumpkin part. Or you can buy the pie already made at your grocery store or a pie shop, then dress it up with some fun garnishes. If you like to serve your pie with Cool Whip, buy Light Cool Whip and stir in a few pinches of pumpkin pie spice and a teaspoon or two of maple syrup.

Cranberry Sauce

Some people like cranberry sauce canned and jellied; others like the fancier types with whole cranberries and maybe flecks of orange zest or raspberry. If you're in the latter camp, cheat a little by warming up a can of whole cranberry sauce in the microwave (to soften it) then whisking in:

  • Some orange zest and finely chopped orange, or
  • A few tablespoons of less-sugar raspberry preserves, or
  • Your own favorite ingredients

Gravy

There are ways of making gravy quickly, by using products like bottled gravy or gravy packets. My guess is that the gravy packets taste best, because at least you are mixing it up the same day you serve it. The bottled gravy has one advantage, though -- you just heat and serve. It doesn't get much easier than that.

Jazz these up by sauteing some garlic, onion, and finely diced mushrooms or finely chopped cooked turkey (or turkey gizzards if you desire) in a nonstick frying pan with a little canola oil or cooking spray and adding this to the prepared gravy.

If this is not an area where you want to cut corners, make a tasty light gravy using the brown crusty particles at the bottom of the roasting pan (that's where the flavor is, anyway) with a minimum of the fat part of the turkey drippings, but most of the broth part. Cream up your gravy using a little fat-free half-and-half or low-fat milk.

Rolls

Dress up heat-and-serve rolls with some flavored butters such as:

  • A garlic-herb spread (blend softened butter or margarine with finely chopped herbs and bottled minced garlic or garlic powder)
  • Cranberry-walnut-cinnamon spread (blend softened butter or margarine with finely chopped dried cranberry, chopped toasted walnuts and a few pinches of ground cinnamon)
  • Zesty lemon spread (blend softened butter or margarine with finely chopped lemon zest)


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