How To Navigate Thanksgiving Dinner

And just like that, summer is pretty much done for, and we find ourselves right in the middle of Pumpkin Spice Latte season.

One question I get asked every year during this season is:

"But what about Thanksgiving/Christmas* dinner!"

(*might as well face it: Christmas will be here before you know it).

It's a good question, and given its regularity, I thought I'd spend some time addressing it in advance of the feasting season, so you can get mentally prepared.

Thanksgiving: Just a nutritional moment in time.

If you've worked with me, you know my overarching thoughts on this type of question: don't worry about it too much. It's a moment in time. A blip on the radar. Eating one big feast during the holidays - even one big feast a month - is a totally different beast than making poor nutrition choices all year long.

I usually use the "birthday cake" analogy: if it's your birthday, your niece's birthday, your cat's birthday, the-coworker-you-barely-tolerate's birthday, and you want to partake of the birthday cake? Fine, do it. Birthday cake isn't an everyday occurrence.

And neither is Thanksgiving dinner.

What's your treat?

Everyone has that one thing that they want to put on the plate. They can't imagine a holiday feast without it. What's yours?

For me, it's perogies (I'm not even Ukrainian!). For others it's dressing, stuffing, or whatever you call that savoury bready concoction in your family. For many, it's pumpkin pie.

You can have those things. It's Thanksgiving and one day of indulgence will not outright undo all the good stuff you've done leading up to it.

It can derail efforts, though, if Thanksgiving dinner makes way for a Thanksgiving "cheat week" that somehow morphs and stretches and grows until January 1 rolls around, and you find yourself in the unenviable position of needing to make a resolution to start all over again.

Acknowledge your moment in time and make a conscious effort to hold it to just that: a one-off.

Pants-busting, couch-snoozing good times.

The carby things are the things that bloat us; that make you need to undo your pants at the end of the meal. These are also the foods that digest quickly down into sugar in the bloodstream, leaving you with a blood sugar crash afterward that is hard to manage. Yes, the turkey's tryptophan is partly to blame for your post-meal crash, but the carbs don't help.

You can feel better in the immediate aftermath of Thanksgiving dinner by focusing on non-carby, protein-based foods as you fill your plate. I know I'm slightly biased, but heck.. those are some of the best dishes on the table if you ask me...

Erin's Top Tips for Navigating the Feast

>> Grab the turkey drumstick. Nobody takes the drumstick. Everyone demurely picks around it, putting turkey breast meat on their plate and then dousing it with gravy to make it less dry/more palatable (more on gravy later). The drumstick is the red-headed stepchild of the turkey platter at Thanksgiving time, so avail yourself of it and don't feel the least bit guilty. That big ol' slab of dark meat is delicious and satiating. Make it the star of your plate.

>> Ham is your friend. Pile a few slices of it onto your platter. Salty, meaty, and fairly lean, it can curb a lot of the cravings that take hold of us this time of year, and is awesome to help manage our appetite.

>> Meatballs: give 'er. Balls made of meat. What's not to love? Preferably these meatballs would be dry, in tomato sauce, or in some kind of good gravy sauce, and not too heavy on the bread crumbs. Sticky "sweet" meatballs are not always the best choice, just because of the sugar content. Sweet meatballs ("sweetballs?" No.) are like the PSL of the Thanksgiving potluck.

>> Honour the beast(s) of the feast. Roast beef, goose, venison... whatever animal protein your family tends to make the centrepiece of the meal: honour it. Load it up and get it into you.

>> Offer to bring a vegetable dish. Green vegetables seem to be lacking in most holiday meals - at least this has been my experience of life. If you offer to bring the veggies, though, you can ensure that there's another delicious, nutritious option to help fill a section of your plate. Make a simple green salad, or batch roast some seasonal root veggies like beets, carrots, squash. With all of the other dense foods on the table, folks will be happy someone thought to deliver the veg.

>> 1/4 of your plate (or less) is reserved for the treats. By now your plate is probably nearly full. Just enough room for a small helping of whatever your favourite Thanksgiving treat is. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, perogies, a warm dinner roll...

I really don't want you to skip the treats in life, the things you really look forward to once or twice a year. But I also don't want you undoing all your hard work. This is one of the only times that I suggest anything relating to portion control or moderation and, really - it's for your own good. Have a small helping of what you love. Recognize that the other stuff on your plate is all pretty dang delicious too, and eat those items with as much love and indulgent respect as you do the perogies (or perogie-equivalents).

Enjoy every part of that meal and, most importantly, enjoy time spent with loved ones in the warmth of holiday cheer. D'awwww... :,)

The "But What Abouts?"

The most important part of any nutritional advice column: pre-emptively answering the "but what abouts?"

>> But what about gravy?

Is it made from meat drippings and not thickened with corn starch or flour? Then it's a winner. In fact, drink a glass of it, and pour one for me too. Any other type of gravy scenario - stove top, flour-thickened - is not my favourite. Go very easy on it. Actually... what are you even putting gravy on? You already passed up the dry turkey breast meat. As for mashed potatoes...

>> But what about mashed potatoes?

Potatoes: white starch that digests quickly to sugar and can contribute to a blood sugar crash - UNLESS you help slow it down by adding some fat to it: butter, sour cream, greek yogurt, real meat-dripping gravy not thickened with crap (above). Now: fat and carbs together can be a recipe for fat storage, but as we are only eating fatty mashed potatoes as a Thanksgiving treat, and not making it a daily staple, we can get away with it. Moment in time, folks. (Side bar: if your insulin function is dialled in tight you can actually really effectively manage a carb binge without needing to add too much fat, or without needing a hard nap afterward - ask me how!)

>> But what about cranberry sauce?

Quite sugary, but it's not like people are mowing down bowlsful of the stuff. Chuck a little spoon-sized dollop on your plate. It's all good. The heavy protein ratio of the dinner I've prescribed above will take the edge off the sugariness of this little sweet dinner treat.

>> But what about pumpkin pie?

Pumpkin pie is about as literally close as you can get to the "birthday cake" analogy I mentioned earlier. You're not having pumpkin pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all day every day. It's a delicious fraction of your life.

>> But what about wine?

Alcohol calories are the first to be digested, so when eaten alongside food, your body will burn the calories from booze first, running the risk of putting the rest of your meal's calories into storage. Not a big deal for an occasional feast, but something to take note of.

White wine tends to be higher in sugar, and red wine has a bunch of antioxidants - so red is a little better. Drier wines have less sugar/fewer carbs than sweet wines - and most red wines are dry (unless you're drinking port, which... why?). Do what you will with this information, but for what's its worth: know that your humble nutritionist definitely partakes in the vino during holiday dinners...

What did I miss? Let me know your burning Thanksgiving feast questions in the comments.


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