A Thanksgiving Menu Tune-Up

Holidays bring joy — and food anxiety.

How to cook, how to serve, and, finally, how much? In an era when we all seem to be on a diet, do you give in and make everything Grandma did?

Food on a plate

Today’s goal is not to re-create a Norman Rockwell painting, but to make a festive meal you will be happy to serve on Thanksgiving Day. The biggest change: If you don’t need to present the whole turkey for carving at the table, cook a turkey breast instead.

Cooking times

If you start with a fresh turkey breast, you don’t have to worry about thawing it in time to cook for dinner. It will probably come with directions and a pop-up timer, but here are the basics: A 5-pound to 6-pound turkey breast roasted at 325 °F will cook in about 2 hours. Basting with butter or oil isn’t necessary. You’ll remove the skin before slicing and serving, because that's where most of the fat is.

The breast will supply about 3 pounds of solid white meat. A 3-ounce serving — about the size of a deck of cards — contains 115 calories, 26 grams protein, less than a gram of fat, 71 mg cholesterol, no carbohydrate or fiber, and 44 mg sodium.

Here’s the skinny on other holiday favorites:

  • Gravy. A turkey breast won’t provide a lot of juice, so add some nonfat chicken broth. To thicken, start with a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch dissolved in a half cup of cold water. Stir it with a whisk. Add chopped mushrooms for a giblet texture.
  • Vegetables. Instead of adding things to your vegetables, let them be themselves. Steam the beans and use fresh-cut veggies as an appetizer tray, maybe with a little low-fat dip. Plain sweet potatoes — hold the marshmallows, please — add color to your plate.
  • Dessert. Skip the big pies and do a tray of mini-tarts or petit fours from a bakery or the freezer.

Talking turkey

  • The great plate debate. Consider using 8-inch plates and leaving Grandma’s 10-inch china in the cupboard. Smaller plates will help people choose smaller portions without having to think about it.
  • Fuss less. Cleanup is easier with throwaway foil roasting pans. Aluminum foil makes a perfect cover to keep your turkey breast from over-browning and your outside-the-bird stuffing from drying out.
  • Plan your menu. Shoot for quality, not quantity. You don’t need more food than your family and guests will eat or more leftovers than you can enjoy. As you plan the menu, ask what they’d miss if it weren’t there.

Call for help. You can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at 888-674-6854 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays except federal holidays and Thanksgiving Day, when it’s open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The USDA will answer e-mail questions sent to mphotline.fsis@usda.gov.

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