Keep this Thanksgiving survival guide by your side with 10 tips to help you have a healthier Thanksgiving and start to the holiday season.
*Originally published November 2016. Updated November 2019*
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – it’s a day to give thanks, spend time with friends and family, and of course eat! A traditional Thanksgiving meal made up of butter-basted turkey, cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole, and pecan pie may sound delicious, but the calories sure will add up!
And it doesn’t end there. Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season, which means many more parties, social gatherings, and lots of delicious food. In my family, the recipes we enjoy at the holidays tend to be handed down from generation to generation, meaning they may not be the most healthful. I’ve been doing my best to give some of those family recipes healthier makeovers, but food memories are part of what makes the holidays so wonderful and I don’t want to take away from that.
Of course all that food, especially the less healthy recipes, can wreak havoc on our waistlines if we’re not too careful. You’ve probably heard about the average five-pound weight gain between Thanksgiving and New Years, but research shows the average is actually only about one pound. Doesn’t sound so bad, right?! The problem is that pound doesn’t get lost and that’s where the greater weight gain comes in.
So how can we keep the weight off in the first place but still enjoy the delicious flavors of the season? Let’s start with these tips for a healthier Thanksgiving. I introduce to you your Thanksgiving Survival Guide!
1. Don’t go hungry.
The best way to have a healthier Thanksgiving is to start the day eating well. Avoid overeating at your Thanksgiving meal, by making sure to eat meals as you usually do during the day. If your Turkey day meal is being served at lunchtime, eat breakfast in the morning. If you’re invited for a late afternoon/early evening celebration, have breakfast as usual and have a light lunch or a snack mid-day. Skipping meals to save calories for later may seem like a good idea in theory, but if you get to the table hungry, chances are you’ll eat more than you would if you’ve been nourishing yourself throughout the day.
When choosing what to eat before the Thanksgiving meal, make sure to have a combination of lean protein, whole grains, fruits and veggies. Some ideas to try:
- Overnight oats (swap in seasonal fruit of choice in this recipe)
- Egg frittata or egg muffins
- Oatmeal cups
2. Be selective.
Or as I like to say, survey the landscape before filling your plate. Whether the meal is being served buffet style or the food is passed around, observe what’s being offered before you fill your plate. Stick to lean meats, veggies, and some lighter starches.
Studies have shown that the more variety you put on your plate, the more likely you are to overeat, so rather than taking a little of everything, choose three or four of your favorite dishes to add to your plate.
Make sure there’s a balance of protein (that’s your turkey), high-quality carbohydrates (stuffing, sweet potatoes), vegetables, and fruit. Splurge on items you don’t get to enjoy often and pass on the dishes you can have anytime. For example, you probably don’t have stuffing very often, so choose that over a standard dinner roll.
3. Watch your portions.
Just like every other day of the year, portion size is a big factor for weight gain, but when it comes to holidays it’s even more important because there are extra temptations. Studies have shown that people take more food, and as a result eat more, when more is present.
The best thing to do, as mentioned above, is choose a few items to try so you can enjoy a more substantial portion of each. That said, if you really can’t resist trying it all, make sure the portions of each are smaller.
4. Drink wisely.
Liquid calories add up fast, and alcoholic drinks can be double trouble because alcohol decreases inhibitions and increases hunger, which can lead to overeating. I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to have a cocktail or glass of wine – I could never give that up, especially at family meals (lol!), but you do want to be mindful of how many drinks you have.
Make sure to always have a glass of water or club soda by your side, and be sure to drink a glass of either between alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated and avoid drinking too much alcohol.
5. Be realistic.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has lost weight on Thanksgiving, so it won’t help you to think about losing weight over the holidays. Switch your mindset from weight loss to weight maintenance and you’ll enjoy the day much more. Depriving yourself of the traditional foods you enjoy will only leave you wanting them more. Enjoy the holiday specialties in moderation and come Friday you can resume meals as usual.
6. Get moving.
Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean you can’t get in an hour of cardio. Your best bet is to start the day with exercise to make sure you get it in before all the Thanksgiving festivities begin. Head out for a run while the kids are watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade or do an online fitness class while the turkey’s roasting.
If you plan ahead you should be able to find a time to get it in. Plus, if you do you’ll get the added bonus of a stress relief, and who doesn’t need that when you’ll be faced with a house full of family and company later in the day!
7. Make healthier Thanksgiving swaps.
If you’re doing the cooking or even just bringing a dish or two, there are many ways you can lighten up classic Thanksgiving recipes while retaining the delicious flavors you love. Here are some ideas of changes you can make. Share them with the host if you’re not in charge.
- Instead of adding cream to soups, puree starchy vegetable like I do in my Roasted Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup and my Creamy Parsnip Pear Soup with Cranberry Coulis.
- Instead of store bought stuffing, make your own using whole grain bread, quinoa, wild rice, or other grains of your choice.
- Instead of traditional green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup or other soup mixes and fried onions, make my Garlicky Green Beans or try a lightened up green bean casserole.
- Instead of canned cranberry sauce, try my lower-sugar homemade Orange-Ginger Cranberry Sauce.
- Instead of mashed potatoes loaded with butter, cream, and milk, try mashed cauliflower or this combo of mashed potatoes and cauliflower.
- Instead of sweet potato casserole full of butter and topped with marshmallows, make this Lightened-Up Sweet Potato Carrot Casserole with Maple Pecans.
- Instead of dessert-like candied sweet potatoes, try my Miso-Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Root Veggies. Looking for a different take on Brussels sprouts, try these with pomegranate glaze.
- Instead of gravy made from a mix, which can be high in sodium, reduce pan drippings to top your turkey.
8. Save room for dessert.
Everyone loves a slice of pie (or in my case crumble) on Thanksgiving! If you follow the other tips here you can enjoy that slice without any guilt attached. Here are some healthier Thanksgiving desserts to enjoy.
- Spiced Pumpkin Bread
- Lattice Apple Pie @ Lively Table
- Maple Ginger Pear Crumble @ Marisa Moore Nutrition
- Cranberry Pumpkin Upside Down Cake @ My Cape Cod Kitchen
- Pumpkin Lava Cake @ Lively Table
- Cranberry Orange Bread
- Pecan Pie Slabs @ Simply Sissom
- Iced Orange-Cranberry Biscotti
9. Save some leftovers!
With all the time and energy it takes to cook up these holiday meals, why eat it all so quickly?! I happen to love leftovers, especially when it’s some of my favorite foods I only get to enjoy a couple of times a year. Plus, saving leftovers means you won’t overdo it at the meal itself. Win win! Be sure to check out my 5 Tips for Handling Thanksgiving Leftovers Safely.
10. Give thanks.
That’s what the holiday is all about, right? Take the time to stop, look around at your family, friends, everything you have all around you – including a delicious plate of food – and say thank you for it all. Slowing down in your actions will also help you slow down and be more mindful with how you eat. Along with that, use all your senses when you do finally dig in.
And with this Thanksgiving survival guide, I wish you all a very happy, healthy, and delicious Thanksgiving. Thanks to you all for being such great supporters of my work and sharing your time to visit me here and on all my social profiles all year long. It is so appreciated!