Stuffing is perhaps the ultimate comfort food. Everyone has their favorite, and everyone's mom/grandmother/whoever makes the best.
Some have rice, most have bread of some sort or another. Then there are the sweet ones with apples and nuts, and the savory ones with all the sausages and herbs.
No matter how they're done, around the holidays it's all about the bird, the pie and oh, that stuffing. There's also no better name for this dish. First, it stuffs the bird, then it stuffs our bellies, then it stuffs our thighs. A culinary trifecta if there ever was one.
No kidding about the calories. Eggnog may be the most caloric drink you'll have during the holidays (or any other time, unless you're prone to drinking heavy cream out of the carton), but stuffing is often the most calorically expensive side dish you'd ever imagine.
How expensive? On the light side, a cup will run about 160 calories -- but a cup of the high-end stuff can easily set you back more than 500 calories.
That many calories could be a meal for many people under normal circumstances. Indeed, you could make a nice breakfast with whole grain cereal, low-fat milk, fresh fruit and a scrambled egg for less than that.
Of course, we're assuming this stuffing is cooked outside the bird. Pack it into the cavity before roasting and you'll add at least another 100 calories to that total. Why? Because all that stuffing is getting "basted" by that slowly melting turkey fat as it cooks.
It may taste good, but you might want to serve it with a defibrillator. If you can't believe there's that much extra fat from the turkey, try this: Save a little of that cooked-in-the-bird stuffing and refrigerate it. The next day it'll be a bit firmer and seem almost waxy. That's the hardened turkey fat.
Figure that our cooked-outside-the-bird dish has about 42 grams of fat (almost 3 tablespoons) and nearly a third of your day's sodium allotment, and you have some serious food.
Remember though, this is a side dish. Stuffing is not the main event by a long shot, but it can have as many calories as a half pound of dark meat turkey, even with the skin.
Have a Side of Rationality
Regardless of the fat and calories, the feeling by many is that it's one meal on one day. It's also a family tradition, and that's something people don't want to mess with.
That is absolutely true and understandable, and as a nutritionist, I'm far more concerned with what's happening on the other 364 days of the year. So shoot the moon if you like, but you'll probably feel better about the holidays if you plan.
Holiday meals are usually able to be anticipated, especially when they involve family traditions. You know when these times are creeping up and rather than get uptight about the calories they bring, use the few days beforehand to plan your strategy.
Making sure you eat lighter and get in a few more minutes each day on the treadmill or stair climber will help to prevent the stuffing from hanging around too long. You're essentially losing the 500 calories before you even hit the table.
Most people figure they'll make up for it the day after, but that's a losing proposition. There's always another party to go to, and another excuse to overdo it. Pay it forward and you'll go into that meal knowing that the stuffing was just another part of your plan. Bring it on.
Keep It Real
Maybe that cup of stuffing is paid for, but only a cup. Let's not create any false illusions here -- there's still a lot of meal out there.
If you think you need a 12-step program for your stuffing habit, there are ways to cope. One of the best is when you or someone in your household makes the stuffing. It allows you the chance to modify things.
We did this many years ago when Thanksgiving came around about six weeks after my father's quadruple bypass. We still all wanted a traditional turkey day, but we also wanted him around for many more, so we made the usual things much lighter and it was terrific.
Here are a few ways to lighten the load on your stuffing in a way that few people will notice:
Go meatless. Sausage stuffings are endless calories. Other dishes call for browning the sausages and draining some of the fat. Not stuffing. What you see under the plastic wrap will grow very attached to your arteries and will make your butt just grow. Besides, extra meat in the side dishes isn't a must, as the meal already has plenty of protein.
Veggies speak volumes. So do fresh fruits. Bulk up the stuffing with flavorful veggies like celery and onions. Brown them in a little olive oil to get them nice and caramelized for flavor that goes through the entire dish. Apples and pears do the same and add a sweet counterpart to the savory flavors of herbs.
Liquids make the heart grow fonder when they substitute for a lot of the fat. The fat keeps things moist, but you can do that with a good stock. Add stock gradually, so things have just the right moistness.
It's better with butter, but not with too much. Butter is OK, but use it for dots, not dollops. Before you bake the stuffing, dot the whole dish with about 2 tablespoons of butter. Most of the butter flavor will stay on the surface, where the taste buds hit first, so you'll get more bang for your butter-flavored buck.
Use real bread instead of corn bread. Corn bread is a quick bread that's already been made with fat. Regular bread or even croutons are much lower in fat and instead rely on herbs and added broth for flavor.
If you have no say in the stuffing prep, no need to worry. Stay physically active before and a few days after the big meal, and you should be fine. You'll need to be more quantity-conscious, so here's a way to eat wisely:
Save the best for last. Before you dive into that single portion of tasty but calorie-laden stuffing, hit the turkey breast and veggies first.
Drink plenty of fluids -- the calorie-free kind. They help fill you up during the meal and give you a break between bites.
SLOW DOWN. The meal is not a sprint and you don't get points by finishing first. If it's a buffet, get in line later.
If you're not making the stuffing, just eating it, remember to stay active, don't arrive hungry and if there's an option, choose the stuffing that was baked outside the bird! Then have a portion and enjoy it. It's Thanksgiving.
Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.