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Jazz up your Thanksgiving menu with savory plant-based dishes

November 22, 2021 | UCI Health
Savory Thanksgiving lentil loaf and stir-fry sweet potatoes with kale
Savory lentil loaf topped with a rich mushroom gravy, paired with a sweet potato, garlic and kale stir fry. Photo: Jessica Van Roo/UCI Health.  

Looking for something new to enliven your menus this holiday season? There are plenty of alternatives to turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy that can wow family and friends.

With the price of a Thanksgiving meal up 14% over last year, according to the American Farm Bureau, you may want to consider plant-based options that are not only delicious but also light on the wallet. 

These tasty, heart-healthy recipes deliver lots of fiber, nutrients and antioxidants that strengthen bones, protect eyesight, boost immunity and fight off cancer-causing free radicals, says Katie Rankell, RD, director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.

They are also light on the waistline at just under 800 calories per meal, compared with more than 7,000 calories for a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

This month's recipes were created and photographed by Chef Jessica Van Roo, assistant director of Culinary Recreation & Experiential Programs at UC Irvine, who teaches students and others how to cook healthy, low-cost meals with fresh ingredients. 

Savory Thanksgiving Lentil Loaf with Mushroom Gravy

Savory Thanksgiving lentil loaf is topped with a creamy mushroom gravy.

Serves 8 (Total cost:$9.77/ $1.22 per serving)
Calories per serving: 313

This delectable loaf is packed with fiber from the lentils, flaxseeds, oats and whole grain flour. High fiber foods make us feel full longer on a smaller portions, Rankell says. Fiber also helps us digest food better and keeps our bowels working smoothly. 

Adding carrots and red bell pepper not only flavors this savory loaf, they also provide more than 80% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A, an important nutrient to keep our vision strong and healthy.


Loaf ($4.79)

  • 3 tablespoons flaxseed meal mixed with 5 tablespoons water ($0.20)
  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil ($0.30)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic, about 3 garlic cloves ($0.15)
  • 1 cup diced onion about 1 onion ($0.62)
  • ¾ cup diced red bell pepper (about 1 small pepper) ($0.75)
  • ½ cup diced carrot, about 1 carrot ($0.08)
  • ½ cup diced celery (about 1 stalk ($0.10)
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning ($0.24)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon granulated garlic ($0.24)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon onion powder ($0.24)
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika (optional) ($0.24)
  • 1 cup dry lentils (green or brown) cooked in 2 ½ cups water or broth (or use 2 ½ cups cooked lentils) ($1.15)
  • ¾ cup rolled oats ($0.36)
  • ½ cup whole wheat flour, finely ground oats or any gluten-free flour ($0.12)
  • Cracked pepper and sea salt, to taste

Mushroom Gravy ($4.98)

  • ½ cup avocado oil ($1.20)
  • ½ cup diced onion, about 1/2 onion ($0.31)
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic, about 1 large clove ($0.05)
  • 4 ounces cremini/baby Bella mushrooms, finely chopped (1 cup) ($1.75)
  • ½ cup white whole wheat flour ($0.12)
  • 4 to 5 cups vegetable stock, preferably homemade, as needed ($1.50)
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce or liquid coconut aminos, more to taste ($0.05)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a small bowl, combine flaxseed meal with water and set aside at least 10 minutes to thicken.
  • Line a 9-inch x 5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper, allowing the paper to hang over the edges. 
  • Heat a pan over medium-high heat and coat with oil. When oil is hot, add the onion, bell pepper, carrot and celery, then cook until carrots are soft.
  • Add Italian seasoning, minced garlic, granulated garlic, onion powder and smoked paprika, then mix well to coat.  
  • Blend ¾ cup of cooked lentils until smooth. Combine blended lentils with remaining lentils, oats, flour, sautéed vegetables, flaxseed mixture, then season with salt and pepper.
  • Press the loaf mix firmly into the pan.
  • Bake 45 minutes, remove from oven and cool at least 10 minutes before slicing. 
  • To make gravy, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add oil and heat the oil for 20 seconds before adding remaining onion, garlic and mushrooms.
  • Cook until mushrooms and onions begin to brown. 
  • Sprinkle flour over mushrooms and onions. Slowly add stock, whisking as needed to break up any bits of flour. (Pour liquid a bit at a time, stirring well after each addition.)  
  • Season gravy with soy sauce, salt and pepper.
  • Arrange the slices of lentil loaf on a festive platter decorated with sprigs of greenery like parsley or cilantro. 
  • Pour hot gravy over the loaf and serve.

Sweet Potato and Garlic Kale Stir Fry

Delectable sweet potato and kale stir fry brightens up any holiday meal.

Serves 4 (Total cost:$5.01/ $1.25 per serving)
Calories per serving: 125

Stir-fry recipes are often high in calories and fat due to the heavy oils used during the cooking process. Not this one. It calls for a very small amount of avocado oil, which is a heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat. And we use fresh garlic and onion to add flavor instead of oils and butter, VanRoo says.

This flavorful dish combines two super foods. Kale is full of antioxidants, fiber and, surprisingly, 100% of the daily recommended amount of calcium! Sweet potato — which can be orange, purple or white — is also rich in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Because antioxidants help fight off cancer-causing free radicals, Rankell says, this dish of kale and sweet potatoes gives your health a boost in multiple ways!


  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil ($0.15)
  • 2 cups peeled sweet potatoes, cut in ½ inch cubes (about 2 medium potatoes) ($2.20)
  • ½ cup sliced red onion (about ½ onion) ($0.52)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves) ($0.15)
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 4 cups kale, stems removed, leaves roughly chopped (about 1 bunch) ($1.99)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • Heat large pan over medium-high heat, add oil and swirl to coat.
  • Add potatoes and onion, sauté, stirring occasionally for about 8 minutes, or until potatoes begin to soften.  
  • Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 20-30 seconds. 
  • Add water and cover with lid.
  • Cook for 3-5 minutes or until potatoes are almost cooked. 
  • Add kale to pan, stir well and continue cooking until kale is wilted and soft, about 3 minutes.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste. 
  • Serve hot in a serving dish that allows the color of the sweet potatoes to dazzle.

Pear and Cranberry Crumble

Tangy and sweet, this cranberry pear crumble adds a festive touch to any holiday meal.

Serves 4 (Total cost:$6.90/ $1.73 per serving)
Calories per serving: 320

Cranberries make any dish more festive. The tart red berries in this recipe add a unique tang that compliments the sweetness of the pears.

Did you know that cranberries can help reduce urinary tract infections, lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health? And pears are high in vitamins A and C, which help improve skin while boosting immunity. They are also among the fruits with the highest amount of fiber. 

While this scrumptious confection is sweetened with maple syrup, it is considerably lower in sugar and calories than most desserts, Rankell notes.



  • 2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries ($1.99)
  • 2 firm pears, cored and diced ($2.50)
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch or arrowroot starch ($0.03)
  • ¼ cup pure maple syrup ($1)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon ($0.04)


  • 1 cup rolled oats ($0.48)
  • ½ cup almond meal ($0.56)
  • ¼ cup brown sugar ($0.08)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon ($0.08)
  • 2 ½ tablespoons melted coconut oil ($0.14)


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Coat 9-inch cake or pie pan with nonstick spray.
  • Combine filling ingredients in large bowl, mix well then pour into prepared pan.
  • In another bowl, combine topping ingredients, mix well then sprinkle over filling.
  • Bake 35-40 minutes or until filling begins to bubble through the topping.
  • Serve warm with extra cinnamon on the table for spice lovers.

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