Food & Nutrition

Lighten up Thanksgiving favorites

Slim-down Thanksgiving favorites with these tips from James Beard Award-winning author and chef Virginia Willis.
Published November 2, 2016

When it comes to holiday cooking, Virginia Willis walks a fine line between lightening up classics and delivering on everyone’s expectations. “Cooking for Thanksgiving is not just about the bounty of the meal,” says the author of Lighten Up, Y’all. “It's keeping everyone's psychological attachment to a particular favorite sacred.” Amp up the health factor while keeping holiday traditions intact with tips from this Southern chef.


Make invisible swaps

“Most celebration comfort foods are really rich—there’s always more butter involved than normal, or an extra blob of cream. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: Trim a little here, a little there. For example, if a recipe calls for sour cream, I replace half with 2 percent or 0 percent Greek yogurt. Adjustments can be made without impacting the end result, and those small changes add up to a healthier dish.”


Use big flavors

“Fresh ingredients taste so much better. Buy fresh whole sweet potatoes, not a can of yams. And if you’re removing fat, add flavor somewhere else. I’ve made a shift in my cooking to really focus on that umami flavor—it makes your mouth happy. Sweet potatoes respond fantastically to going savory, and the pears in this recipe add sweetness for people who expect that.”


Rely on tools

“Instead of free pouring from a bottle of oil when cooking, I use a food-safe spray bottle with a trigger, and I know that three squirts is a teaspoon of oil. I’ll squirt the skillet, then use a silicone brush to completely coat the bottom. The flavor truly doesn’t suffer no matter what you’re sautéeing. You get delicious results.”


Spread the love

“Pecans are a very traditional Southern nut. I find that leaving them out of a recipe is a miss, but you can use less by chopping them finer and spreading them out more. You take a bite and you get the hit of the crunchy pecan topping, but it’s a more healthful amount.”


Choose wisely

“There are certain flavors that only come with the presence of butter. By the time you mess around to make a pound cake healthier—using whole wheat flour, less sugar and butter—it’s not going to taste like Mama’s. I won’t pass up something that’s delicious just for the sake of saving a few calories. Instead, I’ll adjust my portion size and increase my exercise.”


Now it’s your turn!

Ready to get cooking? Check out these winning recipes from Lighten Up, Y’all, by Virginia Willis, which have been modified by WW with permission.