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Keeping your meat-free friends and family happy with vegetable sides at Thanksgiving dinner can be nerve-wracking. After all, the holiday is usually centered around turkey. But it doesn’t have to be.
"Frankly, while the turkey may be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, when you look at most people's plates, the meat often takes up less room than all the sides," says Consumer Reports nutritionist Amy Keating, R.D. Here are some reasons why you may want to give vegetable side dishes just as much attention as the bird, plus some easy, delicious recipes from CR's test kitchen to try.
1. Vegetables Are Good for Your Heart and Your Waistline
It can be tempting to overindulge in bacon-wrapped appetizers this holiday, but your heart may be happier if you swap them out for crudités or roasted nuts.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., beating out cancer, stroke, and diabetes. But plant-based diets can reduce cardiovascular disease risks by lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol, among other things. Incorporating fall staples such as nuts and seeds—almonds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts, for example—and cooking with canola or olive oil instead of butter will give your heart a boost by raising "good" HDL cholesterol.
And there’s another perk: A plant-centric diet can help you lose weight.
2. Vegetables Are Better for the Environment
Producing any kind of food on an industrial scale is environmentally taxing, but the meat industry is especially resource-heavy, requiring more land, energy, and water than growing vegetables.
Livestock alone account for 12 percent of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, a major driver of climate change. University of Manchester researchers once calculated that in a meal with a turkey, vegetables, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other sides, the turkey alone is responsible for 60 percent of the meal’s carbon footprint.
And while beef uses up more resources than any other meat by far, “turkey is about two to 10 times more energy- and resource-intensive than an alternative plant,” says Gidon Eshel, Ph.D., a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.
3. Veggies Are Gut-Friendly
If you’re loading up on sausage stuffing and buttered rolls at Thanksgiving dinner, you might feel well-fed, but the trillions of beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms living in your gut could still be hungry.
A healthy gut is full of microbes that help digest your food and strengthen your immune system. When you eat poorly—meals high in saturated fat and sugars instead of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, for example—you can negatively affect the composition of your gut flora, studies have shown. That has been linked to an increased risk of allergies, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
All plant foods contain fiber, and therefore support a healthy microbiome. Some research suggests that cruciferous fall vegetables, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, are especially gut-friendly.
Acorn Squash Stuffed With Quinoa, Pecans, and Cranberries
Note: This dish can also serve as a vegetarian or vegan main course.
2 acorn squash (about 1 pound each)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 cup quinoa
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
½ cup toasted pecans, chopped
¼ cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon each salt and black pepper
1. Heat oven to 400° F. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds; brush flesh with olive oil and place cut side down on baking sheet. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until fork-tender.
2. Meanwhile, cook quinoa in vegetable broth according to package directions; set aside.
3. When squash is done, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté garlic and onions until soft. Stir in quinoa and remaining ingredients and heat through.
4. To serve, fill the acorn squash halves with the quinoa mixture.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutritional information per serving: 440 calories, 18 g fat, 2 g sat. fat, 66 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 11 g sugars, 10 g protein, 230 mg sodium
Green Beans With Almonds and Smoked Paprika
12 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut in half on the diagonal
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced, about ⅓ cup
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
¼ cup sliced almonds
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
1. In a large pot of boiling water, blanch green beans until just tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Cool under cold water. Drain well.
2. Heat oil over medium heat in large nonstick skillet; add shallots and cook, stirring until just golden, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and stir constantly until the shallots are golden all over, about 1 minute.
3. Add the almonds, stir, and add beans, paprika, and salt. Cook, stirring until heated through, about 2 to 3 minutes, then serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutritional information per serving: 90 calories, 5 g fat, 0.5 sat. fat, 10 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 4 g sugars, 4 g protein, 150 mg sodium
Roasted Carrots and Parsnips With Shallot-Herb Butter
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 small shallot, minced
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1. Heat oven to 450° F. Toss carrots and parsnips in large bowl with oil, salt, and pepper.
2. Spray 10x15-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Place vegetables in pan and roast until browned, 40 to 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, combine the butter, shallot, chives, and thyme in a small bowl.
4. When vegetables are done, toss them with the butter mixture and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutritional information per serving: 190 calories, 7 g fat, 2.5 g sat. fat, 32 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 11 g sugars, 3 g protein, 400 mg sodium
Knives That Make Holiday Cooking Easier
Chopping vegetables is less of a chore when you have a good knife. Consider these top-rated knife sets from Consumer Reports' tests.
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