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How to Cook a Sugar-Free Thanksgiving

Photo: Jennifer Causey

You can achieve a lighter Thanksgiving meal that satisfies without using artificial sweeteners and without sacrificing your favorites.

Cooking sugar-free at Thanksgiving might seem more difficult than cooking sugar-free from day-to-day. Classic Thanksgiving dishes are hearty, rich, and flavorful, but they often use canned ingredients and added sugar to create those flavors and textures.

If your goal is to cook sugar-free while staying true to the traditional Thanksgiving feast, switch your focus to simply avoid added, refined sugar rather than stressing about naturally occurring sugar. You can achieve a lighter Thanksgiving meal that satisfies without using artificial sweeteners and without sacrificing your favorites. Here, a few tips to get you started:

Low-Sugar Thanksgiving Main Courses

  • Avoid brines with sugar. Many turkey and ham recipes include a sugary brine. Avoid those that call for maple syrups, brown sugar, canned fruit, orange juice, or cola, and go instead for a recipe that uses herbs and lemon juice. This is an easy place to cut sugar that won’t affect a classic Thanksgiving dish.
  • Give the traditional sweet potato casserole a makeover. This dish has its own bullet point because it is the biggest contributor to sugar intake during Thanksgiving meals for many families. With candied pecans and marshmallows, it can have more sugar than dessert. Choose from a variety of our lighter, lower-sugar sweet potato pie variations. Or do a simple mashed sweet potato with a bit of browned butter and fresh orange juice for an impossibly easy sweet potato side.
  • Photo: Brian Woodcock
    Skip the cranberry sauce. This goes for homemade and canned sauce. Cranberries are naturally very bitter, so many recipes call for lots of added sugar. Try a fruit-topping recipe that uses a more naturally sweet fruit and requires less added sugar. There are variations that incorporate other flavors and use maple syrup rather than refined sugar, such as our Roasted Cranberries and Grapes with Rosemary.
  • Drink wine rather than cocktails. Cut added sugar by drinking wine with your Thanksgiving meal instead of sugary mixed drinks. Cocktails contain fruit juices, syrups, and fizzy bases with excess sugar. Even juices that read “100% juice, no sugar added” are sometimes sweetened with fruit juice concentrates and have up to 28g of sugar per cup. Avoid drinking sources of concentrated sugar, and enjoy natural sugar in your dishes instead.
  • Stay true to the classics, but look for variations. Traditional Thanksgiving recipes include vegetables and fruit, but in the form of loaded casseroles or gelatins. If your family usually makes dishes like sweet and sour green beans, maple Brussels sprouts, gelatin-pretzel salad, or sweet cornbread, make Green Beans with Browne Butter and Lemon, Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, Garlic, and Shallots, Honey Fruit Salad with Yogurt Sauce, or Corn Bread Stuffing Muffins, instead.
How to Make Spaghetti Squash Lasagna with Spinach

Dairy-Free Thanksgiving Desserts

If you're watching your sugar, desserts are a sugar trap. These tips will help you enjoy a slice of pie without overdoing your sugar intake.

  • Photo: Iain Bagwell
    Make the majority natural sugar. Now that you’ve saved your sugar intake for dessert, just aim for no added sugar. There is naturally occurring sugar in milk and in fruit that make delicious desserts. Try our lighter but decadent Thanksgiving desserts. Honey, agave, and maple syrup can be utilized in recipes instead of white sugar typically on a 1-for-1 basis if you're not baking.
  • Avoid sweetened condensed milk. This is a “red flag” ingredient that also deserves its own bullet. Do not use recipes that call for sweetened condensed milk; one small can contains 166 grams of sugar. There are suggested substitutes, but there is not an ideal substitute. Look for a recipe that has been tested and written without the sugary ingredients so that you know the end product will have the right flavor and texture.
  • Think small. If you are using a family recipe that cannot be substituted, serve a small portion. There are instances where sugar is a necessity for the outcome of the recipe, such as certain baked goods. Sometimes there is no perfect substitute. If you feel that your family recipe shouldn’t be or cannot be substituted, go for a smaller portion size. If needed, half the recipe so that there is less overall.

Instead of going zero-sugar or using sugar substitutes, opt for a lower-sugar Thanksgiving menu. The ideal way to achieve this is to limit unnecessary added sugars in your Thanksgiving mains and sides. Then, you've earned the right to have a sweet treat at dessert. Just try to make sure you're eating as much naturally occuring sugar instead of added sugar. With these tips, you can keep your sugar intake low even on the biggest food holiday of the year.