The holidays came at us fast this year, so many are already prepping for Thanksgiving with family and friends. If you’re cooking or bringing a dish, perhaps you’re getting your world-class menu together and gathering ingredients.
For Black families, soul food dishes will decorate many tables in all of their vibrancy and glory. Many of these dishes are made with recipes rooted in family traditions and culture, which means they could look different for each person.
Soul food hailing from the south is often associated with the prevalence of high blood pressure and diabetes in African Americans. Some reasons are frequent frying, the use of animal fat, and salt. It’s important to note that we, as Black people, don’t have prevalent health issues because we don’t know how to eat—systemic racism and a lack of access to affordable and healthy foods, also known as food desserts, are undeniable causes.
“There’s no doubt that the way we eat can have an impact on our health, but it’s a mistake to assume that eating candied yams or fried chicken can make or break our health,” says Dr. Kera Nyemb-Diop, nutrition expert, food activist and nutrition coach in West Orange, New Jersey.
She adds that even the CDC acknowledges other factors feed into our health, such as genetics, behavior, environmental and physical influences, medical care, and social aspects. Nyem-Diop tells ESSENCE, “Like every food culture in the world, Black dishes comprise some that are nutrient-dense, rich in whole grains, vegetables, beans, and the like, which tend to be the celebratory meals we eat on Thanksgiving.”
“The nutrient-dense foods are important to replenish the nutrients our body needs, and the others don’t do much for us nutritionally, but we eat them because they make us happy, “food for the soul,” Nyemb-Diop says.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with tweaking your soul food dishes to boost their nutritional value if you’d like to. Here are a few spins you can add to some familiar Thanksgiving dishes, according to Carlie Saint – Laurent Beaucejour, a registered dietician, nutrition coach, and executive director of Crave With Carlie in Philadelphia.
You may decide that changing the content of your dishes isn’t for you, and that’s completely valid too. It’s ok to have a ‘low vibrational plate’ every now and again, as it’s more about your daily habits than a seasonal meal.
“The challenge with Thanksgiving is the abundance of food and the tradition of eating large portions,” Nyemb-Diop tells ESSENCE. “At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is just one day. What will matter are your eating habits for the other 364 days of the year. My point is, don’t stress about Thanksgiving; enjoy your sweet potato pie without the guilt.”
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Mac and cheese is a dish that many cultures indulge in, and we all have different ways of cooking it. Some common ingredients include cheese, cream, macaroni, milk, and butter. If you want to add a nutritional spin to this dish, consider opting for some lower fat and salt ingredients, says Saint – Laurent Beaucejour.
“If you use heavy cream or whipping cream in your Mac and cheese, using an alternative like half and half, evaporated milk, or whole milk would be a better option to cut down the fat content,” she says. She also suggests opting for unsalted butter since there’s enough salt from the cheese.
Sweet Potato Pie
What is Thanksgiving dinner without sweet potato pie? Because everyone deserves a sweet treat. Some ingredients used to make sweet potato pie are sweet potato, butter, milk, and sugar. “You could reduce the added sugar and add naturally sweet foods like unsweetened applesauce instead. To make it more fiber-rich without altering the texture dramatically, consider adding ground flaxseed,” says Saint – Laurent Beaucejour.
Consider swapping out canned cranberries for fresh ones if this is something you tend to make at home. Canned cranberries can contain unnecessary ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener from corn starch. “I prefer fresh cranberries because of their texture, and I can naturally sweeten it with pineapple and orange juice,” says Saint – Laurent Beaucejour. She says if you still opt for canned cranberry sauce, read the ingredient label first to check the sugar quantity.
Try new ways to prepare your greens this year. “Fat is important in this dish to help absorb the fat-soluble vitamin K and A found in greens, so I recommend using butter, coconut oil, or olive oil. If you cook your greens with meat, I’d recommend trying it with a turkey instead of pork or red meat to cut back on the “bad” fat known as saturated fat, which can lead to heart disease over time,” says Saint – Laurent Beaucejour.
A healthy way to spruce up your cornbread stuffing or dressing is to add sweet peppers, carrots, diced celery, and onions, says the dietician. “If you want to get fancy, add some dried fruit and nuts for more nutrients like fiber, vitamins C and A, and of course, flavor.”