Thanksgiving Survival Guide

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As I’m writing this we are just 2 days away from Thanksgiving – the year’s most food-heavy holiday. But I’m not here to give you another list of new recipes you should try out this year -there are tons of healthy recipes online that can get you there. But what if you’re not in charge of the menu? Then this is for you! This post is all about how you can enjoy this day without guilt. Whether you’re in charge of what’s served or if you’re a guest at another house, there are a few things you can do to improve how you feel this coming Thursday evening. And no, it does not mean you have to eat the side salad only.

The classic Thanksgiving dinner involves a LOT of food:

Turkey, ham, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, dressing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, biscuits, cornbread, mixed salad, deviled eggs, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, cocktails, wine, coffee, liqueurs, and spirits. Did I miss anything? Probably…

So how do we tackle this day? First off, don’t approach Thanksgiving dinner with a mind that says “ugh, I’m not allowed to have any of this” – because if done right, Thanksgiving dinner can be a really nutritious meal! Unless the turkey is fried, that’s a bad start…

So here are a few tips on how to survive Thanksgiving

(the food part – I can’t help you with your relatives):

1. Breakfast. Don’t skip it just because you think you’ll eat so much that day anyway. Not good.Start your day with a good breakfast that will keep you full for a few hours. That way you don’t get hunger pangs while you’re cooking, which leads to lots of nibbling some here and tasting some there. Really take 15-20 minutes and make yourself some scrambled eggs with fresh herbs and veggies, or a cup of (plain) Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and honey, or some homemade oatmeal with nuts and seeds. Think fiber & protein for breakfast. Taking the time to prepare and eat a healthy, satisfying breakfast will make you more mindful of what you eat the rest of the day. Even when you’re not the one cooking.

2. Stay hydrated. Have some lemon water, herbal tea, or just plain water readily on hand for your time in the kitchen. A lot of times we forget to drink enough when our minds are so occupied with something you’re working on (or cooking). Some time I catch myself wanting to snack on something when I’m not even hungry, but then I can’t even remember when I had my last glass of water.

3. Snacking. If you do get hungry before it’s turkey time, snack on fresh fruit or raw veggies. Ditch (or hide) the snack mixes, cookies, cheese straws, and all that crunchy stuff. The average Thanksgiving dinner can boast as much as 2,000 calories and 2,000 mg of sodium, so don’t add any more to that before you even have the table set.

4. Appetizers. Always so tempting and so delicious. Mostly because everyone’s hungry and wants to eat something already! The rule here is to scan everything first and then go back to tip #3: go with the appetizers that are made mostly with fresh fruits and veggies, stay away from salty, fried, and sugary ones. If there’s nothing green among the spread, pick the one(s) you really, really want to try, or can’t live without, or the one that your aunt made and you’re forced to try. And then stick to a really small amount. If people ask you why you’re not eating anything, tell them that you’re saving your appetite for the main show.

5. Pre-dinner Cocktails. Holidays are always an invitation for drinks – just don’t fill up too much and too early. Drinking on an empty stomach will get you sick faster or make you wolf down the appetizers trays, so start out with the non-alcoholic offerings. Skip the sodas though – go with lemon water or fruit infused water. Maybe bring some for everyone to share: brew up some green tea and add equal parts of pomegranate juice and fresh squeezed orange juice. Strain the pulp, add some mint leaves (or a rosemary sprig) and serve over ice.


6. Salads! You’ve done good so far and you still have a good appetite for the main meal. Nice! So let’s keep going: if there’s a salad or multiple salads, start with that. The person who made the salad will be so happy that someone is actually giving his/her dish some love. Just watch out for the not-so-healthy toppings like croutons, bacon (real or fake), crispy onions, candied nuts, sweetened dried cranberries, loads of cheese and creamy dressings. Simple raw or roasted nuts are good, and so are fresh apple or pear slices.

7. Turkey or ham?? Both are lean meats but turkey is lower in sodium. Unless your turkey was brined – that will amp up the sodium content quite a bit. Simple roasted is best. Stay away from fried turkey or at least the skin and outer layers that got soaked with unhealthy, processed canola oil.

8. Mashed potatoes & gravy. I know it just goes together like peanut butter & jelly, but those are your biggest diet busters on the plate. If you can, ask what went into the mashed potatoes. Loads of butter, cream and cheese? Stay away or keep the portion small. Very small. Gravy is often loaded with sodium, especially if it came from a jar. Try a taste of your meal without any gravy and see if it isn’t just tasty enough already.

9. Stuffing or dressing. You know the difference, right? Stuffing goes in the bird, dressing is on the side. Both are usually a crumbly base of cornbread, biscuits, or stale bread, mixed with chicken broth, celery, onions, sometimes nuts, more cranberries, herbs, and spices. Since it’s mostly bread and has very little vegetables, I say take it easy on this one. It’s not the worst offender, but watch for excess sodium and keep the serving size moderate.

