10 Ways to Have a Healthy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving welcome sign

If you follow A Love Letter to Food on Facebook (and if you don’t, hop on over and “like” me!), you’ve probably seen at least a few posts from my 10-Day Countdown to a Healthy Thanksgiving. For the ten days leading up to Turkey Day, I’ve been posting recipes from around the internet for healthy versions of classic Thanksgiving sides and desserts. There’s been one for mashed sweet potatoes with goat cheese, a skinny green bean casserole, a pear-prosciutto-hazelnut stuffing that looks INCREDIBLE, and of course my very own Honey-Orange Cranberry Sauce. It’s kind of like the 12 Days of Christmas, but for healthy food–and with no lords a’leaping.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to make this day of giving thanks one that is healthy for body, mind, and soul–and how to keep it from the pitfalls that can highjack it into unhealthy-ness. After all, it’s not just the piles of butter-laden potatoes and flaky pies that can lead us down an undesirable path, health-wise. Like many other holidays, Thanksgiving can come with challenges to our emotional and mental health, too.

So as the final countdown continues at T-minus-four days until the feast, here are 10 ways to have a healthier Thanksgiving. And the healthier your Thanksgiving is, the healthier it will be for those around you, too!

10 Ways to Have a Healthy Thanksgiving

1. Make a Thanksgiving eating plan (and write it down).

Research shows that just writing down goals significantly improves the likelihood of achieving them. Taking a moment on Thanksgiving morning (or before) to jot down a few goals for your day’s eating could benefit you more than you think. I’m not saying to write a myopically detailed regimen for your day, but even a couple of guidelines like “I will only eat one dessert” or “I will not go back for seconds” could mean the difference between eating the right amount and overdoing it.

2. Remember: it’s just a meal, and you don’t have to try everything.

Along the same lines as a written eating plan is this mantra: “It’s just a meal, and I don’t have to try everything.” It’s easy to attach major significance to the Thanksgiving meal, thinking “It only comes once a year, so I have to make it great” but thinking of it as just “Dinner for Today” can break through a lot of that mental baggage.

3. Practice gratitude (aka actually be thankful!)

In our family, we have kept a Thankfulness journal for the last nine years. Every Thanksgiving we bring it out and each write down a page or so about what we are most thankful. It has been a true treasure to read over our reflections throughout the years. Practicing gratitude brings us back to the heart of this wonderful holiday and allows us to focus on the things that are good. When we apply this to our food, we’re more likely to enjoy it; when we apply it to our family, we’re more likely to enjoy them.

4. Practice portion control.

It’s harder than it sounds. Not going back for seconds is one way to keep your portions in check, and other useful tool is to consider the USDA’s “MyPlate” guidelines when going through the buffet line. This visual model is a reminder to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one quarter of your plate with grains, and one quarter with protein (with dairy as a modest side). If half your plate is veggies, you’ll have a lot harder time taking in too many calories.


5. Eat breakfast.

It’s a common practice on a major feasting day to precede the feast with a fast. In reality, however, our bodies are not meant to load up on one giant meal a day. They’re much happier when we spread our intake out over the course of the day, keeping our blood sugar and energy levels consistent. Starving yourself can actually slow your metabolism so that when you inevitably overdo it at the big meal (because you’re so ridiculously hungry) you’re likely to feel overfull–and possibly kinda miserable–for longer.

6. Eat mindfully.

Paying attention to your body’s cues of hunger and fullness is a great practice any time, and especially at Thanksgiving dinner. While it can be difficult in the midst of polite conversation, try to make the mental space as you eat to savor the bites you are taking. You will feel far more satisfied if you do.

7. Work in some exercise.

We all know about this one. It’s why Turkey Trots exist. It may sound like beating a dead horse, but exercising before a large meal will raise your metabolism to make room for a little extra indulgence, and could provide the endorphin boost you need to get through Uncle Bob’s inevitable animal husbandry tirades. A brisk walk, a bike ride, a hike, or even taking dance breaks between making side dishes are all great ways to work in some activity.

8. Give.

You may not have time to pass out canned goods at the homeless shelter in the middle of Thanksgiving Day, and that’s okay. (In fact, Thanksgiving is really not the time these types of organizations most need your help!) But what about going online Thanksgiving morning and donating to one of your favorite charities? Involving your kids in the decision could be an enriching family activity that will keep you mindful of the less fortunate.

9. Forgive yourself if you go overboard.

We’re all subject to overindulgence on Thanksgiving, and tomorrow is another day. So if you end up overdoing it, have compassion for yourself and make a mental or written commitment to healthy eating in December. It’s never too late.

And finally–and perhaps most importantly this particular November…

10. Don’t talk politics (or other issues you know will be contentious).

It’s just not worth ruining the holiday with a discussion that is far more likely to aggravate you and others than promote goodwill. If someone tries to bait you into discussing the election, change the subject–or suddenly realize you need to go get more green beans.

I guarantee you’ll be thankful you did.

Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving from A Love Letter to Food!

12 thoughts on “10 Ways to Have a Healthy Thanksgiving

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