If you are making a new commitment to healthful eating, Thanksgiving might be the biggest challenge of the year. Halloween candy can be tough to resist, but the prospect of tables groaning with comfort food — and cooking plans that seem to be designed to guarantee a week of leftovers — blows the idea of a single, permissible “cheat day” out of the water.

Thanksgiving mashes lots of “food buttons”:
—Many people treat it as a binge-eating holiday, even when they know they’ll feel guilty afterward
— It is often a family gathering, which for many people is highly stressful even before dinner is served (and rejecting Auntie Em’s candied yams can cause hurt feelings)
— For many of us, the weather has just gotten much colder, making it harder to follow through with exercise even if you’re staying close to home (and your normal routine)

We don’t generally have a lot of choices over the extent of a Thanksgiving menu, either — most of us will probably attend dinners that are planned by others. It’s still a good time to consider how we choose and think about desirable foods. After all, mindful eating isn’t 100% “perfect” eating — it’s just awareness of the different choices we’re making.

Today’s Thanksgiving Menu Was Not the Colonists’

Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest festival, and that’s a pretty good argument for trying to stay close to the land. We can also consider the “memory” dimension, and explore the kinds of options available to the early colonists. This could mean giving up candied yams and flour-based foods, but it leaves tremendous latitude for deliciousness by focusing on birds, fruits, and vegetables. Fruit pies can be made with a cornmeal crust, too, even if the settlers were more likely to have had cornmeal in some kind of porridge.

At the first Thanksgiving, they probably had venison and seafood. They wouldn’t have used bread-based stuffings — not enough flour available, so nuts and herbs would have been a more likely base. Modern cranberry sauce wasn’t a thing until decades after the Mayflower landed, because the sugar to make it palatable was just not there. Pie was unlikely, again because of flour. Potatoes hadn’t made it to North America from Europe yet. Some accounts have settlers making a custard that was cooked by roasting in hollowed pumpkin gourds — that could be an interesting dessert to try today.

Messages from Others

If eating mindfully is rare in your family, you could be chided for asking about ingredients or choosing some foods and not others. For many people, Thanksgiving is expressly about going overboard, and family can be remarkably blunt and unsupportive when one member is making changes on their own. For many people, it will be easier to go along to get along.

If you want to eat differently on Thanksgiving, you can make modest choices on the more healthful end:
— Take larger portions of simpler basics, like turkey and roast potatoes
— Avoid (or take just a taste of) calorie bombs like au gratin dishes or anything with marshmallows
— Offer to make a side dish that is heavy on simply prepared vegetables or fruits

A good, mindful food pattern has room for treats in it, too, though, so if Auntie Em’s candied yams is something you dream about all year, go for it!

Have you adjusted recipes for Thanksgiving? What are your favorite new (or historic!) dishes?

I took the photo above, of a small bowl of stuffing at Thanksgiving in 2008. This recipe is toasted bread, mixed with chopped celery, herbs, lightly cooked (not caramelized) onions, soaked in turkey drippings, and then baked in a flat dish (rather than cooked inside the turkey).


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