Healthy ways to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers

One heavy holiday meal won't wreck your diet (and may actually help you stay on track in the long run by preventing you from feeling deprived). But it's the days right after an indulgent meal like Thanksgiving that can be the issue for a lot of people, thanks to keeping the dinner party going with leftovers of rich foods they'd usually limit. 

Sure, it can be hard to say "no thanks" to well-meaning family members when they start piling a to-go container high with stuff you'd rather keep to a minimum in your day-to-day. There's also the fact that many of us hate wasting food and may feel guilty for throwing stuff out. Fear not! Creative repurposing of leftovers can help you avoid going overboard. Here are some of the healthy hacks I share with my nutrition clients to help them get back on track over the holiday weekend, while still enjoying all that Thanksgiving deliciousness.

Turkey soup

Turkey soup is a post-Thanksgiving tradition in my family. Leftover turkey is perfect for adding to a simple soup. We usually add onions, carrots, and celery. Feel free to add any veggies you like. I especially love leafy greens like kale or spinach for this. You can also add beans, whole wheat or bean-based pasta, or brown rice to make it extra hearty without being heavy. Stash a few containers in the freezer for those cold nights when the last thing you want to do is cook. 

It's the ultimate comfort food, and the tryptophan in that turkey can be helpful for fending off the winter blues since this amino acid is important for the efficient production of mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. 

​Thanksgiving frittata

A frittata is one of my favorite ways to use up leftovers. It's basically an omelet you bake in the oven (you could also think of it as a crust-less quiche) and makes an excellent blank canvas for scraps of leftover turkey meat and veggies. 

Here's how to make it: preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. In an oven-safe cast-iron skillet or other oven-safe baking dish, combine your cooked veggies and turkey. Add eight beaten eggs or two cups of liquid egg whites. Bake at 400 until the eggs are set, or about 40 minutes. Let it sit about ten minutes before slicing. You can enjoy this hot or cold, so it's perfect for any time of day. I love to enjoy it with a simple side salad. 

Post-Thanksgiving breakfast hash

I love topping a big bowl of vegetables with eggs. Add some potatoes or winter squash for complex carbs and you've got yourself a well balanced breakfast hash. In a large skillet, combine vegetables, and roasted potatoes or squash if you have them along with leftover turkey. Heat until nice and hot, stirring a few as you go to prevent sticking or burning. Then make a little dent in the veggies and crack an egg into the hole—or multiple dents for multiple eggs. Cook until the egg sets. 

Hint: covering the skillet with a lid for a minute or two helps them set faster. Transfer your food to a plate or bowl and enjoy. Another way you can make this is to cook the egg separately and then place it on top of your breakfast hash. By the way, there's no rule that says this has to be a morning meal. This could also be breakfast-for-dinner gold. 

Open-faced Thanksgiving sandwich

Open-faced sandwiches are a great way to lighten up your Black Friday lunch and make a little extra room for any of those other long weekend indulgences indulgences you want to savor. For example, if your family has any holiday weekend traditions like cookie-baking, or you and your friends meet for pre-shopping brunch, you'll want to make space to enjoy a few bites of a test-batch or a mimosa with your omelet. 

Another handy thing about skipping the second slice of bread is that you don't have to worry about a soggy sandwich or trying to cram a big mess in your mouth—you can always just eat it with a knife and fork. Feel free to get creative with your toppings and make your sandwich instagram-pretty. 

Curried turkey salad

We often think of mayo as the go-to base for creamy salads like chicken, tuna, and egg, but Greek yogurt makes a perfect high-protein, lower-calorie swap. One tablespoon of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt, for example, contains about 10 calories, two grams of protein, and less than one gram of fat. Compare that to the same amount of regular mayonnaise — each tablespoon tacks on about 95 calories, virtually no protein, and ten grams of fat — and it's easy to see why this swap is a no-brainer. 

Liven up your turkey salad with curry powder. Of course, you can keep the spices milder if that's what you're feeling. For crunch, you can add finely diced celery or water chestnuts. A touch of dried cranberries or raisins adds a hint of sweetness. Enjoy a scoop of this over greens as a salad, or spread on whole wheat or sprouted grain bread for a hearty-yet-healthy sandwich.

Thanksgiving salad

A Thanksgiving-inspired salad is a delicious way to lighten things up the next day. Toss your favorite Thanksgiving foods (for me, that's turkey, roasted Brussels sprouts, and roasted squash) with leafy greens and a simple dressing of oil and vinegar. If you want to, add a garnish of your favorite cheese (blue cheese and goat cheese get my top vote since they're packed with flavor, meaning that a tiny bit goes a long way) or some pecans, almonds, walnuts, or hemp hearts. Aside from being delicious, it's a good way to up your fiber intake to help digestion get back on track.

Cranberry sauce salad dressing

Cranberry sauce is surprisingly versatile when it comes to repurposing leftovers. It's perfect for salad dressings because it provides both sweet and tart flavors to help brighten even the most mundane bowl of green stuff — key for making it satisfying to get back on track with healthy eating. Simply thin it out with water or add some healthy fats with olive or sunflower oil. For a creamy dressing, whisk your cranberry sauce with plain yogurt or kefir. Tahini's warm, nutty flavor also makes a lovely addition for a more savory twist.

Cranberry yogurt parfait

We're used to seeing cranberry sauce in a savory context this time of year, but it also works beautifully in sweet dishes. Add a pop to your breakfast or snack by layering cranberry sauce with plain Greek yogurt in a cup or bowl. 

For additional Thanksgiving flair (and nutrients), stir some pumpkin pie spice, vanilla extract, and pumpkin purée into the yogurt. The pumpkin will boost the fiber content (a half-cup has about three grams) plus some vitamin A and bloat-soothing potassium (it works by helping support a stable sodium-potassium balance in the body to discourage water retention we often experience after eating a lot of high-sodium foods). If you've craving some crunch, top your parfait with chopped nuts. 

FYI: if you're working with the type of cranberry sauce that comes in a can, simply cut it into pieces and add those pieces to your yogurt or mash it up until it's the consistency you want. Maybe not the prettiest, but totally works in a pinch! 

Pumpkin pie smoothie

My clients often say that leftover pie is one of the most challenging post-holiday foods to have around the house. If you happen to have leftover pumpkin pie, rather than cutting a big slice for breakfast, scoop out a small amount of the filling (about a quarter cup) into the blender with some plain Greek yogurt, half a frozen banana, and ice. You could also use water or your favorite milk with a scoop of protein powder if yogurt's not your thing. 

Make it a high-fiber smoothie bowl with a garnish of chia seeds. Each tablespoon will add about four grams of fiber plus a good dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. By the way, this also works great with sweet potato pie.