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Cooks, start your Thanksgiving countdown!

By the Editors of Cooking Light
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Cooking Light

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a season where eating is central to the festivities. While it's also the season of indulgence, it's easy to plan a holiday meal that's delicious and healthful. Whether you're serving two or 20, these guidelines will help make sure your big dinner is a success. Follow our tips for making smart choices at the market, in the kitchen, and at the table.

Things that make you go Mmmm: Roasted turkey with truffle-scented homemade gravy.

At the market

Shop sooner. Compose your shopping list in advance, then head to the store. "I like to start at least seven days ahead," says David Tutera, author of The Party Planner and host of WE TV series "My Fair Wedding." "Thanksgiving generally kicks off the holiday entertaining season, so you need to be prepared since many stores require you to pre-order turkey or ham." Besides providing the best selection in food and wine, shopping ahead of crowds will help save time and stress. CookingLight.com: Everything you need to know about turkey

Pick and choose among traditional Thanksgiving offerings if your group is small. Don't tax yourself by trying to serve everything that might be offered at a larger gathering, says Cooking Light contributing editor Maureen Callahan, R.D. "Balance your meal by choosing one starch -- for example, sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes -- and choose turkey parts, like legs and breasts, instead of buying a whole bird."

Think big when feeding a group of 10 or more to ensure enough food. "Precooked ham is a good substitute for turkey when feeding a large crowd. Since it only needs to be warmed before serving, you're free to focus on side dishes and desserts," says Cooking Light test kitchens professional SaBrina Bone. CookingLight.com: Ultimate Holiday Cookbook -- 73 Healthful Holiday Recipes

In the kitchen

Set a timetable. Create a game plan for the day, and know exactly how long it takes to prep and cook each item. Consider when the dishes will be in and out of the oven, and determine whether you have enough room for everything, Callahan says. If you're cooking several items in one oven, keep pans spaced so that none touch. Doing so maintains the airflow inside the oven required to ensure thorough cooking, Bone says. CookingLight.com: All about roasting

Assess your gear. Gather your china, silverware, glasses, and linens at least five days in advance. You want to be sure you have enough plates and glasses, the silver is polished, and you have time to launder linens if needed. Know what you'll be using: the oven, the stove, the microwave? Will you need a roasting pan? Make sure ahead of time the one you get fits in your oven. What about a meat thermometer for testing doneness? It's smart to keep a running list of equipment you need -- that way, you can know just what to buy or borrow. See our guide to choosing the right pots and pans for tips on the best cookware to use for certain dishes.

Know your serving sizes. "Keep track of how much food you're making," Bone says. "Usually a pie or cake serves 10 to 16 people. You may decide you only need to make one dessert." If you're hosting only a couple of guests, you can adjust the presentation. "For instance, if your cake makes two layers, frost only one, and then you can freeze the other for another occasion." Use our portion size primer to help keep your servings in check.

Look for nutritional opportunities. Many foods we eat during the holidays are healthier than you think, containing nutrients that may help prevent disease. For example, one baked sweet potato contains nearly 500 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A and almost 50 percent of your vitamin C. "There's an added benefit to obtaining these vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals from a variety of foods, since they work synergistically to create positive health effects," says Melissa Ohlson, R.D., a spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center. CookingLight.com: Versatile turkey -- 9 recipes for the popular bird

Splurge a little with smaller groups because they allow you more time to be creative. "Offer specialty dishes like a dressy appetizer or savory starter, such as our Roast Butternut Squash Soup with Apples and Garam Masala -- something you may not have time to do if cooking for a bigger group," Bone says. Check our Ultimate Holiday Cookbook for more healthful appetizer recipes.

Take strategic shortcuts if you have a larger group. "For example, jazz up a store-bought pound cake with a drizzle of homemade cranberry sauce," Callahan says. "Or you can steam precut vegetables, like baby carrots, and toss them with a simple glaze of honey and chopped fresh dill for a simple side dish." CookingLight.com: Top 20 lighten-up tips

Lighten up classic dishes. "With just a few tweaks, you can take a traditional dish that might be heavy on fat or sodium and make it more healthful," says Cooking Light senior editor Phillip Rhodes. For example, canola oil has nearly half the saturated fat and more healthful, unsaturated fat than other oils; use it in place of traditional vegetable oil in baked goods. See our guide to heart-healthy oils for more. CookingLight.com: Recipe makeover -- Nine lightened holiday dishes

At the table

Serve buffet-style. "This approach is especially useful for larger groups, as it keeps guests circulating and lets them eat at their own pace," Tutera says.

Keep your willpower strong. In a study conducted at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, researchers found that dining in a group causes the average person to eat 44 percent more calories than he or she normally would eating alone. Mindful eating is key to maintaining your equilibrium. Make a conscious effort to balance your plate with plenty of fruits and veggies, and a healthy portion -- about three to four ounces -- of protein, says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Use our strategies for sensible holiday eating to help you stay on track.

But don't stress about weight gain. Myth holds that people put on five to seven pounds during the holidays. However, the average weight gain during the six-week span from Thanksgiving to New Year's is just under one pound, according to a yearlong study of nearly 200 people published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Even though enjoying delicious holiday dishes might not increase your waistline by as much as you'd expect, calorie consciousness is still important. Take a second to look at every bite before you eat it. This psychological connection to your food will help you keep a mental checklist of how much you're consuming. CookingLight.com: Three holiday eating myths -- Busted

Be thankful. No matter how you celebrate, welcome guests and gather for a brief toast, blessing, or prayer before dining together, Tutera says.

After the holiday

One minute your turkey is beautiful and fragrant, floating majestically to the table, its crisp skin glistening. But after a couple of servings, the feast can lose its luster.

These eight recipes will give your leftovers a new life, without ever resorting to turkey-noodle surprise.

For more tips on making healthy taste great, try Cooking Light - CLICK HERE

Copyright 2009 Cooking Light magazine. All rights reserved.

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