With Thanksgiving approaching, it’s time to start looking at heart-healthy approaches to the holiday’s dinner.

Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition professor at Penn State University and volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee, said the first tip she would give is to “think health.”

“It’s Thanksgiving,” she said. “If you are preparing for your loved ones, be loving.”

One pitfall that comes with the holidays is the tendency to overeat. Kris-Etherton said that is “pretty standard” as holiday festivities usually center around food.

To counter this, she suggested encouraging people to control their intake. But that is easier said than done.

First, be aware, she said. People should take into account what they would ordinarily eat before the holidays. What would the typical dinner plate look like year round? A plate at Thanksgiving should not look any different.

So, what exactly should a properly filled dinner plate look like? Let’s first break it into three groups:

Photo of thanksgiving dinner

Recommended fruits and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables

Kris-Etherton said about half of the plate should be dedicated to fruits and vegetables. In the video, squash salad, green bean casserole, cauliflower mash, roasted asparagus and roasted butternut squash represented this section.

In terms of serving size, men and women should consume about four and a half cups of fruit and vegetables collectively a day. Assuming that daily amount is broken evenly by meal, that should leave one and a half cups of fruit and vegetables served collectively at dinnertime.

Recommended portion of starches.
Starchy food

About a quarter of the plate should be dedicated to starchy food, Kris-Etherton said. That would be foods like mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, stuffing and breads.

Kris-Etherton said she suggests using cauliflower, parsnip and celery root as ingredients in this category to add a little pizazz to traditional dishes. So, instead of making traditional mashed potatoes, she said to mix mashed cauliflower with the potatoes or use them as a stand-alone dish.

“It’s a great way to cut calories,” she said.

Recommended portions of protein, starch and vegetables.
Lean protein

About a quarter of the plate should be dedicated to lean protein. Since it’s Thanksgiving, that protein is likely to be the turkey. Because a serving size of meat is 3 ounces, the cut of turkey should be about the size of a deck of cards.

For those looking to cut calories and excess fat in this category, they can aim for the lighter colored cuts of meat, such as the breast, and cut away any turkey skin, according to the AHA’s Holiday Healthy Eating Guide.

Photo of healthy desserts.
What about dessert?

Desserts aren’t included in the plate diagram and they can be a pitfall as people often sample their way through multiple servings.

Instead, take a small amount of only one dessert, Kris-Etherton said.

Another key is to pick wisely. Compared to apple pie, which has a double crust, Kris-Etherton said pumpkin pie is a healthier alternative. It is lower in calories and can be made healthier by replacing heavy cream with low fat or fat free milk in the pumpkin custard base.

For people looking for heart-healthy recipes, Kris-Etherton said a good resource could be found on Simple Cooking with Heart. Some dessert examples include apple bread pudding and a pumpkin pie smoothie.

For those who have Thanksgiving staples that are part of family tradition, there are ways to use healthier ingredients and they probably won’t even notice the difference.

“It’s going to be ok,” Kris-Etherton said.

One of the healthiest ways to celebrate the holiday is to not make it all about the dinner.

“Make food be secondary,” Kris-Etherton said. “Appreciate who you are with … give thanks for what you have.”

View a gallery of all recipes from AHA News