Thanksgiving Survival Guide – Tips & Recipes for a Healthier Holiday

November 18, 2019

Keep this Thanksgiving survival guide by your side with 10 tips to help you have a healthier Thanksgiving and start to the holiday season. 

healthier Thanksgiving survival guide

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*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:

For Breakfast:

For Lunch:

For Snacks:

Roasted Butternut Squash Sweet Potato Soup is a delicious Thanksgiving appetizer

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.

Lower-sugar orange ginger cranberry sauce to top thanksgiving turkey

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!

Lightened-Up sweet potato carrot casserole with maple pecans is a healthier thanksgiving side dish

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.

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.

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.

dairy-free and nut-free whole-grain Cranberry Orange

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!

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Thanksgiving survival guide healthier recipes

What’s your top tip for a healthier Thanksgiving?

Please share with me in the comments below.
And if you’re looking for more Thanksgiving recipes, be sure to check out my Thanksgiving Pinterest board.

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    1. That’s awesome you’re already doing some of the tips I mentioned Alisa! Hope you enjoy some of the swaps and have a very happy Thanksgiving!

  1. I always say go in there as if it is your normal life, but embellished–that means taste your foods, but keep to your normal patterns of behavior and portion sizes! That means that if things are more calorie dense, have a little less of them, as you would normally.

    1. Thanks Jessica! I love research like that. The theory is that when there’s more variety, you want to try more things but most people don’t take smaller portions of more food, so they end up taking and eating more overall.

    1. Thanks Rebecca! I totally agree – Healthier swaps are key to eating the food you love in a better way all ear long!

  2. Great tips Jessica! Especially love Be Selective (there are SO many choices…) and Get Active – it’s so easy to sit ALL day on Thanksgiving and other holidays. We always do a turkey trot the morning of Thanksgiving – such a fun family activity that jump starts the day. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

    1. Thanks so much Jenny! So fun your family does the turkey trot! Such a fun way to be active and spend quality time w the family! Hope your family has a wonderful thanksgiving!

    1. Thanks so much Sonali! I’m so glad the tips resonate with you! Hope your thanksgiving is fantastic – I have no doubt it will be given you’re the chef of the day!

  3. I always start EVERY DAY with exercise, and Thanksgiving is NO different. I also do not snack, and that won’t change on Thanksgiving either. Honestly, nothing really changes for me on Thanksgiving or any holiday — I always eat what I love and that’s that πŸ™‚

  4. These are all such great tips! I try to keep moving all day and usually do a Turkey Trot 5k before I start cooking!! πŸ™‚

  5. I’m all about indulging on Thanksgiving, but I try to make the ‘get moving’ tip a priority. Whether it’s a turkey trot or just a morning at-home workout, I always feel better when I start the day that way.

  6. Not going in hungry is such a huge thing for me. I used to starve the day of up to the big meal, and it just made everything worse lol! Now I can be selective like you mentioned because I eat beforehand. I hope you have an amazing Thanksgiving!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that tip works well for you Kalee. It’s definitely the opposite of what people think they should do, but we need to fuel our bodies throughout the day to prevent overeating. Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. I pretty much just take the day off and do what I want. One day isn’t going to set you back by much as long as you’re not eating everything in your line of sight!