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


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.


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)

You can also buy the rolls in dough form and bake them at home. Reduced-fat crescent-roll dough can be spread with any of the butters described above, rolled up, and baked in the oven.

See the recipe below for Quickie Garlic & Herb Crescent Rolls.

Lighten Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Jell-O Salads

You probably won't find large Jell-O salads already made (I've seen only small tubs of prepared Jell-O salad at the market), but making them is a snap. If you're making a layered salad (see recipe below) your biggest challenge is having to wait a few hours before you make the second layer (the first layer needs time to gel in the refrigerator).

When making your favorite Jell-O salads, there are a few easy things you can do to lighten them up:

  • Use sugar-free Jell-O for at least one of the layers.
  • For recipes that call for mayo, use light or low-fat mayonnaise.
  • For recipes that call for cream cheese, use light cream cheese instead (fat-free cream cheese may not go over as well with all your guests).
  • For recipes that call for Cool Whip, use light Cool Whip.

Sweet Potatoes

Generally this is a dish you have to make at home, but basically it involves nothing more than assembling the ingredients into the baking dish. Some recipes even call for canned sweet potatoes or yams.

Keep these dishes light by using less butter than the recipe calls for (add some fruit juice in its place), half the marshmallows called for, and substituting Splenda for half the sugar, if desired. You can also use egg substitute instead of some of the eggs.

Light & Festive Cranberry Jell-O Salad

A Pyrex or see-through 9x13-inch dish works well, because you can see the colorful layers from the side.

1 (0.6-ounce) box Sugar Free Cranberry Jell-O (makes 4 cups)
16-ounce can whole cranberry sauce
1 (6-ounce) box Lime Jell-O
8 ounces light cream cheese, softened at room temperature
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple (in juice), drained
8 ounces light Cool Whip (or similar light topping)
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces

  • Stir 2 cups boiling water into cranberry Jell-O powder in medium bowl, and stir until completely dissolved (about 2 minutes). Stir in 2 cups ice water. Then whisk in the can of cranberry sauce. Pour mixture into a 9x13-inch dish and, with your whisk, spread the cranberries so they are evenly distributed in the pan. Refrigerate 3-4 hours.
  • Stir 2 cups of boiling water into lime JELL-O powder in medium bowl, and stir until completely dissolved (about 2 minutes). Whisk in the light cream cheese until mixture is creamy. Stir in 2 cups cold water and the pineapple. Slowly pour this mixture over the gelled cranberry layer. Put back in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours.
  • Just before serving, spread the light whipped topping over the top and sprinkle with walnut or pecan pieces.

Yield: 15 servings

Per serving (with walnuts): 193 calories, 3.5 g protein, 28 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 0.7 g fiber, 120 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 30%

Per serving (without walnuts): 164 calories, 2.5 g protein, 28 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 3.4 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 0.4 g fiber, 119 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 22%.

Quickie Garlic & Herb Crescent Rolls

These are so easy to make, and the recipe is easily doubled. (No need to butter these rolls; they taste great all by themselves.)

1 pop-can Reduced Fat Crescent Rolls
2 1/2 tablespoons no- or low trans-fat margarine with 8 grams fat per tablespoon (Take Control, Land O'Lakes Buttery Taste in tub, etc.)
1 1/2 teaspoons Mrs. Dash Garlic & Herb no salt seasoning
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives (optional)

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Add margarine, Mrs. Dash, and chives (if desired) to 1-cup measure. Blend well with fork or spoon.
  • Open pop can and, one by one, unroll the crescent roll dough and lay them flat on a work surface. Spread about a teaspoon of the margarine mixture over each of the triangles of dough (using a small spoon), then roll into crescents (start from the bottom of the triangle and roll toward the tip). Place on cookie or baking sheet.
  • Bake for 11-13 minutes or until nicely brown and cooked throughout.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 125 calories, 2 g protein, 13 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (1.3 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 256 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 50%.

Originally published Nov. 18, 2004.
Medically updated November 2006.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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