10. Biscuits and dinner rolls. While we’re on the bread subject, let’s look at those 2. I honestly could go without dinner rolls for any meal. Why stuff yourself with boring, refined-white-flour rolls when your stomach is already too small for everything that’s served? Skip them.

11. Cranberry sauce. Nothing grossed me out more on Thanksgiving as when my husband once cracked open a can of cranberry sauce and it came out in the exact shape of the can, complete with all the grooves. If your cranberry sauce came out of a can, skip it. It most likely contains high fructose corn syrup, regular corn syrup, or other big amounts of sugar. A 1/4 cup serving has about 22 grams of sugar (recommended amount for an adult is 25 grams per day. The whole DAY). Skip it. Really – it’s not even that good. If your table has homemade cranberry sauce made from fresh cranberries, and you really must have it, then please have a little. The homemade kind usually still has less sugar than the canned one. And no HFCS.

cranberry sauce can

12. Sweet potato casserole. I have to admit, I have never even had it, and probably never will. I just learned to like sweet potatoes and they are really good for you! Just not so much anymore when smothered with marshmallows, sugar and butter. Avoid the marshmallows, since they’re just high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. If you really love sweet potato, choose between having it for dessert, as sweet potato pie, or the casserole (scrape off the marshmallows). Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, so eating them plain (baked) is your better option.

13. Green bean casserole. Green beans are awesome. They’re tasty and healthy and green. Keep ’em that way. If your Thanksgiving veggies are drowned in canned cream of mushroom, then go rinse them off. OK, just kidding. Maybe they have some leftover plain green beans left in the kitchen. Or request a dairy free version. The canned stuff is full of GMO corn and soy, MSG, and artificial “flavoring”. Skip the “French” onions.

Sautee some fresh mushrooms with some shallots, parsley, and rosemary and add that on top of the crisp, green beans (lightly steamed, not boiled). Way better – eat up on that :)

14. Desserts. You know they’re coming, and you want to have some. Try to space it out. Your stomach probably already had more than it can handle and it needs some rest and fresh air to digest. Go for a walk outside and enjoy some quiet time. When you get back, you’ll feel much better and your cravings for sweets may be diminished as well. But hey, I love sweets too and I do look forward to a piece of pumpkin pie just as much as you do. So scope out the dessert buffet and pick your absolute favorite. Have ONE small piece and enjoy it with a cup of tea.

15. Going for seconds. You really shouldn’t have to because you probably ate plenty already. The key to avoiding the second helping is to eat slow. Slow down. I’m serious – not just to actually enjoy the taste of your food, but eating slow (and chewing well) will help your digestion, and make you feel full sooner. Your digestive system needs almost 20 minutes to signal your brain that you’re full. Most people are already on their next plate within 10-15 minutes. And those are the ones that will later on lay on the couch, asking you for Tums, and asking themselves “why did I eat so much?”

Instead of going for seconds, go for a walk instead.

16. Wine, beer, and other drinks. We tend to forget about the added calories in drinks. Just as with food, the key is “Everything in moderation”. I know you’ve heard that one before, but it’s true! One beer or one glass of red wine are totally fine. Heck, even 2 glasses of wine are ok since you’re not driving (right?). Just remember that one 5 oz glass of wine has 125 calories. Two glasses of wine have the same amount of calories as a whole bar of chocolate. 

As a quick recap, here are the main tips again:

– have a good breakfast rich in protein & fiber

– stay hydrated all day (water, tea)

– if you’re snacking, stick to fresh fruits & veggies

– have small amounts of your favorite appetizers, remembering fresh & green is better than salty & fried

– turkey is good, avoid the skin, especially when fried

– mashed potatoes & gravy – avoid if loaded with sodium and fat; otherwise keep it small

– stuffing or dressing: is mostly bread, so keep the serving small.

– rolls & biscuits: skip it.

– cranberry sauce: if it’s out of a can, skip it. If it’s freshly made, have a tablespoon full

– sweet potato casserole: skip the marshmallows, keep the portion small or use as dessert.

– green beans: canned cream of mushroom? -ask for plain. The beans are plain, green and fresh? Eat up! Skip the fried onions.

– desserts: choose wisely, keep it small. Go for a walk first.

– seconds: eat slow, chew well. Go for a walk first.

– drinks: water and un-sweetened tea. Alcohol in moderation, none if you’re driving.

So, what do you think? That’s not too bad, right? Maybe next year I will have a Thanksgiving Menu for the blog. And sooner than 2 days out :)

Happy Thanksgiving to you & your family!


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