Vegan on the side

Healthier dishes for Thanksgiving

November 19, 2013

A few years ago, shortly before we ate Thanksgiving dinner together, a good friend decided to become a vegan.

My job that year was to bring the side dishes. But I wasn’t daunted by going vegan for the event; rather, I was excited.

I’ve always felt that the side dishes are the real star of the Thanksgiving show. They don’t have to be heavy or bland; they can be light and flavorful. And I’m still very proud of the three recipes I came up with. They’re crowd-pleasing, seasonal, and just a little bit unusual.


First up: a standby autumn side dish in my family that we call Gateway Brussels Sprouts. Brussels sprouts are a classic of the holiday table, and they’ve become downright trendy in recent years. But not everyone is a fan — and it’s true that these little cabbages can be bitter-tasting and sulfurous-smelling.

brussels sprouts with pine nuts
Gateway Brussels Sprouts

That’s why I dubbed my version “gateway” sprouts. Even diehard Brussels sprouts haters will admit, upon tasting them prepared my way, that they’re “not bad” — and they might even ask for more.

The trick with Brussels sprouts is to avoid overcooking them into pastiness. I also like to add the sweetness of caramelized onions and maple syrup to mellow out any potential bitterness. And pine nuts add crunch and richness.

For the nutritionally inclined, Brussels sprouts are a fantastic source of fiber, as well as potassium, vitamin C, and the B vitamins. They’re also naturally low in sodium.


My second recipe — chosen in honor of my newly vegan, half-Persian friend — is a vegan version of the classic Persian stew known as fesenjan. A celebratory dish that usually features chicken or duck, fesenjan combines the creamy richness of a slow-cooked, ground-walnut sauce with a sour-sweet undercurrent of pomegranate molasses.

In talking with other Persian cooks, I discovered that sometimes hearty chunks of seasonal butternut squash are added to the stew. So I simply made a version featuring squash alone, without the meat. The resulting flavors are rich, complex, and unusual.

The dish is also a nutritional standout: the walnuts are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, and the butternut squash supplies antioxidants, potassium, fiber, and B vitamins.

whole-wheat couscous
Whole-Wheat Thanksgiving Couscous


No Thanksgiving is complete without stuffing. But bread-based stuffings can be soggy, dense, and filling without being nutritious. So I created a whole-wheat couscous with Thanksgiving flavors as a higher-fiber, whole-grain alternative to traditional bread stuffing.

Whole-wheat couscous has 50 percent more fiber than regular couscous, and it’s also a good source of iron. Olive oil, a natural partner to couscous, provides a light, fresh, Mediterranean flavor, and onions, fresh herbs, and spices provide plenty of flavor without relying on salt. Pumpkin seeds add texture, and are also an excellent source of magnesium, potassium, and protein.

Planning ahead

Here are some basic tips to remember for making tasty and healthy turkey-day sides.

  1. Think local for fruits and vegetables. They’ll be more flavorful, richer in nutrients, and less expensive. If you’re loyal to green beans at Thanksgiving, for example, but they aren’t in season near you, skip those flown in from the Southern Hemisphere as well as the (often very salty) canned variety, and try frozen instead.
  2. Focus on flavor. Use fresh or dried herbs and a variety of spices, instead of processed condiments and seasonings.
  3. Ignore the salt shaker. Use acidic flavorings, such as lemon juice and vinegar, for a tangy taste without the sodium.
  4. Consider technique. Raw veggies are great, but cooking makes many nutrients more available. (Besides, raw pumpkin is nobody’s idea of a pleasant snack.) Skip boiling (which leaches nutrients into the water) and deep-frying (which can be overly greasy) in favor of steaming, roasting, stir-frying, and puréeing. These healthier techniques bring out the flavors of vegetables and produce a variety of contrasting textures.

Holiday strategies

Cooking healthier food will get you only so far; after all, the holiday season is generally also the Season of Overindulgence. Here are a few tips for a happier, healthier season.

  1. Think small. Don’t deprive yourself of special seasonal foods — but just take a taste, to satisfy your craving without getting full.
  2. Think ahead. Before a big event, eat a healthy snack (such as fresh fruit) so you’re not as hungry at the buffet.
  3. Think entrée only. Skip the appetizers if you can, as they tend to be very fatty and rich.
  4. Think pie charts. Fill your plate with healthy proportions: 50 percent vegetables and fruit, 25 percent lean protein, and 25 percent whole-grain carbohydrates.
  5. Think less drink. Drink in moderation to minimize your intake of alcohol and other high-calorie, low-nutrition liquid calories.
  6. Think action. Play sports, go for a hike, take a walk after the big meal. It can be hard to go outside during cold, dark winter weather, but fresh air is good for everyone.
  7. Think sleep. Just too cold and dark outside? Go to bed. After all, sleep deprivation can lead to elevated blood pressure and weight gain.

Dr. Linda Shiue is an internal-medicine physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area. She teaches healthy-cooking classes to patients and community groups and writes about food on her blog, Spicebox Travels. Follow her on Twitter: @spiceboxtravels.

Related recipe: Whole-Wheat Thanksgiving Couscous; recipe: Fesenjan with Butternut Squash; recipe: Gateway Brussels Sprouts

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Nov 30, 2013 at 10:09 AM PST

Hi Linda,

I enjoyed reading Vegan on the Side. We are moving towards a plant based diet and your article was very timely. Your recipes look simple and tasty and will definitely look into trying them at Christmas this year.

2. by Linda Shiue on Dec 3, 2013 at 12:26 PM PST

Thank you! I hope you enjoy these recipes and inspired to try more new vegetable/plant-based recipes.
-Linda Shiue

3. by Linda Shiue on Dec 3, 2013 at 12:27 PM PST

That was meant to say: and ARE inspired.

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