Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy Thanksgiving with attention to basic nutrition principles and menu planning.
For many people, a traditional roast turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. In most respects, a vegetarian or vegan Thanksgiving is no different from a traditional dinner; the good china comes out of the cupboard and after dinner it’s time for family visiting or perhaps a football game. For a vegetarian or vegan, however, the menu choices will be different and perhaps unfamiliar to those who habitually consume turkey. Vegetarians do not eat meat, although they may eat fish, dairy products or eggs. Vegans obtain all of their food from plant sources and must make careful food choices to assure they obtain all the nutrients necessary for good health.
Any meal for a vegetarian or vegan starts with the basic principles of nutrition. Protein, carbohydrates and fat should be considered, as well as the vitamins and minerals each food contributes to the meal. Appearance is also important; Thanksgiving is a time when most people want to set an appealing table. The food should also appeal to the taste buds of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian guests. When vegans plan a meal they must consider what foods to combine to assure that they will obtain all the necessary amino acids. Corn is normally deficient in the amino acid lysine, but when combined with beans, which are high in lysine, the dish provides a balanced protein.
A vegetarian Thanksgiving might feature salmon as the main dish, with other traditional Thanksgiving foods rounding out the menu. Wild rice may take the place of bread stuffing, and the salmon may be cooked or served on a bed of rice. Other vegetarian dishes might include puddings made with milk and eggs, eggnog to drink or ice cream for dessert with a pie of classic pumpkin pie. A non-traditional vegetarian Thanksgiving meal could also include a soufflé as the main source of protein. More traditional foods such as mashed potatoes, steamed and buttered vegetables, rolls and mincemeat pie for dessert could round out the menu.
A vegan Thanksgiving table may contain a bean dish such as vegetarian or soy chili, corn meal muffins, green beans dressed with olive oil and sprinkled with walnuts, a green salad and roasted root vegetables such as carrots, beets, parsnips and potatoes. Dessert might be a pumpkin cheesecake, with tofu taking the place of cream cheese. Another vegan option might be a rich seasonal soup, perhaps made with winter squash or pumpkin. Condiments such as pickled vegetables or honey for the corn muffins might round out the meal.
In some ways, a vegetarian menu can be healthier than a traditional thanksgiving menu. There is often a stronger focus on fresh, seasonal vegetables and many of the vegetarian recipes may be naturally lower in saturated fat. Vegetarian or vegan meals that feature beans are often higher in fiber than more traditional foods; fiber has a number of health benefits. Vegetarians who use butter, however, may increase the calorie count if they use butter to boost flavor in their dishes. Some vegetable dishes can be bland to the palate and the diner may add extra salt at the table, but careful attention to seasoning on the part of the cook can resolve that problem. A cook may choose to make an elaborate dessert to offset what seems like a more pedestrian main dish offering, especially if the dinner guests include people who usually eat meat, and this can increase the total calorie count substantially. Exact calorie counts for traditional, vegetarian and vegan dinners will vary widely according to the actual menus.
Both vegetarians and vegans can improve the nutritional quality of the Thanksgiving meal. Make or buy whole grain breads, rolls or muffins. Choose foods that are in season, as they are apt to be fresher and more likely to be nutrient-rich than foods that have been stored or processed. Consider whether the selections provide a balance of amino acids and modify the menu accordingly. Protein provides a feeling of fullness, and when a meal does not contain meat, diners will sometimes add extra fat to obtain that feeling of repletion. Fats are the most concentrated source of calories though, and it’s easy to use too much. Don’t go overboard with sweets or fats; the basic principles of healthy eating apply at Thanksgiving just as they do for any other day.